Welcome to 2011.
Here is a thought to kickstart the new year…
Struggling For A Place In The Sun
The one image from last year that sticks in the mind as 2011 rolls in is a scene from Mankaki, a tiny village in Haryana’s Mewat region. A bunch of chattering school girls getting down from a van — an everyday vignette for most of us. But here, in this village of mud houses and water buffaloes in one of the most educationally backward regions in the country, the van has a special significance. It offers many young girls in the village a passport to a life their mothers and grandmothers could never dream of.
Fourteen-year-old Sabiha, one of nine children, is getting back to school after two years. Lack of transport and unavailability of a high school near her home had put a break to her studies. “Now, we don’t have to worry. The van drops us to our doorstep and I can go to school. I want to study more.” She wants to be a teacher. Sabiha’s mother is illiterate and hugely excited about the turn of events in her daughter’s life.
Teenagers like Sabiha are among the first generation of literate females in this region. I turn again and again to that image of a desperately poor family in the cusp of change when there is so little around that offers hope.
Mewat’s Hathin block, less than a three hour drive from Delhi, is a world apart. You hardly see shops or signs of any commercial activity once you swerve off the main road. There are no cars, scooters or motorcycles. No electricity either for most of the day. The mobile phones one sees are the new cheap ones with long battery life. None of this would raise an eyebrow in a poor state like Orissa. But one reminds oneself that this is affluent Haryana, and we are barely 40 km from the malls of Gurgaon. Most of Mewat’s population consists of the Meos, a community that embraced Islam during the Tughlak dynasty in the 14th century. For a whole range of social and political reasons, Meos have trailed woefully behind in development even as the rest of the state has thrived.
Muslim women in Mewat have the worst literacy rate in the country — just about three in every 100 can read and write, according to a report by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). The literacy rate among the Muslim men in this area ranges between 27 and 33 per cent — still below the national average.
It is a tough terrain for activists, But Glenn Fawcett and Suraj Kumar who work for the White Lotus Charitable Trust, a local non-governmental organisation which has been active in Mewat since 2007, says that there are stirrings of change. “The Blossom Bus Project” initiated by White Lotus in July 2010 has helped nearly 50 girls from four villages in Hathin block to reach the nearest high school. This may seem like a drop in the ocean but a demonstration effect is already visible. Young girls who otherwise would have dropped out of school or been married off too early are changing the narrative of their lives even as the larger battle goes on. Watching them, other families are clamouring for more vans to take more girls to schools.
The power of the image of school girls talking animatedly about their future in a place where elders are mired in poverty, illiteracy and inertia is awesome. But travelling around Mewat, the challenges and the contradictions that still remain become clear. In Huchipuri, an adjoining village, Ahmed Ali, a local maulvi talks about Mewat’s struggle for its place in the sun. “We have been neglected for too long. There are too few schools, too few teachers and power cuts for long stretches. The Blossom Bus is helping many girls continue with their studies. But we are a traditional society and we would like separate secondary schools for girls, with female teachers.”
The Blossom Bus Project that came out of the need to bridge the gap between parents’ legitimate concerns for their daughters’ safety and the girls’ right to education has created a huge buzz among the villagers. Happily, White Lotus has plans to scale up the initiative. But while a bus can take a girl to a school, it cannot fix what goes on inside the classroom. There are many more things that need to be done.The Right of children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) passed in 2010, makes education a fundamental right for children in India. It is now a legal right for every child between the ages of six and 14 years to demand free education. But without public scrutiny and public pressure, little will materialise.
The grim situation on the ground is reflected in many official and unofficial reports. In 2009, a survey conducted by White Lotus in 85 government schools in Hathin block revealed shocking infrastructural lapses. Its findings were shared with the Haryana government and the NCPCR.
A NCPCR team conducted a public hearing in Rupraka village in Hathin Block in collaboration with White Lotus and the Village Education Committee in March 2009 after visiting four schools in two other villages. The visit led to a report which reflected the anguish of the NCPCR. Examples: In one of the villages the NCPCR team had visited, the school had toilets but they were locked and needed repair. The boundary wall was broken. The suspended headmaster had been reinstated but the construction work remained incomplete. Despite three years of construction, the main building was still half-done, and so on.
Interestingly, in many instances, village sarpanches had turned combative and were demanding better facilities in government schools.
Their wishlist would resonate across the country: appointment of new teachers, timely supply of text books, upgrading village schools to high schools, middle schools for girls, better monitoring…
All this has had some effect. In Bhoodpur, another village I visited, a primary school teacher pointed out that his school had only two rooms three years ago. There was no boundary wall, no water and no toilet. But now, there is drinking water and the children were happy that they did not have to go home each time they were thirsty.
If this be the story of government schools in an affluent state, imagine what is happening elsewhere in the country. Half the country’s population is below 25. An India which aspires for a seat in the United Nations Security Council could perhaps kickstart the new year by showing that it is serious about enabling every child to get a seat in a school that works.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org