Chopans, A disadvantaged community- II

In my previous article I tried to explain in detail the kind of challenges Kashmiri Shepherds (Chopans) face while they start moving from their villages up init the pastures. I also explained how this nomadic community was deprived of scheduled tribe status (ST) in spite of the fact that Chopans are tribal in real sense. In this write-up I will explain in detail how the children of Chopan community have been deprived of basic school education by the non-seriousness of the Government.

The Jammu & Kashmir Government in late 1970s envisaged an educational programme for the nomadic Bakerwal population by creating dozens of Mobile Schools. For many years the Mobile Schools were working perfectly well, but after the onset of armed struggle in 1990, the mobile schools in J&K could not function properly. Moreover these schools could not cater the needs of other communities like Gujjars and Chopans. Around year 2003 the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Syed came up with an idea of starting Seasonal Schools which were to take care of educational needs of Kashmiri shepherd (Chopans) and some Gujjar population that also migrated to their local pastureland. These mobile seasonal schools were made operational in almost all the districts that had enough Gujjar and Chopan population. In fact I had a chance to visit such schools in Yusmarg-Branwar of Budgam way back in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and they were functioning quite efficiently.

How seasonal schools operate?

When government started mobile seasonal schools around 2003-2004, local unemployed educated youth were hired as Educational Volunteers through the respective Zonal Educational Offices(ZEOs). Each educational volunteer was paid Rs 4000  monthly remuneration. A seasonal school was set up for each Bahak/Pastureland. In Chadoora zone there are 11 seasonal schools operating in bakahs and forest areas of Chezkaen Naad, Ayud, Mech khanain, Gudkhal, Lisspathri, Haijan, Mondikhal and surrounding areas. Similarly in Khansahib zone there are around 40 seasonal schools operational in pasturelands of Ashtaar, Corag, Diskhal, Dan Deran, Chanz, Burzukhori and many other areas.

For 5 to 6 years the seasonal schools were working quite efficiently but when the Government didn’t increase the remuneration of the educational volunteers they became disinterested. The seasonal schools in upper reaches became nonoperational and I was told by shepherds in Corag that for the last 4 years the seasonal school in their area have not been functional. When I spoke to an educational volunteer (name withheld), he told me that the government is totally disinterested in making seasonal schools work.

“We get mere Rs 4000 to work in such harsh conditions. Even labourers get Rs 450 per day. Only a handful of volunteers got tents last year, poneywala charges Rs 3000 to carry our baggage to areas like Corag or Dan Deran. Kids are not provided stationery or Mid Day Meal (MDM), it is pathetic”, he said

On the one side salary of government teachers was hiked under 6th and 7th pay commission but these poor volunteers are continued to be paid mere Rs 4000 per month. Ironically even till date the remuneration hasn’t been hiked which exposes the intentions of the government? Most of the seasonal schools only operate on papers and the ultimate victims have been the children of Chopans, and some Gujjars as well. The Gujjar population which migrates to nearby Bahaks still had some seasonal schools operational during previous years but in the upper reaches where Chopans live for 3 months, seasonal schools don’t work at all.

Muneer, a school dropout:

In Corag pastureland I met a very handsome shepherd boy namely Muneer Ahmad Chopan. Muneer, a 16 year old boy, is a school dropout. He left his studies after passing class VII to help his father Aziz Chopan. When I asked Aziz why he could not persuade his son to continue his studies, Aziz said he wanted a helping hand.

“Due to no reservation in higher education and jobs Chopans feel dejected. We, like other villagers of our areas fall under backward area category, but it is of no use to us as people living near cities take its benefit and we get nothing. We could have been benefited with ST category but that is denied to us in spite of being nomads” Aziz told me.

I fully agree with Aziz Chopan. Muneer’s village Jabbad Branwar in Chadoora sub division  is located 42 kms from Srinagar and falls under Reserve Backward Area (RBA) category, but  there are many villages like Buchroo, Rupora N amthal in Chadoora which are mere 13 to 16 kms from Srinagar city and have been enlisted as RBA areas for last 40 years. Mandatory periodic review was never undertaken. Many kids in these areas are enrolled in Biscoe, Presentation Convent & Burn Hall schools which are the elite schools in Srinagar. How is it possible for a shepherd boy like Muneer to compete with them? The only way out is to include this disadvantaged community under scheduled tribe (ST) category.

Chopan Entrepreneurs:

Educated Chopan youth can become best entrepreneurs. They have vast experience in sheep rearing but they only lack education and have no access to credit facilities. Educated boys and girls from the Chopan community can continue with their work as professionals after completing their college and university education. They can avail credit and subsidizes available with government like Seed Capital Fund scheme of Entrepreneur Development Institute (EDI). Once they get the money, Chopan youth can have their own sheep and create big sheep farms in addition to taking care of sheep belonging to farmers. Educated Chopan community can create a huge sheep industry in J&K. I want to ask the Government how many youth from Chopan community have availed the seed capital fund from EDI Srinagar? I don’t think even 50 sheep farms have been set up by educated youth from this community during the last 10 years ?

If MBAs and highly educated youth can set up sheep farms, why can’t we mobilize Chopan youth to opt for this business? We can; but education is the prerequisite for having modern sheep farms. So the sarcastic comments which many of us make about Pohul (Chopan) should not be uttered in future. We should not tell our kids “ Teer Cheeye Ratcheen, Pohul Cheya Banun”. This is a very respected profession.

Conclusion

Seasonal schools must be made operational so that migratory Chopan kids don’t get deprived of education. If regular teachers have started community schools in some Bahaks / Pasturelands recently why have seasonal schools not made operational this season? Let authorities explain why the seasonal schools are not working in pasturelands  like Ashtar, Corag, Chaz Kani Naad in Budgam and bahaks of other districts? Will the government also explain why the Mid Day Meals (MDM) were not supplied to seasonal schools for many years & why the remuneration of educational volunteers has not been increased in the last 17 years ?

To be continued ….

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder / Chairman J&K RTI Movement. He is also an Acumen Fellow