Fate of mobile schools for nomad’s children remains uncertain

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Every summer thirteen-year-old Zareena and nine-year-old Iqra walk with their families all the way from Rajouri to the upper reaches in the Aru Valley of south Kashmir’s Pahalgam, a famous tourist destination with vast meadows and alpine forests.

While adults of the family carry their homes on their shoulders, Zareena and Iqra carry their school bags with the hope that this year they will attend school, close to the high altitude meadow where the family will camp all summer.

Zareena has missed school for three summers owing to lockdowns but Iqra is going to start her first year of school at a mobile school. “I will go to school with my sister,” said an excited Iqra, nibbling at her index finger.

Zareena is in upper primary class and helps her father in the meadows while Iqra helps her mother kneading the dough in the quiet environs of their camp in the forest.

To address the educational gap among transhumant tribal Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, the Jammu and Kashmir government in the 1970s had launched a mobile school programme to provide education facilities in the upper reaches.

These schools migrate between the summer and winter stops of the tribal community. “Seasonal schools are really helpful for our kids although they are not regular but they lessen the dropout rate in the community,” said Abdullah, father of the girls.

The Education department provides these mobile schools with tents, blackboards, stationary, trunks, and chalk, and other necessities but teachers claim that the assistance is inadequate and sometimes not given at all.

But, said Gulam Nabi, spokesperson and district president of seasonal teacher’s association in Doda: “kids are forced to study under open sky in searing summers. There are no mid-day meals for students and teaching-learning materials.”

“We lack infrastructure,” said 27-year-old Muneer Ahmad, a teacher from Batholi village of Doda, who teaches at one such mobile school.

In the summer, he uses the nomad’s huts to take classes as no tent has been provided by the department. “With low wages, we have no other option than to adjust,” Ahmad said. “We are adjusting for the wages and kids are adjusting for the study material.”

For Shama-oun, a teacher who is also from Batholi, “It was my dream to teach my people which I am doing but the low remuneration is disappointing to say the least.” He is not happy with the facilities provided to “seasonal teachers” and believes that it adversely affects their ability to impart education.

Shama-oun is the only teacher for 25 students from nomadic families. “I am a teacher in the summer and a carpenter in the winter,” he said. “It’s really hard to survive on four thousand rupees in this age of inflation.”

To get the job, Shama-oun said that the department made him deposit original degree documents to make sure that he didn’t quit to go for higher studies. “For what?” he says angrily, “I wasted my career for a mere four thousand. the government is not doing enough for us.”

In an interaction with the All Seasonal Teachers Association on 1 April 2021, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha assured that wages would be increased to ₹10,000 but the promise remains to be fulfilled.

As per a research conducted by Kavita Suri, an Associate Professor at Department of the Lifelong Learning in University of Jammu, more than 33,000 children are enrolled in 1,500 seasonal schools across Jammu and Kashmir.

More than 2000 teachers impart education in these mobile schools.

Sinha had also assured the administration’s full support in the educational upliftment of the tribal community and that “concrete measures will be taken to shape up the future of the students living in remote and far-flung areas.

However, at a time when the tribal community is being evicted from the forest lands, the fate of these mobile schools – its students and teachers – hangs in the balance.

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