|name: Avadesh Kaushal|
organisation: Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK)
type of activity: literacy programme for nomadic tribes
In this section, YXC has developed an imaginary interview with Avadesh Kaushal, founder and chairperson of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK). This Indian NGO works, among others, to promote the cause of the Van Gujjars: an indigenous forest-dwelling nomadic tribe of the northern Himalayas. Campaigns include literacy, elementary health and veterinary care, and community forest management.
Avadesh Kaushal was a professor for seven years in Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy in Mussoorie. During this time, he also worked on various social and ecological issues in the region and eventually in 1992 took voluntary retirement from his post at the Academy in order to focus all his energies on fighting for the rights of marginalised and underprivileged hill communities. His motto has always been: “to reach the un-reached and include the excluded…” Between October 1993 and December 1995, under the Government of India’s National Literacy Mission (NLM) programme, the RLEK was able to help 21,000 adults from the Van Gujjar tribe become literate. In 1998, in recognition of the outstanding contribution of its adult literacy programme, RLEK was awarded the UNESCO-NLM award for literacy. Moreover, the Indian Government has selected Kaushal’s organisation to run a State Resource Centre for Adult Education, for the entire Garhwal and Kumaon region. The Centre will provide training to the various Governmental as well as Non Governmental Organisations and will assist them in material preparation, monitoring and evaluation. YXC has imagined some questions to ask Avadesh Kaushal about the keys of such a success...
Why did you address your literacy programme specifically to Van Gujjars? Unlike other Himalayan nomadic tribes that have a village base from where they practise 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. Thus isolated from civilisation for six months of the year, the tribe has been deprived of the benefits of state-run education programmes.
..so you created an innovative literacy programme to join these remote people… Yes… Certain that the Van Gujjars would not attend schools, we decided to take the schools to them.
But spreading literacy among a nomadic pastoral community is not an easy task, not least because of the logistics involved. How did you deal with such difficulties? To overcome this major impediment, we designed an innovative literacy programme. A ‘forest academy’, 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 are 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. Moreover, a mobile library which does the rounds of the Van Gujjar settlements keeps neo-literates supplied with reading material and helps them hone their skills.
Modern education is sometime seen as opposite to traditional knowledge. How did you persuade Van Gujjars of the fact that modern education won’t mean disturbing their social and cultural ethos? How did you convince them of the importance of literacy for their children? The mission began with an adult literacy programme, in contrast to the approach to literacy programmes across the globe, where child education initiatives come first. In fact, we believe that the sustainability of child education programmes is better achieved if adults in the community realise the importance of literacy and education for their children, and wholeheartedly support the same. Our adult education programme helped in the growing realisation that education was all-pervasive and had a key role to play even in their pastoral lifestyle. The books and teaching materials used in the programmes are context-specific, with examples from the daily lives of the Van Gujjars. Stories revolve 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. Moreover, we opened two schools for children with buildings resembling deras and their traditional dress as uniform. Here, children read Mathematics, English and Hindi. The misconception that education would lead to the disruption of their traditional habits was obliterated.
What is the goal of the initiative? The thrust of this ambitious initiative 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 citizens under the Indian Constitution. That’s why after completing its total literacy (TL) and post literacy (PL) campaigns, our organisation is now running a community empowerment (CE) programme. Presently, we run 43 CE centres and five nodal centres...
Do you feel the goal has been reached? I think we have achieved some good results. Gujjars were often duped by forest officials and moneylenders. Now they can add and subtract and know how much money they have to get from a trader who buys their milk. They can negotiate the rates too. Literacy has made the tribes conscious of their rights and given them the tools for fighting off the corrupt forest bureaucracy. Today they are capable of independently writing applications to the district authorities, and filing their nomination papers for elections. Their horizons have expanded, with some of them attending seminars in Brazil, Sweden and Denmark. But, above all, thanks to the success of the initiative and international recognition of our work in the field of literacy, we have demonstrated that the settlement of nomadic populations is not at all necessary in order to provide them with the benefits of literacy and education.
What are your plans for the future? Today, we are working in the field of education; there are so many pockets in Uttaranchal* without schools. Because of geographical isolation children have to walk 12 km on tough, hilly terrain to attend school. So many parents don't send their children and the dropout rate is high. We are now taking schools to them. It's a daunting task and calls for great energy and time. Let me finish this first, and then I will take up something else!
*Northern Indian region.