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Thursday, 29 August 2013 20:38

Perseverance Conquers All

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Despite all their efforts the mountains still haven't earned their certificate proclaiming them literate. You will certainly have to applaud the efforts of Umesh Navani, in the Uttarkashi District of Garhwal. This is not the first or second, but the ninth time he is appearing for his high school examination. And he isn't the only miserable one in his village, Balbir Singh gave up after his seventh attempt but Ram Prakash, on his sixth attempt, is still going strong. And the story doesn't end here, in the 1997/1998 academic year, out of the twenty-one students who appeared for the high school examination, eleven were sitting for at least the third time. And when the results came only two girls had passed. Both first timers. This situation exists all over the mountains as children test their fate again and again. While the boys get to keep trying till they are young men, the girls have only a few chances and then they, with a band and fanfare, are bundled off in palanquins with unknown husbands. Anyway, the one good thing is that since no one is educated there are no queues of the endless unemployed outside the unemployment offices. And then even if they were all educated and literate, who would employ them? And so the mountains continue to be educated in this manner and in these mountains what else are the children to do where their education system is so weak and on the way to this education are rivers and streams, back breaking climbs and wild animals.

Umesh Navani's village is blessed with every conceivable hindrance to education that can exist in these mountains. To get to high school you have to walk seven kilometers to the neighboring village. First climb down to the riverbed below the village, cross the river and then climb the vertical slope up to school. Of course there isn't any bridge so in the monsoon forget about trying to cross the raging torrent. Forget about school and goof off. And anyway across the river waits a thick forest and wild animals, so unless you are in a big enough group it's no use. It isn't as if the children of the mountains have planned an elaborate ruse to discredit the education system, or that they are hindered by any physical or mental or social handicaps. It's just that there is no strong foundation or grounding in any field. After having failed once, they don't get admitted into school as regular students, they enroll as private students. So any chances of learning better grow more remote. This process of failing goes on till marriage and finally when the babies come, the youth settles down to the life of an illiterate farmer, eeking out a living in the back of beyond. For the half century since independence, this has been the story of the villages of the mountains. Those who have studied and succeeded have left the villages with their families and those who can afford it have their children sent out to stay with relatives and learn something.

For many children in the mountains, the examinations loom large as stumbling blocks for the future. Necessity, they say is the mother of invention, and many enterprising scholars and their gurus have developed easy ways to skirt around the trivial problems of teaching and examinations and passing. In these esteemed centers of learning, during the year the teachers work hard at their private businesses, there is no time to teach, and so as not to hinder the education process, during the examinations they sit with their eyes conveniently shut. And to these centers flock students from far and wide.

But Surajpal of Umesh Navani's village is attempting the impossible, he will lock horns with the high school examination for the fourth time. His mother is worried, he is so caught up with his studies that he has no time to eat or even sleep. She hopes this time God in his mercy will pass her son. Every time it has been math that has destroyed his dreams. And every time he has colored four thick exercise books with mathematic squiggles. At exam time he suffers the agonies of all his contemporaries. Shelling out the price of a degree- ten rupees for the form, hundred for the center of his choice, and if he does pass, separate fees for his marksheet and for the math paper. But he doesn't know the rates of those yet!

So whether it is the vanquished warrior Umesh Navani or the intrepid fighter Surajpal, or any of the hundreds of students like them, in their youth they finally succumb to a system which neither joins them to their fields and their soil nor gives them the education to make any creative contribution to the larger society. A time which could have woven them into the web of their inheritance, their own village life, its culture, its environment, is instead alienating them. And so without giving its students any educational benefits, the system carries on regardless. New crops of children are planted in classrooms that echo with choruses of "present Sir!" The system proceeds on and has nothing to say about the hundreds of children who can't even get through high school. Actually the fact is that the government concerns itself with primary education- that way everyone can soon be declared literate. The numbers of the so called literate increase encouragingly and the country is well on the way to progress. And the mountains? Well, they are just leaping ahead.

It seems as if these mountains are cursed by Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. The way to an education is like a dry re-run of a daily soap replete with flooding unbridged rivers, wild animals and rocky tracks. And those who do fight the odds to win for themselves the touchstone, that high school certificate, are also cursed. Compelled to leave their fields and their homes and remain locked as vague memories of long ago village fair or festival in dusty photo albums. The ones who lose the fight, who fail again and again, with them lies the responsibility to look after the home and village, to save them.

In these villages people are willing to do anything to educate their children. And in these villages only an empty system of education exists. The twenty-first century brings many changes, and the people of the hills can't even hold off this change until they can deal with it. They will remain onlookers in their own homes, as change sweeps the mountains and makes them unrecognizable. The only weapon that will help them mould this change is education- wholesome and for everyone. Society and government have neglected the dangers of illiteracy and now the challenge lies with the youth of the twenty-first century. It will take time for them to be ready to face the challenge and then it might be too late.

Prem Bahukhandi is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Jawaharal Nehru University in Delhi, on watershed in the Garhwal region. This story was printed in Uttarakhand: Children in the Himalaya, an SBMA publication.

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