Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SSA in Mizoram: Nomads, who?

By- Paritosh Chakma

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “nomad” as “member of a tribe that wanders from place to place looking for pasture for its animals and having no fixed home”.

Recently there have been several reports in the media quoting unnamed Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan (SSA) Mizoram Mission officials who attributed the failure of the SSA in Mizoram to the Chakma and Bru communities who have been levelled as “nomadic tribes”.

The SSA has been functioning in Mizoram since 2000. But as of now at least 14,826 children aged between six and fourteen years, mostly belonging to minority communities Chakma and Bru, have been deprived of formal education. There has been no consistency in the official figure, however. Earlier in February 2008, SSA Mizoram officer on special duty Robert Romawia Royte stated that only 2,000 children were still out of school.

The reputed Press Trust of India has quoted unidentified SSA officials as saying:

“Majority of the children who are not attending schools belonged to Chakma and
Bru as the two communities are nomadic tribes. It is hard to bring their
children to schools due to their shifting from one village to another often.”

As per as I know this is the second instance in which SSA officials have unrepentantly blamed the Chakmas for the failure of the SSA to reach to the most vulnerable sections of society in Mizoram.

Way back in February 2008, Mr Robert Romawia Royte stated:

“About 2,000 children are believed to be still out of schools. They are from the
residual or the hardcore groups. They belong to the nomadic families of Chakmas along the Indo-Bangla border, migrants and religious sects who do not allow their children to study”

These are racist statements against the ethnic minorities in particular the Chakmas. The Chakmas condemn such racist statements in the strongest possible terms.

Instead of focusing more attention on the ways to educate the minorities, the SSA officials in Mizoram have been publicly calling the Chakmas “nomads” while justifying SSA’s inability to reach to the Chakmas. Such remarks can only emerge out of utter ignorance about the Chakmas and/or due to the personal prejudice against this community. If what they meant by calling the Chakmas “nomads” is their traditional practice of Jhum cultivation which requires shifting of the place of cultivation every year, I do not understand as to why Mizos also should not be called “nomads” as substantial number of Mizo population are also engaged in Jhum cultivation. The SSA officials should know that Jhum is increasingly being recognized in this civilized world as a form of agriculture, not a “nomadic” lifestyle of the tribals. But surprisingly, no official has ever dared to call the Mizo Jhum cultivators “nomads”. Why are two standards being applied to measure the success of the SSA in Mizoram?

Presently, the government of Mizoram is seeking Rs 2,500 crore grant from the Central government to weed out jhum cultivation and provide sustainable livelihoods to the people. If only the Chakmas and Brus are officially nomads, then a major portion of this Central assistance should go to them. But I know that would never happen.

It is true that the SSA Mission has failed in Mizoram among the minorities. But the failure of the SSA among the Chakmas has nothing to do with whether the Chakmas are nomads or not. Substantial number in both Chakma and Mizo communities are engaged in Jhum cultivation but no SSA official has explained why the education mission has reached all the Mizos but not the Chakmas or the Brus. It is because Jhum cultivation has little to do with the successes or failures of the SSA mission in Mizoram. 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 go to cultivate their jhum fields for some months of the year but basically they remain rooted to their houses in their respective villages. Often, the children were allowed to stay home. The government must come up with lucrative incentives in some cases to encourage the children to attend school. Simply putting the blame on the victims does not help.

But the reality of SSA Mizoram is completely different on the ground. The SSA has become a breeding ground for rampant discrimination and injustice against the Chakmas in Mizoram! The Mizoram SSA Mission’s slogan is “Mi Tin Tana Zirna Leh Hmasawnna” which means “Education and Development for All”. But it seems that “all” does not include the Chakmas. The functioning and administration of SSA in Chakma areas has been frustrating, to say the least.

Let me summarize some of the most important points below:

1. The SSA has been used just as a job vending machine in Mizoram. Non-local Mizo teachers have been appointed in Chakma areas although they can neither speak the Chakma tongue nor understand the cultural sensibilities of the local population. Given that the Chakma children do not understand Mizo tongue, such appointment of non-local Mizos to teach the Chakma children is merely waste of the tax payers’ money.

2. There is neither accountability nor transparency in some of the appointments as according to norms locals must be given preference and the appointment should be cleared by the Village Education Committee, usually headed by the elected head of the village.

3. It is seen that most of the Mizo teachers appointed in Chakma areas often do not attend classes. Some of them even do not live in the villages as they are non locals.

4. Several non-local Mizo teachers have taken transfer, leaving the schools with only single teacher (usually Chakma) to teach students numbering above 60.

It is high time the SSA Mizoram stopped blaming the socalled “nomadic” nature of the minorities, which is a fallacy of its own creation, but did enough to take some corrective measures to make the elementary education mission more inclusive on the basis of equality and non-discrimination.

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