Friday, September 4, 2009

An Act to provide free and compulsory elementary education: A boon for neglected communities in Mizoram

By Paritosh Chakma

On 26 August 2009, the United Progressive Alliance government notified the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. This Act provides free and compulsory elementary education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years. By “elementary education” means “the education from first class to eighth class”, i.e. upto Middle School level.

Across India this Act is being hailed as historic. Certainly, I do see this Act as a means for thousands of children to receive education in Mizoram, in particular in the remote rural areas where the government of Mizoram has so far refused to establish schools. Now no longer. Under this Act, the state government is duty bound to establish schools wherever there aren’t any. Section 6 states:
“For carrying out the provisions of this Act, the appropriate Government and the local authority shall establish, within such area or limits of neighbourhood, as may be prescribed, a school, where it is not so established, within a period of three years from the commencement of this Act.”
The message is loud and clear. The state government of Mizoram can’t any longer shy away from its responsibility of providing basic education to each and every child – irrespective of whichever area they live and whichever community they belong to.

Mizoram government has refused to establish schools:
The state government of Mizoram has refused to establish schools in remote areas. This is more true in the Chakma-dominated Sajek Valley areas along the Mizoram-Bangladesh borders. So far, the rule has been that the villagers first open a school (primary, middle or high school) and successfully run with public donations for years. Even to establish schools the public need prior permission from the government.

The villagers who are extremely poor face tremendous problems to fund the school and to pay salaries to the teachers. Poor salaries do not attract bright people into the teaching job. As a result, the schools are not properly run and the quality of education remains low. Yet, it takes years before the state government comes to the rescue and provides aid to the schools. It is ironic that the State should expect the poor villagers to fund education up to high school or above. But this is exactly what is happening in Mizoram.

Thanks to the Central funds flowing under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the Mizoram government has established primary schools in almost every Chakma habitations and some Middle Schools too. But many villagers are still without Middle Schools. The question is where are the children expected to go after passing the primary level? And where will they after completion of Middle School level go as there is no High School in their villages or nearby?

Does Mizoram govt lack determination and efforts?
In August 2009, the Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar declared that Tripura will be fully literate by September 2010. Does it mean Tripura will overtake Mizoram within a year? I don’t think Tripura can achieve this feat given that in the 2001 census Tripura with 73.66 per cent literacy rate was far behind Mizoram which clocked 88.49 per cent. But if Mr Sarkar is to be believed, the Tripura government is making an “all out efforts” to achieve cent percent literacy rate. I admire his courage and determination. Unfortunately, I have never heard from a Mizo Chief Minister making this vow to himself before the public. The one advantage Mizoram has is the Church which has been instrumental in promotion of education. Otherwise, the Mizoram government seems to lack enthusiasm and determination on education front although it recently set up a Education Reforms Commission.

What about the ethnic minorities? Of course, they have never been in the state government's education agenda. The minorities in Mizoram have not been inspired or given sufficient attention by the state government. Instead, a particular SSA Mizoram official has even come out to publicly call the Chakmas as "Nomads" while justifying SSA’s inability to reach to the Chakmas. By calling the Chakmas “nomads” may be he was trying explain that the Chakmas practice Jhum cultivation which required people to station at their Jhum field for a few months of the year. Contrary to the general notion, the Jhum cultivation does not require the tribal people to shift their habitations from place to place each year. They remain rooted to their houses in their respective villages but go to work in their Jhum fields. Often, the children were allowed to stay home and the government can provide lucrative incentives to encourage them to attend school. Of course, some problems do arise as their parents are required to station in the Jhum away from home for a few months during sowing and harvesting times; but that does not mean their children remain inaccessible. The statement of the SSA official was uncalled for as it is not Chakmas alone. Even substantial number of Mizo population in rural areas is also engaged in Jhum cultivation, yet they have been provided access to basic education and they have not been called "nomads". To know more about how Chakmas are discriminated by SSA Mission, read SSA Mission in Mizoram: Mission to educate or discriminate against the Chakmas?

What I am trying to say here is the state government of Mizoram has never tried to find out the reasons for the social-economic backwardness of the Chakmas to solve these problems. Putting the blame on the victims does not help. Also, it does not explain the reasons as to why the state government is unwilling to establish schools in Chakma villages. Why the Chakmas are left to be uneducated and jobless?

Total enrolment is not sufficient:
The government of Mizoram started implementing the SSA during the financial year 2000-2001. In February 2008, the then Education Minister Dr R Lalthangliana declared that Mizoram has “almost achieved total enrollment in primary education”.

However, mere “total enrollment” is not sufficient. The state government must provide quality education at least up to High School level to all the children. The Chakmas have been denied secondary education. Higher secondary or college level education is a far off thing. Higher education for the Chakmas of Mizoram is like the moon – it appears so near, yet far and unreachable.

The 86th Amendment of Constitution of India (2002) has already made “free and compulsory education” to all children of the age group of six to fourteen years a Fundamental Right. But it did not provide sufficient enough to encourage the state governments to take up education missions. This country needs law even to enforce a habit of wearing helmet for the protection of one’s life in case of any accident while driving a motorcycle. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 has sought to do the same thing in education field.

The Act has provided some norms and standards for the schools to follow and the authorities will have to ensure that standards. This is important as schools in rural areas are only in the name. They exist without basic infrastructure and facilities.

Another significant provision is relating to the filling up vacancies of teachers. I have observed that in Chakma areas, once the teachers retire or are transferred the vacancies are never filled up. As a result, in some primary schools there are only one or two teachers left to teach students who number is over a hundred in a single school of the villlage. The Act provides that the there should be at least two teachers for sixty students in primary school and in Middle School (sixth class to eight class), there should be at least one teacher per class and at least one teacher for every 35 students.

Now, armed with an Act the citizens of this country, including the Chakmas in Mizoram will of course demand their fundamental right to free and compulsory education and enforce the Fundamental Right to Constitutional Remedies to secure their rights if necessary.

1 comment:

john said...

a well written article. pl keep up your fight against discrimination and use RTI effectively to seek justice.