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Little Naaz becomes voice for education to Children of Jammu and Kashmir

Binny Yadav

Education in Jammu and Kashmir: When an eight-year-old child takes away her mother’s mobile phone to watch cartoons but instead ends up making a video of the crumbling state of her school and appeals to no less than the prime minister of her country, to intervene for the sake of education, it was not only the power of digital media that the girl knew well would help her, but also reflects how she understands well that a good education is a tool to an empowered future.

Naaz, a student of class three, in the Kathua region of Jammu, in India, is the star ever since her viral video led to Jammu’s Director of School Education, visiting her school. In another video post the visit of the director of education, Naaz confirmed the visit was at the behest of “Modi Sir”, the Prime Minister of India, who she said is  “getting the school repaired”.

Naaz, the elder of two sisters who wants to become an IAS officer, is definitely not an isolated story of an overzealous child but represents the story and deprivation of every child who grew up in the region of Jammu and Kashmir which reeled through decades of militancy where education has been one of the most compromised basic needs. Her passion for education reflects the dream that every child of Jammu and the Kashmir region cherishes but hardly sees these coming true. A viral video shows the crumbled state of one school and one child but should be taken as a representation of the state of almost every school and every child of the Jammu and Kashmir region.

Way back in 2017, I visited Srinagar and many villages through the route of Sonamarg and Ganderbal connecting Kargil and Drass. My visit, which was planned after the spate of stone pelting protests’ in 2016, reflected strongly how the children and youth of the state have suffered due to almost “non-existing” education facilities as termed by the locals especially those residing in remote areas as Kathua, where Naaz shot her video.

Visiting various schools right from the Srinagar region to the remote areas of Baniwal and Ganderbal to the schools in the villages like Sarbal, situated on the last border post of India had a similar story to tell about the dilapidated state of affairs of education. Interestingly and surprisingly, the most striking commonality was how every child especially the girls had only three professions to choose from-teacher, doctor and an IAS officer in the order of preference.

Although we have witnessed many moons since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, development issues which marred the region haven’t changed much since. When the entire region was shut down for “security reasons” every bit of the population including the children was home-bound for months without the basics of education leaving apart the freedom to play outdoors.

Schools have been the easiest targets in terrorist-torn J&K and hence, education, besides human lives, has been the biggest casualties. In 2016 alone, 26 to 30 schools were blown off by the terrorists after the violence followed by the killing of Burhan Wani until a division bench took a Suo Moto cognizance and directed the authorities “ to devise modes and methods which will be effective in protecting schools” while maintaining that “ education is the main factor for intellectual excellence and prosperity”. Who else would understand this statement made by the Jammu and Kashmir Judges better than the children in Kashmir valley who have to miss school not days but for months? In 2019, schools were shut down immediately after the abrogation of Article 370 due to security reasons from August 5 onwards but the children did not return to classes even when schools reopened in October that year, followed by long and unprecedented closures due to Covid 19. That is why education is considered to be the biggest casualty in the region and this is well taken into the system of the children who are desperate to lead a normal life like any other children of their age in the world would have.

Speaking to children in a school in Sarbal, the village which is the last habited post on the Indian side of the Kashmir border with Pakistan,  I had a chance to look at the paintings by the children of this remote school. Ironically enough, the paintings were not of the hills, the mountains, the river or the hut which they were surrounded by but of the school-going children driving to their school on the roads surrounded by high rises, or the city centres, or the life in the city. The paintings were a vivid reflection of how these children viewed their future to be. And they know that it is only possible through none but education.  These children of Sarbal although have their primary school within their village but have to cross a rickety bridge over the Sindhu river to reach higher secondary school which is around 15 kilometres away (as per the status in 2017)

The ricketty bridge leading to school (Pic Credit: Binny Yadav)

Naaz, therefore, proudly represents the bigger aspirations that the children of Jammu and Kashmir want to achieve through education.

Problems of education in Kashmir schools

During visits to the towns and villages of the Jammu and Kashmir regions, I could broadly sum up the problems in the education system of the area. Terrorism apart, shortage of teachers especially for the schools in remote areas, low payments and stressed manpower, long distances to schools, poor connectivity, and thin availability of schooling options beyond the primary levels are major problems.

Like Little Naaz, I chanced upon a young duo of siblings walking during the morning hours with school bags on their shoulders on the road toward Sonamarg. I slowed down to talk to them and they requested me to give them a ride to their school. A boy aged 14 and his sister aged eight travelled daily 12 to 13 kilometres to and fro school. Getting a lift from the travellers on the road is what they look forward to and they jump on the opportunity. Barring a few, who have a school in the vicinity of their village most children have to walk down many kilometres daily to get their primary education.

Reaching the school covering long distances is just one of the many problems impacting education in this region. Many schools have only a single teacher doubling up as the principal too. The story doesn’t end here. Facilities and classrooms in these primary schools are so minuscule that a single teacher has to manage many classes simultaneously. One school behind the rows of tourists guest houses and resting places at the junction of Sonmarg road connecting Kargil, although had a school in close proximity of the village but one classroom had the students of classes 3, 4, and 5 and the teacher rotates himself among these students keeping other engaged while he is taking up lessons of one class. The students had no complaints, and most of them still had dreams of becoming a teacher or a doctor.

A teacher in Kashmir managing two different classes at a time (Pic Credit: Binny Yadav)

Why do most of these children want to become teachers or doctors? They see how their teachers are managing to teach them in all the adverse times and conditions. These children are not happy like their counterparts in another part of the country when their teacher is absent and the students get unannounced off but are worried for the safety of their teachers, many of whom travel long distances in these remote schools by walking or cycling as public transport is difficult.  This is also the reason behind the low attendance of the teachers or single teachers doubling up for many roles in the school. The first thing most of these teachers do after getting the job is to try for a posting near their home or the city.

The other problem is a big number of school dropouts after primary schooling. Parents pull their wards off the school because they have no facility to send them to the secondary or senior secondary schools which are far off from their villages. Although the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in higher secondary and Secondary schools increased to 10 per cents between the period of 2018-22 as per the Unified District Information System, the gap is still wide in the ratio of students between primary and secondary and higher secondary schooling. According to the data available to the media, GER in 2018-19 in J&K in higher secondary level was 42.4 per cent and in 2021-22 it increased to 53.2 per cent and for the secondary level, in 2021-22, it increased to 60.5 per cent against 2018-19’s 58.1 per cent.

The above figures may reflect a positive picture but the story of the remaining 40 to 60 per cent dropouts is still a big gap to be filled and poses a big challenge for the fifth biggest economy that is India.

While an undaunted task the little girl like Naaz undertook to reveal the bad condition of her school and get the attention of the PM through viral video, this also is thrown as a challenge to the central government’s strong push for education especially the education of girls with their campaigns like…” Beti Bachao Beti Paghao” (Save Girls child and educate her). The voice of little Naaz should be taken up as the voice of thousands of children of Jammu and Kashmir who deserve better education and a life that other children of their age get in other parts of the country.

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