Literacy on the move

  • 14/05/1994

Literacy on the move AS PART of an unique attempt to educate nomads, when the restive Van Gujjars of Uttar Pradesh"s Dehra Dun and Saharanpur districts and Himachal Pradesh"s Sirmaur district move in summer to hill pastures near Shimla with their cattle, their teachers will tag along. Naya Safar (New Journey), a 3-part primer, was specially developed for the Gujjars, keeping in mind their cultural background, and incorporating their specific vocabulary.

The programme, initiated in January 1994 by the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Centre (RLEK), a Dehra Dun-based NGO, and the National Literacy Mission, is showing remarkable results in a very short period.

The nomads have made rapid progress. Kasam, a 28-year-old Gujjar who has nearly finished Part II of Naya Safar, reads out the chapter chosen by Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of RLEK, with ease. "I can even read the newspaper now," he says. "Their enthusiasm," says Kaushal with visible pride, "is ample reward for the resistance we have had to put up with."

And resistance there has been aplenty; so much so, that the Uttar Pradesh forest department declared the Gujjar literacy programme "illegal" when RLEK started classes within the limits of the proposed Rajaji National Park.

Relocation opposed
The root cause of the resistance is that the Gujjars have been branded hurdles in the path of conservation ever since they opposed government plans to shift them out of the proposed park. In 1983, the government had issued a notification declaring its intention to fuse Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla sanctuaries in the Shivaliks together to form a national park. Degradation in the park was blamed on the Gujjars" pastoral practices, and it was decided to shift the 3,000 nomadic families to a resettlement colony in Pathri, near Haridwar. But the Gujjars refused to budge, especially because the Pathri colony had no long-term provisions for their cattle, whose milk is their sole source of income.

The Gujjars argue that they have used the forest for several years now and are familiar with the concepts of sensible resource use. But forest department officials continue to demand milk and butter as bribes, and fine the Gujjars heavily for minor offences.

Also, for years now, the illiteracy of Gujjars has made them easy victims outsider traders who buy their milk. The Gujjars usually barter milk for day to day supplies, and are routinely cheated in the accounts. The traders also advance loans to them, to ensure that they get the milk and not the other cooperatives. "It is, therefore, against the vested interests of the traders to allow the Gujjars to be educated," says Kaushal.

So providing functional literacy skills to the Gujjars became imperative. The Gujjars needed a basic knowledge of maths to avoid economic exploitation and knowledge about forest laws to be able to confront the forest officials.

A difficult task
The first difficult task RLEK faced was the preparation of the primer. "We were going to teach the Gujjars how to read and write, but we had to be careful not to try and thrust a different culture and vocabulary on them," says Pravin Kaushal, a member of RLEK.

Besides RLEK volunteers and representatives from the State Resource Development Centre, Lucknow, several Gujjars were also involved in developing the primer. A test run with 2,000 copies was carried out to see whether the primer served its purpose.

Thus, Naya Safar spoke to the Gujjars in their own language, a dialect that is a mix of Punjabi and Urdu. It taught them simple addition and subtraction, informed them about matters relating to day to day living such as pre- and post-natal care and supplemented their instinctive knowledge of the forest, while enhancing their conservation skills. "Yo jungle hamara hai, hamne jaan te bhi pyaro hai" (This is our jungle and we love it more than our life) is an example of both the language and the content of the primer.

Then came the difficulty of actually setting out this knowledge in the primer. The Gujjars, besides being nomadic, roamed non-accessible areas deep in the forest. Further, a perpetual problem with adult literacy programmes is that the adults have a living to earn; time to attend classes is at a premium.

RLEK overcame these problems with their group of 55 paid volunteers who would stay with the Gujjars in their deras (huts). The volunteers visited their homes only once a week, or -- in the case of some -- even once a month.

Thus, one Gujjar family provides food and shelter to a "master" who teaches all the nearby deras, holding several classes tailored to their timings, day or night. The forest department had granted permission for the classes to be held in certain areas within the proposed park limits, and the teachers were provided with passes to enter the forest. But the junior officials of the forest department saw the disadvantage for themselves and started harassing the teachers, often threatening them with arrest.

Enthusiastic students
The Gujjars" enthusiasm for learning, however, was infectious, and the teachers took Kaushal"s advice to ignore the threats. Although the programme is aimed at Gujjars between the age of 15 and 35, the very young and the very old also queue up for the classes. Unable to turn them away, RLEK has given them the sample primers printed for the test run. The women are encouraged to come for the classes, but many of them find it difficult to cope simultaneously with housekeeping and child-rearing.

There are many women who make an extra effort. "We need to learn addition and subtraction to be able to keep household accounts, and I would like to be able to read and write my own letters," says Bibo, a young Gujjar woman from Tilkansonth beat inside the park limits. Two children, one less than 6 months old, have not prevented her from regularly attending the classes.

As the classes progress, the brighter students often help their teachers with the others. Many of them showed an amazing learning ability. Hashim, a 17-year-old from Kata Pathar near Tilkansonth, for example, was called "Rail" because of the speed with which he went through the first primer. It took him all of 15-20 days to learn how to read and write.

It shows
The effects of the education are already obvious. After they were taught about the sahakari samitis in the second part of the primer, many Gujjars today talk of forming milk cooperatives. Some Gujjars feel that the forest department officials have stopped harassing them, especially those families which have provided shelter to the educated teachers. "They know we can fight back now," says an elderly Gujjar woman.

Meanwhile, objections to the literacy programme have also come from other quarters. Ashok Kumar from TRAFFIC-India (Trade Record Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) wrote to the human resource development minister, Arjun Singh, saying that the effort would be "counter-productive" and that the education programme would add to the "biotic pressures" within the park.

A local organisation in Dehra Dun, Friends of Doon, also wrote to Singh, protesting that "entry by outsiders (into the park) should be restricted". But as a letter from the ministry informed Ashok Kumar, one of the objectives of the education programme is to create awareness about the need for conserving the environment.

Kaushal says, "If a father stops his children from going to school, he is committing a crime. Nobody has a right to try to stop the Gujjars from getting educated."

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