Rubina didi is 22 years old. She’s the same age as me but her experience with life instigates a deep sense of respect in me. It’s 5.30 in the evening and we’re one hour away from closing the shop. She looks at me with enthusiasm and asks if we can study now.
Didi is one of the few women employed on a retainer system at Mahila Umang Producers Company. She manages the showroom of House of Umang in village Naini, Uttarakhand. She has finished her intermediate (pre-university) course in finance, but can barely spell the word itself. Understanding the language of urbane customers from the plains often becomes an embarrassing task.
Hailing from Delhi myself, I hadn’t until this experience realized how naturally the English language is woven into our mental and emotional development – it is a part of daily shenanigans and borders social propriety. But here I met didi, who would talk with a glint in her eye, wondering what it would be like to not have to guess the customers’ needs solely on her expertise in sales operations.
The main reason why she and others like her fall behind in communication skills are because the educational system in hill communities is lax. Didi is a resident of Majkhali, a small village near Ranikhet. She has a younger sister who has been promoted to 8th grade this year. This means looking for a new school that offers secondary-level education. Most government schools in this area are irregular; non-governmental schools offer education only up till the primary level, and private schools with quality secondary and senior secondary education are way out of the budget and reach of the Kumaoni locals.
Things are better now, but as a child, Rubina didi‘s mornings often started by climbing the hilltop to gather wood with her father. The bundles were heavy; the path was steep. But if mother was down there collecting water from the naula 6 km away, the least she could do was help her father arrange warmth and fire for food. Today, the number of earning members in the family has increased. Employment opportunity, however, remains volatile. The youngest daughter of the house has been facilitated with education so she can read, write, speak and study other subjects well. But till when can she retain that if the educational structure is taken away?
Didi settles for Beershiva School in Majkhali. Of the 5000 rupees she earns as salary, 3000 is going to go in her sister’s monthly tuition now (until the pandemic hits again and paying even that becomes impossible). Quality is not even a matter of conversation, as consistent teaching and equipped campuses are something did has never witnessed herself in her 22 years of existence. At least the school is accessible. With all members of the house being adults with full-time jobs, there is no one available to pick and drop the sister to and from a farther off school. Classes are currently running online. If you were to witness one, the incompetence of otherwise sheer-willed teachers would become immediately apparent.
Education in mountainous regions like the Himalayas presents a unique set of challenges.
During my internship at House of Umang, I spent the last one hour with Rubina didi reading 4 pages of an English novel every day. We would study grammar, expand vocabulary, and converse in English. She is much more confident now, and the customers are much more satisfied with the service. She is even considering looking for a better-paying job, as she believes she is capable of at least can be. All she hopes for now is that her sister does not have to go through the break-in studying this important tool. Who would help her catch up then?
Most of the well/formally educated youth resort to the plains for higher standards of living and better income opportunities. Hence, the manpower left in the mountains is the complacent lot that believes in juicing out the terrain for sustenance overusing education to further the development of posterity.
The need of the hour is to make consistent quality education accessible to the minute villages of such mountain communities. The youth of these areas need to be exposed to not just livelihood skills, but also tools like communication skills to sustain a quality of living and professional interaction in the real world. Projects like the Uttarakhand State Rural Livelihoods Mission (USRLM) need to involve skills of dynamic teaching and sustainable learning for the youth.
While governmental and non-governmental forces have brought about immense development in the educational scenario of populated hill stations like Ranikhet, it is the remoter and poorer villages that are in more dire need of such benefits. Quality of education is not up to the mark and terrain-specific responsibilities loom large. There is immense potential and sheer determination in the people here, but not the means to invest, attract, or demand.
Feature image is for representational purposes only.