When Forest Rights meets Right to Education

Right to Education

With the horrors of the deadly virus still in the air, this would appear to be like a remarkable fairy tale in the post-Covid pandemic scenario, almost like a dream come true, almost like the Sound of Music multiplied many times over. It is quite unbelievable, but true.

Across the dense forests and zigzag hilly terrain, full of water bodies, rivers and lakes, interspersed with sloping meadows, land turned into jhoom (burnt land,  shifting cultivation) and allowed to discover its own bio-diversity untouched by human intervention for years, and lush green paddy fields, a dream is truly and slowly coming true. The dream of Ajendra and his wife Madhavi Reang. And, surprisingly, even during the pandemic and lockdown, the dream flowered.

Next to the green density of the Chittagong Hill Tract across the Bangladesh border, in the Karbook subdivision of Tripura, are several scattered and distant villages inhabited by the Reang community. Soft-spoken, gentle and beautiful, these hard working communities lack basic infrastructure – not an unusual phenomenon in distant tribal locations across the mountains, plains and forests inhabited by the tribals in various parts of India – from Abhujmarh in Chhattisgarh to Niyamgiri in Western Orissa. In the Northeast, particularly, invisibilized by mainstream India and its media, the communities live far away and undisturbed, but often without any amenities: roads, health centres and hospitals, schools and colleges, and drinking water.

In the region bordering the Chittagong Hill Tract, the 50,000 odd tribals of the Reang community lack especially one important thing: education for their children. For their children to be educated is a deep and internalized longing that cuts across caste, communities, religions, geographies and inherited histories in most parts of India. Everyone wants good education and health systems for their children and their communities.

That is why the dream is flourishing and unfolding every day in village Shimbhua, at the St Thomas School and hostel, run by Ajendra and Madhabi, his wife. In a context where there are literally no teachers in most schools, and where children have to walk for miles in the dense forest to reach their schools and return home, both of them have set up a school which is becoming a role model.

There are 300 students in their school, 200 of them hostelers. So who are these kids?

These are mostly toddlers, little ones, barely three years or less, girls and boys, and some kids older than them. The little ones are helped by the older ones– for instance if they wet their pants, or need to go to the toilet. The girls live in separate quarters, cleaning and sprucing up the place, still active despite the heat.  It is a hot afternoon, so the boys have had their meals and are now resting, on the ground, on the beds, two in one, deep asleep, in their separate hostel. The kids play football, cricket and other games. Many of them were enjoying a break at the empty bus stop near the school, laughing, screaming and playing. They waved with joy when they saw us.

The question is why and how have their parents, who live in distant tribal settlements in the forest, often with no transportation, chosen to trust the couple and left their little ones in their care? And how does this confident couple manage so many kids next to their house?  And how do so many kids live in harmony and peace, without missing the comfort of their own homes and their parents and siblings?

In a context whereby most schools do not even have teachers or in a context when secondary education is all but absent in many tribal hamlets in the north of Tripura, this school in the south, close to the border of Bangladesh, is becoming a landmark in primary and secondary education.

There are 13 teachers in the school, both male and female, and all of them are young, confident and committed. A young woman teacher came out of the girls hostel, shook our hands and welcomed us, speaking English. The other teachers joined in the discussion on the problems and difficulties facing the people, and how the Forest Rights Act and the Gram Sabha have been missing in this area, though people still own community and individual lands in the forest, mostly for jhoom cultivation.

Madhabi studied in Rudrapur in Uttarakhand, though she could not  complete her graduation. There is a Reang community there, so she could travel all the way there for higher education. Now, she is a full-time and dedicated teacher in the school, also taking care of the hostel and the meals with the cooks.  One of the cooks is differently abled, but fully involved in the discussion.

Says Ajendra, “I have a dream. We are working to introduce studies up to Class 10. Three students might actually go to college one of these days. These little ones are our life here – we take care of them like their parents. Their parents and community trust us. You see, the lack of education is so stark and parents really want to get their children educated. That is why we have created a hostel as well for girls and boys.”

Around 100 students are day-scholars, while 200 students live in the hostel. Many of their parents visit them almost every week on two-wheelers or auto rickshaws. They bring fruits and food which is collectively shared. Ajendra is a well-off farmer, and owns a car, one of the very few in the area. The day-scholars pay Rs 300 per month, while those in the hostel pay Rs 1200 per month, which includes fees.

“We are committed to bringing in high quality education. If you have suggestions for alternative curriculum, or reference material, please do tell us,” said a teacher, when it was suggested that perhaps they could look into the innovative and imaginative methods used by the NGO, Pratham, to sharpen the minds of the children, to expand their imagination and knowledge systems about daily life and meaningful associations, and to make them more confident in learning the ways of their own indigenous community and the outside world, recognizing objects and their social meanings, while celebrating the world of story-telling and mathematics alike.

So what do they do if there are kids who are too naughty? “Well,” said Ajendra, “three kids did not let us sleep. They would scream at the top of their voice. So we took some advice from our elders. We rubbed a little salt below their teeth when they would scream. That would make them quiet.”

Indeed, the communities here are gearing up to fight a protracted and peaceful struggle for their inherited forest rights in the face of official and unilateral announcements by the authorities that they cannot cultivate or use ‘forest department land’, including for jhoom cultivation. This land, which is essentially their traditional community land for hundreds of years, is precious to them, and they love and protect the forests.

Hence, this school is an eye-opener. It only proves that a new generation of tribal children are getting ready to inherit their history, culture and civilization. And their forests, fully equipped with new knowledge systems and skills.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

Courtesy: https://countercurrents.org



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