Ladakhis face an imposing challenge: Should their children continue to live a nomadic life or get education for modern living?
Education or Literacy: Nomads at the Crossroads
Kunzes Dolma (Kashmir Images)
LEH-LADAKH: Tsering Gurmat is a school drop-out. Nothing uncommon there, except that Tsering had to drop out because of a new primary school established in the neighborhood. The irony is not lost on Tsering’s parents, who had hoped to give their children the education they didn’t themselves get.
In the remote Himalayan region of Changthang in Ladakh, many nomadic parents, wiser after a lifetime of harsh nomadic life in sub-zero temperatures, face the dilemma of whether to leave their children behind in the residential school or take them along in their seasonal trek across the hills with their livestock. The heavy dependence on children to share the work load for survival in the harsh, multi-tasked routine of grazing the livestock across the ranges of Changthang clashes with a growing realization that education is perhaps the key to a better, certainly easier, future for their children. A way of life that sustained them for 2,000 years may not quite be working as well now.
Nearly 150 Changpa families, nomadic pastoralists who trace their origins to Tibet, live alongside about 20 Tibetan refugee families in the four main villages of Korzok, Rupsho, Kharnak and Alkung close to the breathtaking Tso Moriri lake in eastern Ladakh. This vast grazing ecosystem in the Indian Trans-Himalaya stretches over 22,000 square kilometers. Livestock is the mainstay of the economy; the high-altitude, arid landscape in this cold desert supports little else.
Few families in Korzok lead a settled life. Situated 3 km from the northwest end of the Tso Moriri Lake at 15,075 ft, this small village is one of the highest permanent settlements in the world. The closest town, Duruk, is over 100 km away; the capital of Leh nearly 150 km. the region is cut off for about eight months a year due to snow.
The Changpas move camp nearly ten times a year locating green pastures for their yaks, sheep, goats and horses, their robos (small yak-hair tents) dotting the spectacular landscape. The animals’ produce offers an adequate, indeed sustainable, source of livelihood: Pashmina, or cashmere wool, is the most valuable; others include sheep wool, yak wool, curd, butter, and cheese. While children help with the numerous tasks, they are also relied upon to look after aging parents.
As recently as four decades ago, there were virtually no Government facilities for the Changpas in Korzok. In the 1970s, the Jammu & Kashmir State Government set up mobile schools to provide elementary education to children. It was the first generation exposed to mainstream education – and thoughtfully incorporated the nomadic way of life by moving with the families and animals every few months. A special tent would be set up for the school where children learnt to read and write in Urdu and their native Bodhi language. The enrollment was not spectacular, but it was a beginning.
Things changed when the government, zealous in its efforts to educate Indians across the vast and remote parts of the country, started constructing primary schools in remote locations. One such school promptly came up in Korzok; it was later upgraded to a middle school. Over the years, the government helpfully proceeded to set up a new Centralized Residential School in the Puga, intended to cater to all nomad families in the region. No mean feat in the barely connected arid grasslands, but it resulted in suspension of all mobile schools.
Standing at a crossroad,Tsering’s baffled parents had to make a choice: leave their child behind in the residential school for the required nine months in a year for a ‘mainstream’ education; or keep up the familiar and, so far sustainable, nomadic life that required children to help with the numerous family chores. They chose the latter; Tsering left school and moved on with the herd. Many children end up not being enrolled in school at all. Some families chose modern education and a more sedentary lifestyle: about 90 students aged four to sixteen now study at the Nomadic Residential school.
The opening of the school at Puga was a welcome step but they fear that their children won’t learn anything about nomadic life. Presently the many nomads wish for such a school which would move with them so that the children could learn their work as well as the modern education.
The Changpas are not an isolated case. South Asia has the world’s largest nomadic population. India alone is estimated to have over 60 million nomads, belonging to over 350 formally identified nomadic groups. Studies indicate that many children who never enroll in schools come from communities with livelihoods that require them to move from place to place.
India’s landmark Right to Education Act in 2009 committed the state to ensure that all children from 6-14 years of age have access to basic education. In line with this, under the central government’s flagship education scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, innovative means were tried to include children who were in particularly challenging circumstances. The implementation of these initiatives, however, leaves much to be desired.
In a recent review of the education schemes, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah reaffirmed his government’s commitment to utilizing the central schemes towards the goal of 100 percent enrolment of boys and girls at the primary level, against the current 65.67 per cent. “The Government is keen to revive the mobile school scheme in the state and help children of migratory population to receive education throughout the year without any break,” he said.
Traditionally, nomads have sustained a productive system that preserves the ecosystem while providing adequately for the populace in the region. Incorporating their rich knowledge base within the education system, the mobile schools of Jammu and Kashmir, by intent, are an innovative step in the right direction but severely lack effective implementation. The famed Ladakh Vision Document 2025, created after extensive deliberations in 2005, envisions a society where education would “build human resource in order to create a happy Ladakh, through the harmonious use of our natural resources, guided by our cultural resources.” Making that dream come true will take a lot more than the occasional review. Till then, concerned parents in Changthang will continue to balk at the choice they are forced to make for their children: the education of modern schools or the wisdom of their ancestors.