In this remote area, evening classes are a blessing for children
Rakhee Roytalukdar, Deosiri, Assam
August 29, 2017

Children of tribal people settled in forests in remote Deosiri in Assam close to the Bhutan border have no way of getting quality education. The villages are neither mapped nor come under the district administration and, hence, there are no schools in here. Many of the forest dwellers, after losing their land to river-bank erosion, chose to encroach on reserved forest areas. Extremely poor, they have to work hard to earn a single square meal a day and are hardly literate. But their children may be luckier

The arithmetic sum on the blackboard seems difficult at first. But as a young teacher explains patiently, the children, around 12 years old, sitting in a thatched roofed class, listen attentively. Grasping the method, they are able to solve more such sums from their textbook. But this is common in an ordinary everyday class. Only this class is not so ordinary. Comprising tribal children, mostly from families below the poverty line inhabiting forest areas in Assam’s remote Deosiri Region, the class is an experimental alternative school. 

Says Sasanka Basumatary, a Class VII student, who studies in a government day school: “It has been almost a year that I am attending these classes after my regular school. I had nowhere to go to solve my difficulties. My parents, who are illiterates, cannot help me but they heard about this evening school and enrolled me here. It has helped me tremendously.” 

Children of forest encroachers, who have settled in forests in areas around Deosiri on the borders of Bhutan, have no way of getting quality education. Government or public school education may be apt for most other children but for tribal children, coping with mainstream education becomes difficult if not guided properly. Termed ‘illegal settlers’, the encroachers exist in the interiors and on the fringes of the forests, thanks mainly to the backing of political parties. The villages are neither mapped nor under district administration and, hence, there are no schools in these areas. 

Since long, encroachment in the forest areas of Assam has been a big problem. Of the 27673 sq km forest area, 3555 sq km has been encroached. There is also a debate about the nationality of the settlers. Some say many of them are Bangladeshi infiltrators. However, many other forest dwellers are tribal and non-tribal people who have lost their land due to river-bank erosion and have encroached on reserved forest areas. Extremely poor, they have to work hard to earn a single square meal a day and are hardly literate.

Tribal and non-tribal children of forest encroachers studying in the after-school classes, part of the single teacher initiative in Deosiri in Assam.

Their children travel to schools in the nearby villages. The elders want their children to study and the students themselves are keen learners. Unfortunately, they have no tutors or mentors to guide them. But thanks to the villagers and the volunteers of an NGO, The ANT (Action for Northeast Trust), working in the region, there has been some change.

It was the NGO that brought the scheme, Single Teacher Initiative, into existence. The incentive for the villagers was to let them choose their own teacher from amongst themselves, says Samar Basumatary, who is in charge of the project in Deosiri. “This meant involvement of the villagers in the education of their children, which piqued their interest and they felt a certain responsibility in choosing the right teachers from amongst themselves. Although difficult to find teachers initially, there were certain youths in the encroached villages who were studying themselves and willing to devote time to the other children as well.”

The project initially started off as evening study centres in remote villages – actually, spaces for young children to gather and do an hour of guided group study. The centres have now grown into a form of education enrichment programme for students from age 5 to 15 years and are now held in government schools. 

The students assemble in government schools after their regular school gets over. Here, a single teacher, chosen by the villagers themselves and trained by the NGO, teach the students all subjects. The teachers takes two hours of class three times in a week and teach all subjects, focusing more on Maths and Science. They are paid around Rs 3500 a month and the money serves as an incentive for young teachers. 

Students completing their homework and studies in the class.

Santosh, who is in college in Bongaigaon, pursuing his B Com degree, takes evening classes here. Says he: “Teaching these children is something which I can do for my community. When I was young and in school there were no such facilities. Now with this alternative, evening schools, students can brush up their difficulties. Slowly our children will be able to adjust to mainstream education.”

Two years ago, no student from the forest-encroached village could clear the pre-board exam, informs Samar. However, last year, nine students from the school cleared the exam and became eligible for the board exams. The drop-out rate from schools has also decreased to an extent, thanks to the evening classes. 

There are 16 such alternative primary schools for ages six to ten operating in Chirang District for children of forest encroachers and two evening schools for middle-level students and one residential coaching for girls appearing in Class X. 

Says Laxmi Cheri, a volunteer with The ANT: “These alternative schools provide natural learning experience by sourcing material from their local culture, songs, stories and learning techniques. Apart from teaching, there is outdoor exercise like a game of Frisbee every week, which encourages them to play together; it promotes self-discipline and honesty as there are no referees in the sport. The Ultimate Frisbee games introduced at the Deosiri evening centres have helped raise 10 teams of 150 Frisbee players, that includes the teachers as well.”             
These alternative schools, or rather coaching, have no place in mainstream education. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 advocates schooling only in one of four categories – government schools, aided schools, specified schools like the Kendriya Vidyalayas or Navodaya Vidyalayas, and unaided schools.
But the alternative schools with limited time and space have been able to provide at least some form of education to marginalised tribal and non-tribal children. Quality education customised to the needs of tribal children may still be a far cry, but these schools are a ray of hope for them who might otherwise remain illiterate.   
Just as young Santosh says he likes teaching his next generation and spending time with them, education experts say the enthusiasm of teachers is important and the interest of the students is necessary to sustain such projects. There are critics of the single-teacher initiative too, especially in the government-run schools.

Education experts say the single-teacher initiative may not be conducive for all as it may be difficult for a single teacher to handle all classes, especially the lower classes. In addition – and this pertains to government schools –the lone teacher would be required to do administrative work as well, relegating teaching to a secondary activity.

Figures 2015-16 point out there were 97273 single-teacher schools in India at the primary, upper primary and secondary levels, which is about 8.8 per cent of the total of such schools in the country. Of these, the largest numbers were in primary schools – 81893 – accounting for 83.6 per cent of the total. Another 14851 or 15.2 per cent single-teacher schools were at the upper-primary level and 1179 or 1.2 per cent at the secondary level.

July 2017