Best of the both worlds for all

Poor children double up as pupils, shepherds

ALOMIT

Cowherds are doubling up in Bihar and Jharkhand. They have enrolled themselves in primary schools to beat down hunger with mid-day meals and tend cows and buffaloes to feed the family.

This ‘doubling game’ has also warmed the cockles of the hearts of the two governments. School enrolments have swelled to touch the magic figures. Thus, the officials earn laurels for the magic figure and the ‘cowherds’ mid-day meals. The result is there: The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has praised the two states for their school enrolments. Over 95 per cent children in the age group of six to 14 years have been enrolled in Bihar and Jharkhand, the report said.

The doubling-up miracle is also reflected in the ASER prepared by the NGO Pratham. The report said: “Even after five years in schools, close to half of all children in Bihar are not even at the level expected of them after two years in schools. Only 53.4 per cent of children in Class 5 could read a Class 2 level text”. Higher enrolment, poor performance! There has been a sharp fall in children’s ability to do simple maths. The ratio of Class 1 children who could recognise numbers from 1 to 9 crashed from 69.3 per cent in 2009 to 65.8 per cent in 2010.

People keeping close vigil on the school enrolments and status of primary and middle education, however, compared the scenario with family planning operations data during the dark days of Emergency. The bureaucracy then had churned out astronomical figures of sterilised men and women, though these ‘achievements’ were not reflected in the population growth figures that continued to swell faster than in the past.

The economics of this ‘doubling-up game’ is simple. Poverty and unemployment is all pervasive in the rural areas of Bihar and Jharkhand. Even the Centre’s flagship welfare programme, Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Manrega), has not succeeded in making a dent into the unemployment graph. Mounting corruption has almost maimed the Manrega. The three-year successive droughts in the two states have rather accelerated the flight of labour forces. It is beside the point that Manrega has made workforce scarce for farming operations.

The economics

A cowherd gets a minimum of Rs. 30-40 per cow or buffalo per month for tending work. On an average a boy tends around 60 cattle. In many villages the cowherds are paid 40 kgs of rice and wheat per animal for a year. Their income accrual comes to 2400 kgs in kind or around Rs. 22 thousand in cash. Many of boys and girls also rear and tend goats. An elderly Paswan in a Rohtas village gave ‘disarming’ arguments and said: Our children are assets and earning members of the family. Should we ‘surrender’ this income and get them educated to join unemployment market?

This ‘economics’ had also nipped the ‘Charwaha Vidyalayas’, a much hyped literacy plan of former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad. The ‘Charwaha Vidyalaya’ (cowherd school) had earned world acclaim for its ‘innovative nature’. The scheme was launched in December, 1991, with much fanfare. The project was even appreciated by the UNICEF. The aim was to impart basic education to children of poor peasants, who supplemented their parents’ meagre income by cattle-herding. ‘Earn while you learn’ was the motto. The concept envisaged that children bring their herd to the Charwaha Vidyalaya and learn while their animals grazed in the fields attached to the schools. Some lofty promises had attracted the poor children to schools. But the Charwaha Vidyalayas became an end in itself and died a sudden death.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, however, succeeded where his bete noir Lalu Prasad had failed. The charm of mid-day meal and free school uniforms have swelled the primary schools and cycle, dress and other attractions made poor students cling to middle schools. Matar Yadav, 12 years, of village Bandu in Rohtas district’s Nauhatta block ‘reads’ in the local middle school. He gets ready at 8 am and carries big cans of milk on a cycle to the mithaiwala, some 4 kms. By 10 am he goes to his alma mater. Once the mid-day meal is served, he runs to the fallow land to graze his herd over of 60-70 cows and buffaloes and remains there till the dusk. Matar relieves his elder brother to go home for his day meal.

Fourteen-year-old Akaash and his 12-year-old brother Vikas are the ‘earning’ members of this family of Kanchanpur village in Katkamsandi block in Hazaribagh district of the tribal state of Jharkhand. The youngsters graze cattle belonging to local villagers, who often remain busy tending their crops. In return, each of them gets 40kg foodgrains (rice and wheat) per animal for a year. Every morning, Vikas and Akaash reach a field of a government school, where more than 120 cows wait for them. Thereafter, they take the cattle 10 km away to reach a ground near Charwa dam where the cows are left to graze till the evening.

They bare the economics of the trade. “My brother and I don’t need to go to school. We earn enough foodgrains to feed our family and we are quite happy”, Akaash said and added they also earned about Rs 100 a day by selling cow dung. “We go to Charwa with lunch every day. We play while cattle graze in the field. Their father, Rajkumar, said he never had to bother about buying foodgrains from the market once his sons picked up the ‘job’ of grazing cattle. His verdict is: “Sending my sons to schools will not yield any result. I know they will not become officers. It is better they work and help me run the household”.

These two stories, quoted above, are quite symptomatic of the status of primary education in the two states. The picture in each and every village is the same, albeit with a tinge of local conditions. Girls too double up and divide their time between attending schools and doing the job of domestic help.

Charwaha Vidyalaya concept

Meanwhile, Charwaha Vidyalayas now remain buried under the dust of time. Little has changed around it. Cattle-grazers still go there in groups and spend their time on the campus as the cattle graze. They hardly have any time to look at the building that was once conceptualised as the Charwaha Vidyalaya to provide education to underprivileged children. Musahid (11), a Class VI student of a government school a few kilometres away, said: “I used to study here when I was in Class II. Then, the teachers stopped coming. So the students too dropped out. I was out of school for nearly a year. Then, my father admitted me to the government school”. A villager said the school provided education to children from families with scanty income. It incorporated the system of “earn while you learn” by allowing the children to tend to the flocks that they brought out for grazing, while attending classes.

At some places the schools were running fine. Children used to come with their cattle and attend classes. Then the teachers stopped coming suddenly and the school closed down. Nandu Ram (8), a resident of a village in north Bihar said: “My father does not have a regular job and earns very little. I have five brothers and three sisters. What can I do? I have to work”. He tends cattle of some well-to-do families of Harsen Moganpur village in Vaishali district and ‘earns Rs 10 from the each of the four families ‘Kya karoon? Kaam toh karna hi parega! ‘(What can I do? I have to work).

It may be noted here that Charwaha Vidyalayas were opened in the ‘seed multiplication farm’ land of the Agriculture department in blocks. Many considered the Charwaha school concept as a retrograde step as it had killed the government efforts to propagate scientific farming through practical demonstrations to farmers. And now the Charwaha Vidyalayas are all set to become agriculture schools for farmers.

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