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A school of hope for nomad children

 IPS 20 June 2019

High up in the Himalayan mountains, 13-year-old Mohammad Junaid helps his family collect fresh fodder for their buffaloes, all the while dreaming of the day he could once again play cricket. (973 Words) - By Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

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IPS_A school of hope for nomad children

Seventeen-year-old Farida Ahmed attends a computer class. Photo: Nitin Jugran Bahuguna/IPS.

He longs for the summer to be over, for then his family will return to the lowlands, where he studies and indulges in his favourite sport at the special school for nomad children.

Junaid belongs to the Van Gujjar forest community, a nomadic clan - indigenous, fiercely independent and Muslim - that resides in the mountain state of Uttarakhand in north India.

From May to August each year, the Van Gujjars practice what is called transhumance, migrating to high altitude areas in the Himalayas in search of fodder for their buffaloes, their main source of livelihood. With the onset of winter, they retreat to the lowlands, where they reside in the forests of the Shivalik Hills at the foot of the Himalayas.

Come September, life takes on a measure of stability and purpose for Junaid, who gears up for another academic session, which keeps him engaged till April. "I have passed the eighth standard and will now go to class nine. My parents are happy that I am getting an education and they are eager for me to continue with higher studies so I can get a stable job," he says. "I would like to pursue a career in computers."

Javed Ahmed is another student who hopes to strike it big after completing his studies. Eager to rejoin the new school session where he has been promoted to class five, the nine-year-old is already showing an aptitude for Hindi (India's principal official language) literature.

Ahmed's elder sister has just completed class 10 at the school. In fact, their father Zaroor, 37, realising the value of a sound education, has quit the nomadic life and become a carpenter, setting up house near the school so that his two younger sons can also one day be enrolled there.

Their school, the Blue Star Van Gujjar School, is the brainchild of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a non-government organisation (NGO) based in Uttarakhand's capital town Dehradun. Located at a place called Mohund on the outskirts of Dehradun, the school currently has 235 students - 115 girls and 120 boys.

RLEK holds the view that a holistic approach is necessary to find solutions to the various problems faced by marginalised communities like the Van Gujjars, who remain at the periphery of most government programmes.

The NGO identified adult education as the key to ensuring community empowerment and, in a significant departure from traditional approaches that generally put children first, it started with an adult literacy programme in 1992-1994.

"RLEK maintains that children's education programmes can only be sustained if adults realise their importance," observes RLEK Chairperson Avdhash Kaushal. "An educated adult will want his child to get an education."

Zaroor was one of the first adult Van Gujjars to participate in the adult literacy programme. "Earlier I used to live deep in the jungles. I had no idea or inclination to study. But when I joined the programme, I learned many things, and I have now permanently moved to Mohund in the hope that my children will get a good education and join the social mainstream as productive adults," he says.

The benefits of literacy are all-pervasive and play a key role even in the pastoral lifestyle of the Van Gujjars. According to the school's headmaster, Naushad Khan, the design of the school building is based on a "dera," the Gujjar name for their houses. (A dera is a round mud structure consisting of just one circular room with the sleeping cots placed on one side and the kitchen on the other).

"The school remains shut from May to August to enable the children to accompany their parents to the higher reaches during summer," Khan says.

The Mohund school began functioning in 1998, and teaches up to the 10th standard. With a staff of six teachers and some volunteers, the curriculum combines education with vocational training and sports.

A unique feature of the educational programme is that RLEK volunteers travel with the tribe during their transmigratory cycle to ensure that there is no disruption in teaching and learning. The time is also used to impart non-formal education to adults, says Khan.

RLEK is currently running 15 schools for tribal and rural hill communities in the most backward and inaccessible areas of Uttarakhand and the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. Four of these, including the school at Mohund, cater to Van Gujjar children.

According to Kaushal, the Van Gujjars today face expulsion from the forest, their traditional habitat, in the name of environmental conservation. "Due to illiteracy, the Van Gujjars faced many problems like being cheated by middlemen who pay them low prices for their milk," he says.

"Often, during migration, their cattle are accidentally killed in road mishaps, which cost them their livelihood. Literacy and education have helped them fight for their traditional rights, be it compensation for slain cattle or in negotiating better prices for their milk. So far, we have helped about 21,000 Van Gujjars attain literacy," says Kaushal.

According to figures compiled by RLEK, there are over 20,000 Van Gujjar families, with each one having about eight to 10 members.

Zaroor's 17-year-old daughter Farida, who has just passed the 10th level, wishes the school taught higher classes too. "The nearest government school is about 12 km from here, but the daily bus fare is too expensive for me to consider enrolling there," she explains.

Nevertheless, she is determined to realise a lifelong ambition. "I want to become a school teacher. I learned sewing in school. I will stitch ladies' garments and save money so I can continue with my studies," she promises.

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