Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Photos by the author (except where indicated)
Yusuf Mehrally Center provides thousands of children with their only chance to go to school
Kachchh, in the north-western part of Gujarat, is known for several things – the intricately embroidered handicrafts, the white desert, the resident wild asses and for those who love them, the migratory birds. But our trip to the region last month was to visit very different kinds of migrants – humans. It was to try and understand the way of life of an unusual people, the plight of their children and a remarkable initiative that enables them to go to school.
The Fisherfolks’ Schools
Our first visit was to a place called Randhbandar, near the port town of Mundra. A “bandar” is a port or a settlement along the coast. Though not too far from Mundra, the drive took us off the main road and along muddy tracks for quite a distance. In just a short while, the villages and towns fell far behind.
As the bandar came into view, we were hit by salty air and the smell of fish. The bandar, situated on mudflats, appeared to be a collection of makeshift tents made of jute cloth, propped up on wooden poles. Around this, stretching for miles and miles, were deserted mudflats.
The tents belonged to the Waghers, a Muslim community of fisherfolk. For nine months of the year, the Wagher people migrate from their villages to live in these settlements or bandars, along the coast. Entire families leave their homes and move here. They only head back home for the monsoon months. This is an age-old practice in this community.
Due to the fact that the community spends most of the year in near isolation, the children hardly get a chance to go to school. This fact came to the attention of a group called Yusuf Mehrally Centre (YMC), during relief work post the devastating earthquake of 2001. While handing out food packets, they observed that no one in the community was signing for them, but using their thumb prints, instead, to acknowledge receipt. They realised that most of the families were not literate.
Members of this community belong to villages located all over Kachchh. When the children head off to the coast, their names get struck off their schools’ rosters due to insufficient attendance. YMC thought of a solution – to open a learning centre for them at the bandar itself! And they did. They pitched a tent right on the beach and started getting children there to study. Not an easy task. The parents were initially reluctant to send their kids for various reasons. They felt that the children wouldn’t get time from fishing. The occupation involves having to wake up at odd hours of the night to haul the fish in. At times they even spend hours out at sea. Older boys help the men in the fishing boats while women and younger children sort out the catch into fish that is to be sold fresh, dried or used for manure. At the time, parents questioned how this education will be useful to their kids in their fishing duties – this wasn’t even a recognised school! But this reluctance was nothing compared to the other struggles faced by YMC. From authorities questioning their right to use the land where they had pitched the tent to getting recognised by the education department to finding teachers to getting funds, every step was a struggle.
Not only did they find innovative ways of solving each of these problems, they also expanded. There are currently nine learning centres run by YMC in settlements along the coast from Samkhayali to Mandvi. Children of grade levels 1 to 7 come to the learning centres. Their attendance gets recorded here and sent to the government schools in their respective villages. This way, their names stay on the rosters. The learning centres thus act as supplementary schools. They are called Sagarshalas. YMC have even arranged for government school question papers to be sent here for students to appear for their exams. Teachers for these supplementary schools are recruited from surrounding areas and some are from the community itself. Some have had to learn Kachchhi in order to communicate with the younger children.
After a few years of running these schools for younger children, YMC felt that these were insufficient to address the needs of students as they grew older. They would require better facilities and more qualified teachers. They built a hostel in Bhadreshwar for boys and girls of higher grades. The children who choose to come here now attend regular schools in Bhadreshwar.
As we watched one family in Randhbandar, huddled around a mound of fish, busy sorting, we wondered the value of such mainstream education that may take the children away from what has been their family’s traditional occupation for many, many generations. But we were informed that fishing in Kachchh is, so to say, an endangered profession. With the destruction of mangroves for the construction of Mundra port, the fish populations have deteriorated, as the mangroves provided ideal breeding grounds for fish. The port brings in a lot of big ships that dump their waste here and industries dump chemical effluents as well, further affecting the remaining fish. People from YMC believe that in the next 8 to 10 years, fishing as a profession would no longer be an option, and hence it is essential that the next generation learn non-traditional skills and mainstream languages. Even now, the economics of fishing here is such that the fishermen are eternally in debt. The community faces other challenges too. They are ostracised for fishing, what the upper castes consider ‘paap no dhandho’ (occupation of sin).
The programme has seen a lot of impact on the children. Not only do they now speak confidently in Gujarati, Hindi and some English, apart from their mother tongue, Kachchhi, they have also begun questioning certain superstitions or age-old practices in their community, such as child marriage. The boys are questioning their parents on why girls are forced to drop out of school after a certain age. There are very few girls in higher grades and in the hostel too, compared to boys. Children’s outlook towards certain things has changed. For instance, earlier, they used to carry catapults with them to shoot birds for fun. Now, not only have they given that up, they also stop others from doing so. Once a teacher at the Bhadreshwar hostel saw a Muslim boy wearing a teeka on his forehead. When asked why, he said simply, “Well, my Hindu friend observed a fast for Ramzan, so it’s only apt that I wear a teeka for his festival.” At the hostel, YMC holds conversations with children about things like gender roles within the family. Boys are encouraged to take up tasks such as sweeping or making tea, traditionally believed to be tasks for girls. They also talk about family planning and financial planning.
One concern we had was that living in a hostel and attending regular schools may lead children to devalue their parents’ occupation. This concern is shared by Devendrabhai, who has been part of this programme since the very start. He says that though living in the hostel has brought about a positive change in the kids, he did observe them becoming a little detached from their earlier lifestyle and the occupation of fishing. He believes that it is vital that the children remain a part of their families and community and for this, he tries to ensures that they go visit the bandars every fortnight.
Some people who have been through the YMC programme and finished schooling have gone through ITI and on to mainstream professions such as plumbing, fitting and others. Some have come back to teach at the schools by the sea.
The Salt Workers’ Schools
Just like the Waghers, people from the Agariya community, too, migrate to the coast for nine months of the year. They work to extract salt from the sea water. Our visit to Jogninar, a salt flat near Mundra, gave a similar feel of being miles away from any town. Barren mudflats stretched in all directions, interspersed with white saltpans and heaps of salt.
Agariyas come from all over Gujarat – Ahmedabad, Patan, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Morbi. Salt extraction work at times starts at around 3 AM, lasts till sunrise and then recommences in the evening. This is to avoid the glare of the sun from salt crystals. This glare is so harsh that many workers lose their eyesight when they grow old. Other diseases include chronic dermatitis (skin ulcers) on their hands and feet caused by constant exposure to sharp salt crystals.
Just like the kids of the fisherfolk, the Agariya children did not have any way of going to school. They, too, had their names struck off their schools’ rosters for lack of attendance.
A year after YMC started their first school for the fishing community, they opened a school for children of salt pan workers. Here, the additional complication was that salt pan work was contract based. This meant that if one family came to one bandar this year, there was a chance that next year they may be somewhere completely different. Despite this, YMC persevered and now, twelve years on, they have ten supplementary schools for children of salt pan workers.
Mahadevbhai, who oversees this programme, was himself a salt worker till a few years ago. Just like the fishing community, these children, too, are first generation school-goers.
The Labourers’ Schools
The port and industries near Mundra have brought an influx of labourers from different parts of the country – Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh. These people live in slum conditions near the city. Both parents work as contract labourers, while some children earn extra cash selling pani puri and such in the evenings. The slums have many issues – health, hygiene, water sanitation and alcoholism among men. Some of the children we met showed definite signs of malnourishment. These are some of the most marginalised people in this region. Without ration cards or migration cards, their problems are hardly even recognised by the government.
These children do not understand Gujarati. Up until recently, if they wished to go to school, they could either go to the Gujarati school in Mundra or attend school in a different state, away from their parents. There were no Hindi schools here. A few children did try going to the Gujarati schools, but didn’t fit in and couldn’t cope.
A few years ago, Childline India Foundation, an organisation involved with child rights, was working in the area. During awareness raising activities, the staff of Childline used to keep reiterating that children must be sent to school. One day, irked by this, parents retorted by asking where a Hindi medium school was. Hearing this, Dharmendrabhai and Sangeetaben of YMC took up the challenge of meeting the need. The very next day, they held class in the slum. Thus began YMC’s work in providing Hindi medium schools.
Soon, more children arrived and they had to shift to a rented building. In a short while, even this building proved too small – such was the overwhelming response from the parents! They soon had to paint a blackboard on the outer walls of the building and start taking classes outdoors. Finally, Arti Industries, a Mumbai based company that was already funding some fishing and salt schools, funded the project, and a building for the school was constructed, which they named Vallabh Vidyalaya. This school now provides lunch to the children and medical services to the children and their family members.
There are now three Hindi schools catering to a total of 800 children from 11 different states of the country. One of these schools, Shishu Vidya Mandir, is run in the godown of a Jindal steel plant, and the third is in Seeracha village. Many parents who had earlier left their kids back home while migrating to Kachchh have now brought them here.
Impacts and Challenges
YMC has through these three kinds of schools reached out to children of migrant families along coastal Kachchh. Many of these children did not even exist in the eyes of the Government in the early years of this programme. The RTE Act in 2009 provided some impetus for Government officials to agree to the supplementary school model, as this ensured that more children remained enrolled in school.
The education provided by YMC is completely free for the students. Through this, they have made a difference in the lives of some of the most marginalised children in the district. It has been a struggle, given the challenges with space, funding and human resources.
Some of the teachers of these schools have themselves studied up till 6th or 8th grades in conventional schools and thus tend to focus on classroom discipline, rote memory and so on. We felt that the methods of teaching needed improvement. This should hopefully be addressed soon given that YMC is already thinking of ways of enhancing competencies through training and exposure visits to other schools. YMC also encourages teachers to study further and train in education.
We also felt that the curriculum being followed in school should link in some ways to the local environment of the children of the fishing community and the salt workers. There were efforts earlier in the fishing villages, but these were not sustained. It is important that the education received in school does not devalue the traditional knowledge or skills that the families have.
On hearing the older children speak, it was clear to us that YMC has managed to get children to think of issues of gender inequality, of respect for nature and of acceptance of all religions. These are important interventions and would hopefully help the children grow up to be fair-minded and non-discriminatory adults.
YMC has undertaken a huge responsibility by running these schools and hostel for migrant children. Their impact is clearly echoed by the words of Suggiben, a migrant to Mundra from Gorakhpur, whose children now study in Vallabh Vidyalaya, “I am so happy that we were able to bring our kids here. A family should remain together. Now my kids’ future is in the hands of YMC.”
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