Beneath a tranquil sky in the deceptive calm of a stunningly picturesque landscape, little children squat on bare ground, clutching their colorful text books. This is the border village of Keerni in Poonch District of Jammu, and the young students are in the open-air 'classroom' of their government school.
Their days are unaffected by the recent media hype around the killing of soldiers in the vicinity; there are other distractions that occupy them, such as waiting for a teacher to turn up.
Keerni is one of many villages severely affected by the decades-old conflict at the northwestern border. The development of the villages has been a victim of collateral damage. The perhaps among the worst casualties are the dreams of the little children and their aspirations.
Keerni is located at the base of the mountain range that makes it particularly susceptible to firing from across the border. The worst year, villagers recall, was 2000 when, in the aftermath of Kargil War, there was heavy exchange of fire across the Line of Control with frightening regularity as the hostilities between two countries saw an unprecedented surge.
For security reasons, armed forces vacated the entire village. The village got the appendage "Barbaad Keerni" during the decade and lay abandoned. The Indian forces reclaimed the village and permitted its habitation only in 2011. The village is now surrounded by a fence (technically called the Anti -Infiltration Obstacle System) with high security check at the gates that connect the village to rest of the state and country at large, constructed to check cross border illegal activities after the Kargil War.
The long years when the village lay abandoned destroyed what little infrastructure that had been.
"There were two schools in our village, a primary and a middle school. Both were destroyed during this period, either blasted by militants or damaged in cross border shelling. Neither has been reconstructed yet. Classes in the primary school, seldom held due to poor weather conditions or frequent absence of the teacher, do no good. Worse, this erratic exposure to education erodes their faith in its benefits. They simply drop off," says Nazam Din Mir, one of only two young men in this village who has been able to complete their graduation.
Nazam is pursuing a Masters degree, breaking stereotypes about the aspirations of the youth in this remote part of the country.
After the village was resettled, the middle school was shifted across the fence to Qasba. Students have to travel long distances and pass through stringent security checks to and from school. As there are no female security guards at the fence, parents are reluctant to send their daughters to the middle school. There is need for special focus in providing education for girls .
Educational institutions facing the brunt of violence is not new. The trend goes back to the early 1990s when militants would often burn village schools and successfully create an atmosphere of fear that kept an entire generation of children away from schools. Several efforts of the government were directed to restore faith in the education system among students and parents alike. Today, the buildings are being repaired, teacher-student ratios are improving, enrolment is rising and so is the literacy rate. But problems persist.
My visit to a village fifteen kilometres from Poonch town proved to be an eye-opener. "I send my children to the academy because the quality of education offered by Government school is quite poor," says Razia Begum of Chontra Village.
According to Mohammad Bashir, a lecturer by profession, "The problem begins from the primary level. Although the schoolteachers of the primary schools are locals, they share no empathy for their fellow villagers. The very sanctity of the education system is violated when teachers aim only for money and not for their pupils' success."
Many villagers have complained that teachers come to school only to collect their salaries. The appointed teachers have divided their work to suit their convenience. One by one, they take turns to come to school to mark their attendance. On an average, a teacher comes to school only once or twice a week.
"The children of these teachers are studying in the most well -known schools of the district. There should be a law that directs the teachers of the government school to admit their children in government schools only. This is the only way to make them work efficiently," suggested Begum.
The sensitivity towards the education must come from the locals themselves. In the past, thousands of the students who were deprived of their basic right to education became potential recruits for militant outfits. Today, though the situation is not that grim, the lessons of the past must not be forgotten.
Rabia Kouser, a little five year old angel of Azam and his wife Parveez Akhter, goes to her neighbor's house everyday to do their daily chores like washing clothes, utensils and cleaning up of the house and has been doing so for quite some time now. Her parents, who grew up in the years of militancy, were not able to get an education. Their lack of awareness is pushing their daughter towards a similar fate.
The conflict that led to the fallouts in the education system in the state has now taken a backseat. Sadly, other social ills have replaced them: child labor, unemployment, ignorance, depression and distrust of the government are continuing to take a toll on the people in the border areas.
In this post-militancy phase, the reconciliation between the past and present is imperative. It may take several years for the wounds to heal, but a sincere effort is necessary for a promising beginning.
The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that it is not the task of governments along to promote this process, but it is equally important for communities to come forward, not only to demand their right but also to extend a hand to help themselves.
From: News Track India