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Shala praveshotsav myth explodes in Gujarat’s backward Little Rann of Kutch

By Rajiv Shah 
The state-sponsored child enrollment drive, shala praveshotsav, stressed on enrolling children from the backward sections in Gujarat. Interview with a few social workers suggests how it would have no lasting impact on educating kids belonging to the backward rural areas surrounding the Little Rann of Kutch.
Even as the din around the three-day state-sponsored shala praveshotsav, which has claimed cent per cent enrolment at the primary level in Gujarat, is starting to fade, questions are being raised on how to retain those who have been enrolled. A case in point is enrollment of children during the festival in the rural areas that surround the Little Rann of Kutch. The praveshotsav took place in all the 108 villages that border the Little Rann. Helped by community based organizations and voluntary agencies, nearly all village children were, indeed, “enrolled”. But, apparently, this appears to the end of the roadmap for these small kids. Already, the view is getting strong that most of these children “would not be able to continue schooling”, as the agariya season begins. Around 14,000 saltpan workers, along with their families, including kids, would move deep into the Little Rann of Kutch to produce salt in September, and this would bring about a grinding halt to the children’s education, too.

The issue is not new, though today it acquires relevance in the context of implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, under which the government is obliged to provide every child primary school education up to the eighth standard. Implemented late in Gujarat, in February 2012, indifference towards RTE is nowhere more visible than vis-à-vis the agariya children. An experiment which began several years ago – under which Rann Shalas as extensions of the regular schools would operate to take care of education of the kids who moved to the Little Rann – has come to a grinding halt. While lower primary children would get regular schooling in these Rann Shalas, village hostels began to operate for children to go to schools at the upper primary level. This was somewhat successful, especially in the Rann area next to Surendranagar district. However, local social workers confirm, the experiment, though remaining on paper, is “as good as dead”. 
In fact, an endless effort has begun to pass the buck on who should do the job of providing education to the children who move with their parents deep in the Little Rann. Says Ghanshyam Zula of the Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch (AHRM), “In September, hundreds of children from villages in Santalpur area in Patan district and Adesar area of Kutch district, where I work, will start arriving with their parents in the Little Rann to start producing salt, their only means of livelihood. These children will remain with their parents in the Little Rann till April, till salt is produced and sold to unscrupulous traders. These children, already admitted in different village schools, will be at the mercy of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)-run extremely poor quality make-shift schools, where 10th the 12th pass Bal Mitras are made to teach them. While at most places even they are quite erratic, these Bal Mitras’ main job is to bring dropped out children back to the mainstream, yet they are made to teach agariya children, who are already enrolled. With no ability to teach, and poorly paid, Bal Mitras provide these children with virtually no education.”
Things are not very different in other parts surrounding the Little Rann. Another social worker, Marutsinh Baraiya, who works in Malia region bordering the Little Rann, says, “It is the job of the government official, district education officer (DEO), to ensure that children are mainstreamed into schooling when they reach the Little Rann with their parents. However, instead of providing regular teachers, the DEO says, it should be the job of the SSA, a Central government scheme to fight school dropout, to run schools. The government puts most of the children in the school dropout category, which is incorrect. The SSA, on its part, provides Bal Mitras instead of regular teachers, and says that in case non-government organizations come forward to do the education job, they would be ready to help out with funds. We think, under the RTE, you just cannot evade giving education to children like this.” He adds, “What is even more disconcerting is the fact that the government has not cared to carry out any survey about the plight of these children.”
A third social worker, Bharat Samera, who works in the Surendranagar region, points towards the way the officialdom neglects education for the children of the Little Rann. “Each make-shift school, where the Bal Mitras come to teach, are sanctioned Rs 30,000 for six months. Out of this, Rs 18,000 go to the Bal Mitras, who stay in the vicinity to teach the children, while the rest goes for the upkeep of these so-called schools. One can well imagine what can be done with such pittance. Worse, while regular schools provide midday meal, the agariya children in the Little Rann are are deprived of it. The SSA officials say, it is not their job to provide midday meal to children, while the regular school system is refusing to enter the area. At some places, chiki (sweet) and biscuits are distributed in lieu of regular meal. Obviously, you cannot make children survive on such items for the whole day.” Samera adds, ”Often these makeshift schools start very late, as late as December, and wind up in April. One can well imagine what would happen to education to the children in this duration.”
Pankti Jog, a senior activist with the Ahmedabad-based NGO, Janpath, who has been working with saltpan workers for long, says, the entire agariya community faces neglect, whether it is education or health. She says, “It is not just education. Womenfolk, including pregnant women, of nearly 14,000 agariya families are refused any healthcare in the entire area. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), under which infants should be provided with all the basic healthcare facilities free of cost, including vaccines, does exist not for them. In fact, there is no facility for vaccination. There are no anganwadis. The children grow up as malnourished kids, and have little or no option to diversify into other occupations once they age. The vicious cycle, of becoming agariyas, awaits them. The government appears least concerned either with their education or health.”
Meanwhile, as the table here suggests, wide prevalent of illiteracy would mean that the agaraiyas are simply incapable of tackling their backwardness in which they are mired.

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