Make seasonal schools operational

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Haijan is a small pasture located on the western side of Yusmarg across the Doodh Ganga river. This place is not far away from Branwar village which is one of remote villages in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The Gujjar population of Branwar, Neegu, Jabbad and Zilsidara villages migrate to Haijan and surrounding pasture land in summers along with their livestock. This seasonal migration is an old age tradition of not only Gujjars but even the local Kashmir speaking families also have been migrating to Haijan and surrounding meadows. From the last few decades Kashmiri speaking population has almost stopped their seasonal migration towards meadows but Gujjars continue to go to these pastures also known as Bahaks. Although the number of gujjars migrating to bahaks has come down, they still have kept this tradition alive.
In Haijan or nearby Godkhal meadow there are dozens of mud and wooden log huts locally called Kothas. Pertinently Kashmiri shepherds also called Chopan or Pohul also put up in similar Kothas but these people have their designated pasturelands at much higher altitudes where they put up for 3 months between June to August.
The Gujjar population who migrate to Haijan , Godkhal or Ayad pastures (bahaks) mostly belong to Branwar , Jabbad, Neegu and Zilsidara villages. The families put up in Kothas which are generally shared by two or three families. Decades back the entire population used to migrate from the villages to nearby pastures but with the passage of time the mass seasonal migration has reduced. This seasonal migration can be related with annual durbar move wherein the whole Government machinery would move to Srinagar from Jammu in winters and soon after the onset of winter the durbar would shift to Jammu. This is a 150-year-old tradition which has now came to halt after a government order. Nowadays the families belonging to economically weaker sections of Gujjars especially old men, women and some children are seen in the pastures during summer months. Those employed or working as labourers in Srinagar or other towns do not migrate to bahaks.
The Kashmiri shepherds (Chopans) and Bakerwals can also be seen along with their families in the pastures in large numbers along with their sheep and goats. Some Chopans own Kotha but the Bakerwals don’t and they put up in tents in these highland pastures. The reason for not owning a Kothas is mostly attributed to the location of their Bahaks (pastureland) which is located on a very high altitude and erecting a hut (kotha) at such a place is impossible due to scarcity of wooden logs , plus huge snowfall in winters will damage such structures. That is why Bakerwals prefer to stay in tents.
Mobile-Seasonal Schools:
In order to provide basic education to the children of the migratory population the J&K Government envisaged a scheme in late 1970s called Mobile Schools. This was especially meant for the Bakerwal Community.During the PDP – Congress coalition Government (2002-2008) a scheme of seasonal schools was introduced in J&K. These seasonal schools were set up in different hilly districts of J&K to reach out to a more migratory population (Gujjars , Bakerwals , Chopans etc) . At present seasonal schools are operational in Poonch, Rajouri, Doda, Budgam, Shopian, Kupwara, Baramulla and few other districts of J&K. Nearly 40,000 plus students are enrolled in these schools. Every year the Government seeks services of more than 1100 Educational Volunteers (EVs) for providing education to the nomadic children who otherwise would remain illiterate or will be school dropouts if they are not given formal or informal education during the seasonal migration. Unfortunately, the seasonal schools are not reaching out to a large migratory population who settle at high altitude pasturelands located at an elevation of 3500 meters or more. On papers the seasonal schools are shown to have been set up in such high altitude meadows (bahaks) but when we see on the ground these so-called schools are completely defunct.
What is a seasonal school ?
The Government through the respective Zonal Education Offices takes services of local educated youth known as Educational Volunteers. These volunteer teachers are provided a monthly stipend of mere Rs 4000 which is clear violation of Minimum Wages Act wherein nobody can be paid less than Rs 225 per day. Infact Rs 225 per day payment is mandatory for unskilled labourers and the educational volunteers are in fact skilled people and they should be paid at least Rs 500 per day which amounts to Rs 15000 per month. The Government has never bothered to enhance the honorarium of these poor school teachers. They used to get Rs 4000 per month in 2004 or 2005 and even after 16 years they get the same amount as stipend. In addition to this each mobile school is provided with a few tents. The stationery is also provided by the Government. The educational volunteers are deputed to various places where there is sufficient nomadic / migratory population and the children are enrolled on spot and the schools start their academic session from May onwards which continues till October. These schools provide education up to primary level only (class 5th) . From October the students attend the normal Government run schools in their respective villages.
The Mobile Seasonal schools are supposed to provide Mid Day meals to the enrolled students. But according to reliable sources the majority of the mobile schools do not provide these meals thus raising a question mark on the credibility of the School Education Department? The tents that have been provided to the mobile schools many years back have been damaged and have never been replaced till date in the majority of the schools.
Children are forced to sit under the open sky while taking lessons from the teachers, which is not bad but whenever there is rainfall such schools are shut or else the students have to take shelter under trees. The parents of the students allege that there are no blackboards and the stationery is also not being supplied to their children in the majority of the educational zones across J&K.
Problems faced by Educational Volunteers
The Mobile Seasonal teachers better known as Educational Volunteers are engaged for a period of six months only and from the last many years they have been demanding for job security.
These volunteers are paid a monthly stipend of Rs 4000 and from 2004 till date there has been no revision at all. The salaries of Government officials have been increased under 6th pay commission but these poor educational volunteers have been totally ignored. Even during COVID 19 the seasonal schools are operating as there is enough social distancing maintained under open sky. Instead the Govt should have appreciated this , but unfortunately the services of these volunteers are still unrecognized. Due to non-availability of tents the seasonal teachers (educational volunteers) are also forced to take shelter in Gujjar Kothas or sometimes they live with shepherds. These volunteers work in harsh weather conditions, living away from their homes but no allowances are paid to them. The monthly stipend is spent on the purchase of ration etc and that is also paid after moving from pillar to post. The educational volunteers demand a job security and continuation of their services for the whole academic year. They need to be paid some risk allowance as well. As this is totally denied the result is that many seasonal schools are defunct. In Corag , Diskhal and Daideran meadows located in upper DoodhPathri area , not even a single seasonal school is operational for the last 4 years.
This author has personally visited several highland pastures in the Pir Panjaal mountains. During the past 5 to 6 years the seasonal schools are not operational in many bahaks with the result children of the shepherd community (Chopans) and Bakerwals are deprived of the basic education which is a gross human rights violation and also the violation of Right to Education Act (RTE). In these highland pastures the virtual classes can’t be held due to poor internet connectivity, so the school education department by any means has to make seasonal schools operational especially in the high-altitude pastures. We need to ensure children of Chopans and Gujjar -Bakerwals get better education. Let the responsibilities be fixed on Chief Educational Officers and Zonal Educational Officers and they must be directed to visit all the seasonal schools. Local educated youth are empaneled as educational volunteers for such high-altitude seasonal schools but Govt must ensure to pay them more than their colleagues working in lower altitude pastures. Because of very little remuneration a large number of educational volunteers don’t attend their duties thus affecting the education of children. They used to be punctual until 2010 -2011 but when the Govt didn’t enhance their monthly remuneration for many years , many quit the job and some became unpunctual as well…
(The author is Founder & Chairman of J&K RTI Movement)