Saturday, January 26, 2008

The illiterate children of a literate mother: The case of the Chakmas of Mizoram

By - Paritosh Chakma

Everybody knows and remembers Mizoram as a highly literate state. With 88.49% literacy rate Mizoram is the second most literate state of India , only next to Kerala’s 90.92%. This is euphoric in the sense that it is a success story. But the other side of the story lies buried and untold: the story of illiterate Chakma tribals of Mizoram.

94.5 per cent people are tribals in Mizoram. The Chakmas who constitute 8.5 per cent of the total tribal state population is the second largest tribal community, next to Mizos who constitute 77 per cent. Yet, Chakmas are lagging behind in all aspects of life.

1. High level of illiteracy

According to Census of India 2001, the Chakmas are the most illiterate community in Mizoram. They have registered a literacy rate of only 45.3 per cent, way behind their Mizo counterparts who are at 95.6 per cent. The gape is huge between males and females amongst the Chakmas. While 56.2% of the men are literate, the literacy rate of women is only 33.6%. In case of the Mizo tribes, male and female literacy stand at 96.8% and 94.4% respectively, which is a clear sign of social progress.

Only 13.7% Chakmas were attending formal educational institutions while 29.7% Mizos were doing the same at 2001 Census. The percentage of those Chakmas attending institutes of high learning is very very thin.

The high level of illiteracy and backwardness of the Chakmas is clearly seen if we visit any Chakma village, particularly the remotest ones. The alarmingly high rate of illiteracy of the Chakma tribe is ironic and grotesque in this number two literate state of India .

2. Lack of viable socio-economic programmes

99.2% of the Chakmas live in villages, which are remote and disconnected from development programmes/schemes of the government. Education for majority Chakma children do not reach beyond what is being provided under the ill-trained teachers under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education For All) programme. In some cases, where the state government might stake claim of having spread its tentacles of development, there are no school buildings as such or the school buildings are in shatters. Funds are seldom allocated for reconstruction of such school buildings, or if allocated there is no mechanism to establish accountability when funds are siphoned off. As a result, most of the government schools lack basic infrastructure such as a proper school building, benches, blackboards, and recreational facilities. In most villages, villagers run “private schools”, which are basically one-room thatched house, and lessons are imparted by half -educated village boys and girls. The government’s apathy is coupled with lack of spirit amongst the teachers to spread knowledge. Where will the road end?

Illiteracy is deeply related to poverty and backwardness. Yet, the successive governments have miserably failed to take up viable socio-economic programmes to uplift the condition of the Chakmas, who are the poorest and the most marginalized section of the society.

The previous Congress government at Aizawl might boast about its brain-child New Land Use Policy (NLUP), a plan to gradually replace the traditional practice of Jhuming and achieve sustainable development in the rural areas by creating permanent means of livelihood. But what it merely did was to provide the money and the seeds to the beneficiaries but not the expertise or know-how of the various schemes, at least in the Chakma villages. This led to the failure of NLUP. Because, without the technical know-how or expertise a beneficiary of fishery, for example, ended up building a dam out of mud over a rivulet and released his cute fishes on the flood waters. But in rainy days, the water of the rivulet was untamable with the mud dam. The fishes, now grown big, were washed away into the river without a single penny coming into the beneficiary’s hands. If this beneficiary were in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra , he would have possibly committed suicide. But thankfully, the Chakmas are more brave hearts.

The Chakma habitations remain the most undeveloped till date. There are no roads, hospitals, electricity and telephone connectivity etc in most villages.
Poverty, under-development and lack of awareness are major obstacles to achieving universal primary education. In absence of alternative sources of livelihood, the poor Chakma parents are forced to make their children work in Jhum fields in remote hills, away from schools. The parents can’t help feeling utterly helpless. Not that they do not have the zeal or dreams of having educated progeny like any other parents in the far away towns.

3. The reasons for being left uneducated

Many politicians and armchair intellectuals will easily suggest that Chakmas are not so interested going to schools as the Mizos are and blame the Chakmas for their high level illiteracy rate. This is utter nonsense. This is only an attempt to pass the blame on the victims. If at all the Chakmas are not interested to get educated there must be something that might be forcing them to do so at various stages of times. The State government must find out what these problems are and solve those problems gradually in an effective way with strong tangible plans in place. Meantime, the state government must also adopt short term measures for the welfare of the Chakmas.

Certainly, acute poverty and lack of awareness among the Chakmas could be two primary reasons of high level of illiteracy. I think poverty is the main culprit. In a situation where it is the question of feeding the mouths in the families, which are usually large, education assumes a secondary importance for most parents. Most children are forced by the circumstances to quit schools at primary level.

I hold the successive governments at Aizawl responsible for the lack of educational prospects for the Chakmas. As for promoting educational awareness, I have never seen or heard of any government programme promoting education in the villages.

Further, the State government seldom establishes schools on its own. First the villagers must establish Middle or High Schools and run them successfully for many years, in some cases more than a decade, before the government take control of such schools. But the question is how can the poor villagers who depend on jhums for their livelihood fund education upto secondary level? Without proper pay, it is hard to find teachers offering almost voluntary service.

The state government must establish enough Middle and High Schools in the Chakma dominated villages.

4. Responsibility of Village Councils

The Village Councils have a crucial role to play to improve the quality of education in their respective villages along side the teachers, who should do the actual job. It is the duty of the Village Council to discipline the teachers, if they aren’t. This process needs adequate consultation and co-ordination with the civil society organizations, teachers, parents and students.

We can no longer afford to ignore the rural schools by saying that they do not promise any future for our children due to the poor quality education that they provide. Instead, these must be seen as the foundations of our future. We must transform the village schools into “the centres of leaning”. Failure to do so will leave us illiterate and backward for decades to come.

There is also an urgent need to revamp the Anganwadi centres set up under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), which have for long turned into private enterprise catering to the needs of the members of own family or extended kinship in the village. The Scheme targets the most vulnerable groups of population including children up to six years of age, pregnant women and nursing mothers in the villages and urban slums. But the Anganwadi centres are doing poorly. Yet, the workers escape monitoring.

Another important social evil we need to strongly fight against is gambling in various forms and manifestations that are reportedly going on at the very heart of Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC) headquarters, Kamalanagar and some other interior villages. Gambling can destroy a family completely. Gambling can corrupt the younger generation. Yet certain individuals are making huge money by spoiling the society under the nose of the CADC authorities.

5. Implement the Border Area Development Programme

As stated above, underdevelopment hampers education programmes in a major way. The State government must initiate implementation of Border Area Development Programme (BADP), which is a 100% centrally funded programme, in the areas along the India-Bangladesh border. The list of schemes under the BADP include Education (building additional school rooms, play fields, buying of school dresses/books, adult education, public libraries and reading rooms, vocational and technical education, etc), Health (provision of basic medical equipments such as X-Ray machines, provision of equipment for dental clinic, first aid kit for midwives, construction of public toilets, setting up of mobile dispensaries in rural areas, health awareness programme, eye camps, control of Malaria and other diseases, etc), Agriculture and allied sectors (animal husbandry, pisciculture, sericulture, poultry farming, horticulture, parks and gardens, water conservation programmes, social forestry, use of improved seeds, fertilizers and improved technology, veterinary aid centres, etc), Infrastructure (roads, rural sanitation, electrification, drinking water facility – construction of tubewells, water tanks, construction of buildings for weekly bazaars, etc) and Social Sector (construction of community centers, Anganwadies, Cultural Centres /Community Halls, Sports Associations, etc).

6. Conclusion

Instead of being content with the second place, Mizoram must strive ahead. The goal is merely not to compete for the top position but to become a truly “total literate state”. However, this feat won’t be achieved so long as the social, economic and educational conditions of the Chakmas and other minority groups are not raised. For this purpose, the government must pay adequate interest in the development of the areas predominantly inhabited by the Chakmas and all villages be provided with ICDS centres, schools, primary health centres, telecom facilities, roads and electricity, among others. The government must also strengthen Public Distribution System (PDS) delivery mechanism in the rural areas.

The government, the village councils and the civil society groups must undertake a sustained coordinated effort for raising mass awareness on education through innovative ideas and programmes. Our society cannot develop if our education system in the villages is not developed. Education must reach to the poorest of the poor living in the remotest areas.

The 86th Constitutional Amendment Act of 2002 made “free and compulsory education” a Fundamental Right for all children in the age group of six to fourteen years. Ideally, we can no longer afford to remain illiterate. But the million dollar question is whether the twin concepts of “universal primary education” and “free and compulsory education” can be turned into reality. In Mizoram, the State government faces the acid test with regards to Chakmas and other socially and economically backward communities.

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