Jammu&Kashmir: Before starting the daily classes at Sanasar, a small village in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Arif Ali, a seasonal mobile school teacher, makes his students understand the importance of taking precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the local Gojri dialect, he asks if they know what is the minimum distance that should be maintained, to which the children reply in unison, saying, “1.5 metres, sir”.
With the closure of educational institutions across the country to avoid the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the education of many students has been affected. Though many institutions have resorted to online classes, a section of the Indian community is unable to access it owing to lack of internet-enabled devices and slow internet access.
To address this, Ali and five other teachers have volunteered to teach around 65 children from the Gujjar and Bakerwal community, nomadic communities in J&K.
People from the community can’t afford expensive phones. Moreover, in the mountains, internet connectivity remains an issue throughout the year, stated Ali, who himself is a mobile school alumnus.
Low literacy rates
According to a study on mobile schools for the nomadic community of J&K, the literacy rate in the Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes is quite low and they are considered as educationally backward communities as they are primarily nomadic communities.
The mobile schools were set up by the J&K government in 1970s with the objective to provide educational facilities to the children of nomadic Gujjar and Bakerwal Scheduled Tribes (STs).
Mobile schools are seen as an alternative system that can be assembled or disassembled within 30 minutes and carried conveniently by pack animals, the report mentioned. Mobile schools, that can be dismantled quickly, where teachers with a minimum of materials move with the students, have been tried in several countries with different degrees of success, it added.
Choudhary Mohammad Iqbal Phambra, a local Gujjar representative, explained that the children of these communities study for around eight months in the mobile schools established by the government around their permanent structures in the lower reaches of Jammu, Udhampur, Rajouri, Poonch, Anantnag, Baramulla, Kupwara, Budgam, Pulwama, Kathua, Samba and other districts.
However, between June to September, the herders move with their cattle to the higher reaches in search of grazing lands, their children also move with them, Phambra added.
“So, to ensure that the studies of the nomadic children don’t suffer during this period (June to September), seasonal mobile schools comprising of mobile teachers also move with the herds,” he mentioned.
Usually, a teacher belonging to the Gujjar Bakerwal communities who knows the students well and can speak their language Gojri is preferred as the mobile school teacher.
Militancy prohibits education: Scholar
Aijaj Ahmed, another teacher at a mobile school at Sanasar, stated, “This summer has come with a lot of challenges for us in view of the pandemic. And we’re not even sure about when we’ll be allowed to move back to plains but until then, we’ve made up our mind that we’ll brave all odds to ensure that the studies of our children don’t suffer.”
Tribal research scholar Dr Javaid Rahi, who heads the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, stated that while the Gujjars and Bakerwals are the third largest ethnic group with a population of around 15 lakh (15-17% of the total population of J&K) after Kashmiris and Dogras, the literacy rate of the community is low.
Rahi believes there are a variety of reasons behind the dismal performance of the J&K’s pastoralists in the education sector. He doesn’t hold only the governments responsible for the falling literacy rate of the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities.
“Our nomadic way of life, use of our children as a human resource for flocking and grazing the cattle, child marriages, lack of family legacy of education, social taboos against education and economic barriers are some of the reasons for the poor literacy rate,” he added.
Militancy in some border districts of J&K is also a reason behind the low literacy rate of Gujjar and Bakerwals, according to Dr Javaid Rahi.
“Teachers avoid going to areas affected by militancy. However, there is a large Gujjars and Bakerwals’ population in such areas. So the dropout rate in such areas is very high,” he added.
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