Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra (RLEK)

Reaching The Unreached

Education is the foundation for sustainable development because it is critical to improving health, nutrition and productivity. The education goal is thus central to meeting the other goals. The Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a non-government organisation based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, unique approach to literacy and its sustained efforts among the Van Gujjars has helped foster a desire to learn and an understanding of the importance of education, even in a pastoral community.

Unlike other Himalayan nomadic tribes that have a village base from where they practice part-time agriculture, the Van Gujjars are entirely nomadic. They lead an isolated existence, spending the winter months in the Shivalik forests in the foothills of the Himalayas which serve as their home and pasture for their buffaloes, their chief source of livelihood. The rest of the year they live in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. Isolated from civilisation for six months a year, the tribe has been deprived of the benefits of state-run education programmes.

To overcome this major impediment, the RLEK designed an innovative literacy programme. Under it, a ‘forest academy’, the brainchild of RLEK chairperson Avdhash Kaushal, was set up. It involved a group of volunteer teachers (350 of them) who lived and travelled with the tribe, thus continuing their education all year round. Classes were held under the trees or near their deras (dwelling units). In time, the Van Gujjars began to look on the teachers, who were mainly young couples, as family members and the programme made great strides, very quickly.

To ensure that learning was both easy and fun, the books and teaching materials used in the programme, designed by the RLEK were context-specific, with examples from the daily lives of the Van Gujjars. Stories revolved around things the students could relate to the problem of a dying buffalo, a dispute between two friends, etc. They also took into account the community’s knowledge of animal husbandry, the forests, milk production and bio-diversity. A three-part primer series, titled Naya Safar (A New Journey), was specifically developed by the RLEK for its adult literacy programme.

A mobile library that keeps neo-literates supplied with reading material and helps them hone their skills does the rounds of the Van Gujjar settlements. The RLEK’s education team also publishes a bi-monthly Hindi newspaper Khoj Khabar that focuses on news relating to the Van Gujjars’ immediate environment as also on news and events from around the country.

Besides successful implementation, it is the careful thought that has gone into the RLEK’s literacy mission that deserves special mention. The mission began with an adult literacy programme in marked contrast to the approach to literacy programmes across the globe, where child education initiatives come first. In fact, the RLEK maintains that the sustainability of child education programmes is better achieved if adults in the community realise the importance of literacy and education, and wholeheartedly support the concept. In the post-literacy and continuing education stages, greater emphasis is being placed on skill development and acquisition of new learning. For those who have acquired basic literacy skills, emphasis is given to link these skills more intricately with their lives.  After completing its total literacy and post-literacy campaigns, the RLEK is now running a community empowerment programme. The thrust here is on sharpening the literacy skills of the Van Gujjars and helping them gain an insight into issues such as health, sanitation, natural resources, environmental management, veterinary care and the rights of the citizens under the Constitution. Currently, there are 43 empowerment centres and 5 nodal centres.

The Van Gujjars have used their newly acquired skills well, to address some of their most critical problems and integrate themselves into the mainstream. They are lobbying for their rights and fighting off the corrupt forest bureaucracy. Today they are capable of independently writing applications to the district authorities, lodging FIRs at police stations and filing their nomination papers for Panchayati Raj elections. Recognition for the RLEK’s outstanding efforts in promoting adult literacy has come in the form of the UNESCO-NLM award for 1998. Rotary International has also commended the organisation for its adult literacy and child education programmes among the Van Gujjars and its contribution to non-formal education. The RLEK has been selected by the Government to run a state resource centre for adult education for the entire Garhwal and Kumaon regions. The centre will provide training to various government and non-governmental organisations (including Zila Saksharta Samitis) and assist them in material-preparation, monitoring and evaluation.

As compared to national average of roughly 50 per cent, very few children belonging to Van Gujjar community were attending formal education. Therefore, there arose a growing demand from the community for children’s education. Since then RLEK is running formal schools for the Van Gujjar children in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These schools are established at the periphery of the forests so that the children residing in the nearby forests can attend the schools. The schools have been designed keeping in mind the cultural-milieu of the Van Gujjars and therefore are very close to the forests and the medium of instruction is Hindi, English and Gujjari (their mother tongue). Innovative education material has been developed for the children so that they relate it to their own context.

The endeavour behind the Van Gujjar children education programme is to bring about a holistic development in harmony with their cultural setting, which shall enable them to raise their productivity, levels of income and lobby effectively for their rights.

The populace of the region is very poor and despite their best intentions to have educational facilities (they donate the land for construction of the school), they cannot afford to pay the salary to the teachers of the schools, cost of study material, equipment and other necessary charges. RLEK deems that quality education in the region is key to overcoming poverty in a single generation and it is also fundamental in creating a future for human security and community development.

A unique partnership is secured between the community and RLEK ensuring transparency. In order to secure transparency in the development of the target communities, a Shaksharta Mela (literacy fair) is organised every year before the public, press and independent interested citizens to come and see for themselves how much they can read and write. Internal and external evaluations are also conducted to assess the results.

The community donates the land for construction of the primary school at a location that they feel appropriate. RLEK undertakes the construction of the school through securing external funding. The management and administration of schools is manned by the Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of the village. Female teachers from within the community are also selected by SHG members. The SHG members keep track of the salary and leaves of teachers. Special emphasis is paid on girls’ education. The fee for the children is also nominal and those belonging to the Below Poverty Line Groups are often excused from making this payment. The involvement of SHGs is what makes this experiment sustainable. A playground is also included on the school campus for providing overall development of children. The RLEK has facilitated the construction of eight primary schools in Dehradun, Tehri and Uttarakhand areas where there is no primary school within a periphery of 3 km.

Community kitchens equipped with gas stoves and cooking utensils were also installed in far-off locales of rural Garhwal under the Van Gujjar programme with the support of the Hindustan Petroleum. An average of 10-12 women cook their meals in these kitchens, managed by self-help groups. RLEK is presently running 18 Primary schools in the Garhwal region and 2 Mobile Schools. Since computer literacy has become an important component of the modern education system, RLEK too has incorporated it in its curriculum. One computer each has been provided in schools but that has proved to be inadequate since the number of children is high.

Literacy has opened new horizons and created fresh opportunities for the Gujjars. This has also led them to acknowledge the importance of education and Demand for the right to education for their children. The community has realised that the education is all-pervasive and has a key role to play, even in their pastoral lifestyle. RLEK appears to have overcome what was an enormous challenge and which today presents an immense opportunity.