In 1979, when Pink Floyd sang "We don't need no education", I thought they were speaking for me. Twenty-two years later, standing on a dusty campus in faraway Ladakh I realised that here were kids more unfortunate than me—who had probably not even heard the song—for whom the reality was starker.
Welcome to Ladakh—the largest district of the country, where the average pass percentage in the all-important matriculation exam in the 300-odd schools has oscillated between 0 and 5 per cent for the past 54 years. The winds of change have, however, begun sweeping this remote land forgotten by the triumphant forces of progress, thanks to the tireless efforts made by the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (secmol), an ngo trying to improve the lot of Ladakhi students.
Formed in 1988 by a small group of enthusiastic youth—who had themselves experienced the harrowing education system and had emerged from it—secmol was determined to change the fate of thousands of students being crushed by the burden of a dark future in the schools of Ladakh. Having had the good fortune to pursue their higher studies outside Ladakh, they'd attained the mental distance needed to figure out that when 95 per cent of the students were dubbed "failures", the fault probably lay not with the students but with the system.
It all began with free-of-cost coaching classes for the students, supplemented by vocational training for dropouts. But Sonam Wangchuk, secmol's driving force, soon realised that the malaise was deeper as only some were doing well. The need was to revamp the entire educational structure. Informal discussions, where youngsters exorcised their own bitter experiences in these schools, soon hit upon the most glaring anomaly: the abrupt change in the medium of instruction from one non-Ladakhi language (Urdu), till class eight, to another (English), in class ninth.
Native Ladakhi wasn't part of the curriculum at all. The "enviro-culturally" irrelevant curriculum was the next stumbling block. How was a child—with a life spent entirely in 11,000-foot high arid mountains, among apricots and yaks—to conceive of rain-drenched forests and coconut groves? The alienation was made worse by improperly trained teachers, mostly non-Ladakhis, who only added to the children's woes by castigating them for their inability—being a part of a "primitive tribe"—to comprehend the teachings of an "advanced society". The teachers also didn't receive much support from the parents, resulting in little community participation.
It was here that secmol stepped in. In 1991, it started a training programme for teachers at the Government High School in Saspol, a tiny village on the Leh-Srinagar highway. The programme was kept under wraps and it was only when the results started coming in that the authorities took notice. By then secmol volunteers had succeeded in organising a sizeable number of villages to take over their respective schools through Village Education Committees (vec). A silent pedagogic revolution had begun. Of course, as Wangchuk asserts: "We never wanted to set up a parallel educational system. We preferred to work within the existing structure and reform it from within." Today, after working with 300 schools, his efforts are paying off. At Saspol High School, a record 48 per cent cleared matriculation last year.
At their centrally solar-heated "alternative campus" in Phey, situated at the end of a nondescript bylane that branches off from the highway leading onto a spectacular bend in the Indus—secmol has already trained nearly 1,000 government school teachers and organised summer camps for more than 1,500 students from all over Ladakh. Here volunteers from all over the world help the students unlearn their sense of loss and pick up the much needed self-confidence and cultural awareness essential for surviving in adverse circumstances. If you want to be one of them, get in touch with secmol near Hill Council Complex, PO Box 4, Leh 194 101. Tel: 01982-52 421. e-mail: email@example.com.
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