Education against all odds

Imagine that you are a seven-year old girl living under the following conditions:

– You live half a year deep into the forest with a two hours walk to nearest village, and half a year in the Himalayas
– Two times a year, you are migrating with your family by foot for twenty days to the mid-range Himalayas in order to graze your buffalos
– Together with your brother, you have the responsibility to take care of the family’s ten buffalos, three goats and your three-year-old sister when your parents and older siblings are away in the forest lopping trees for fodder for the cattle.

In Jeddra kohl in Uttarakhand, on the border to Uttar Pradesh, there are since three months back fifteen to twenty Van Gujjar children challenging these unfavourable conditions by going to school almost each and every day.

Kids in Jeddra kohl lining up for the daily mid-meal provided freely as stated by the Right to Education Act.
Kids in Jeddra kohl lining up for the daily mid-meal provided freely as stated by the Right to Education Act
… and the same kids having their dal and rice in the school yard
… and the same kids having their much sought after dal and rice in the school yard

Under the Right to Education act, enacted by the government in 2009, every child in India between the ages of 6-14 have a right to free education. The government is also responsible to survey areas and identify how many children there are in the area and the provide facilities according to these numbers. But the record of providing accessible schools to the Van Gujjars has been poor. In addition to the one in Jeddra kohl, only three more schools are supposed to cover the whole Van Gujjar population of Uttarakhand.

The start up of another of the four schools, in Choti Karondi kohl on the border to the state of Himachal Pradesh, has been in strong alignment with SOPHIA’s rights-based approach of not running schools themselves, as other NGOs in the area have done before with weak long-term results. SOPHIA’s strategy is rather to assist and pressure state governments to run school themselves.

But by putting pressure on the government to implement this act and thereby setting up schools in Van Gujjar areas is not the end solution for increasing schooling years among Van Gujjar children. They also actually have to attend school on a daily basis. To do this, they have to overcome, not only the conditions described above, but also the few incentives to get educated given to them when living as pastoralist buffalo herders. Even though the Act state that the Government is responsible for bringing children to school, the education of children also need to be supported by parents and the surrounding community. And even if there are cultural and economic incentives that hinder schooling, especially among girls, all the parents we have met have a truly positive attitude to bringing their children to school. But when you live far away from villages and the only income-generating source available is the buffalo milk and working in apple orchards in summers, the economic gains of sending children to school are low.

Saroj Sharma, head teacher in one of the four Van Gujjar schools in Choti Karombi kohl, tells that both the distance and the household workload are the major obstacles to bring the children to school. Almost every day Saroj travels along the kohl and visits the deras (Van Gujjar huts) in order to bring as many children to school as possible.

Saroj Sharma, second from the right, with the second teacher and the cooks in Choti Karombi kohl.
Saroj Sharma, second from the right, with the second teacher and the cooks in Choti Karombi kohl.

In order to take part of welfare schemes and to be able to practice an effective citizenship, however, a basic level of literacy is needed and the Van Gujjars realise this more and more. This awareness is something that SOPHIA staff Munesh and Nazim to a high degree is contributing to in their daily field trips to the remote kohls of the Van Gujjars.


Stakes are high – summarising a month’s work with UYRDC

Working with a rights-based approach entails that important political issues are at stake. A rights-based approach implies that the transfer of rights to the target groups from duty bearers, most often the government, both is the aim in itself and the mean with which the well being of a target group is improved. In doing so, political power is also transferred between different compartments of society.

When asking several of the villagers we meet in meetings in the Narainbagar development block in Chamoli district what they think would be the greatest benefit of obtaining forest rights, we most often get the answer “not being dependent upon the government anymore” in response. It is thus more of a political issue at stake here than a material one. But it is not a question of gaining an autonomous position from the state. Gaining full rights to their forests would rather levelling the playing field of bargaining power between the local forest dwellers and the government.

Today, villagers need to ask the local forest department for permission when in need of timber for building houses, often in exchange of a small “commission” to the forest officer, as witnessed by many of the villagers we speak to. This is a typical example of patronage – the patron (government) keeps their clients (citizens) dependent upon him by arbitrarily delivering goods and services which the government have monopoly over thereby limiting the possibility of holding government accountable. When informing the villagers on this, the UYRDC field workers often use the metaphor of how parents give their children a lollipop in order to keep them satisfied, and how the kid need to behave (stay loyal in the case of the citizens) in order to get the candy. Obtaining full forest rights would do away with such a skewed relationship, at least based on forest resources.

In developing an approach for a forthcoming review of this forest rights project, we have tried to identify what the villagers themselves think is the greatest achievement of the project this far. An overwhelming majority answers “awareness” and “knowledge” about “our right to our forest and about the forest rights act”. In addition to this, the women also state that they today are more confident when talking about their opinions on how the forest should be managed. The inclusion of women in forest management decisions is vital, both for the condition of the forests and as a democratic right in itself.

These two achievements both indicate that the villagers have been empowered in their role as citizens where they now are expected to play a more active role in local political participation. The empowerment of the villagers thus contributes to one of the important objectives of the forest rights project: to strengthen the decision-making procedures of the local communities.

Whatever the efforts of the central government to dilute the forest right act, the strengthened awareness of the villagers of the Narainbagar area will have substantial positive consequences both for local democracy as well as for the management of the forests.


Danuli Devi of Maita Talla talks about the importance of uniting within the village in order to obtain forest rights. I practical terms, this is important when establishing the customary boundaries which the claim  is based on.
Danuli Devi of Maita Talla talks about the importance of creating unity within the village in order to obtain forest rights. I practical terms, this is important when establishing the customary boundaries which the claim for their forest rights is based on.



A Gharwali Dewali and traces of the flooding

After two months of work, six days a week, it was a bit relieving to have three days off for Diwali. Three days that were spent in the valley of one of the four holy tributaries to the Ganga river, the Aleknanda river.

In the upper end of the valley is Badrinath. The holy shrine in Badrinath is one of four temples making up the char dham yatra, considered to be one of the most holy pilgrimages for hindus. Situated right below the majestic snow covered peak Nilkantha (6,596m) and on a hot spring in a barren landscape, one can easily get a sense of the mystic character of the site mentioned already in the Sanscript epic Mahabarata over 2,500 years ago.

Me and Isabell in front of the Badrinath shrine.
Me and Isabell in front of the Badrinath shrine.
Women of the Bhotiya people washing in Mana village. The last outpost before the Chinese (Tibetian) border.
Women of the Bhotiya tribe washing in Mana village. The last outpost before the Chinese (Tibetian) border.

When going by car upwards along the Alaknanda River towards the holy site of Badrinath, as much as we are astonished by the dramatic alpine landscape, we are also reminded of the disaster taken place here last summer. Arriving two weeks early, the monsoon of 2013 hit Uttarakhand fiercely and by surprise. Thousands[1] of lives were wiped out, whole villages were washed away and tens of thousands of people were displaced. Of course would the torrential rains and the deluges in themselves have caused havoc, but a common view is also that the over exploitation of the river valleys in the area further added to the disaster.[2]

The ecological pressure on the Alaknanda valley caused by the increasing population is further exacerbated by the many devotees doing the pilgrimage, which amount to around half a million a year. But as this pilgrimage business is putting an ecological pressure on the valley, it also brings alternative income generations and a more developed infrastructure, at least in comparison to the neighbouring Pindar valley were we now have spent three weeks. More on the causes and consequences of the 2013 monsoon can be read in the blog posts of former intern Petter.

Only a few houses left in a village on the Aleknanda river bank after the 2013 monsoon and the subsequent floods.

Now back in Narainbagar for a last week of village meetings and outlining a work plan for the coming weeks, our friend Prashanti just arrived himself from Badrinath telling us that he had to escape Badrinath two days early driving in a blizzard (!). Quite thankful we left Badrinath just a day before the snow would have caught us.

Nanda Devi, second highest peak in India reaching 7,816 meters.
Nanda Devi, second highest peak in India reaching 7,816 meters.



[1] The official death toll amounted to 580 while death ceritificates were issued for 4,120 more people still missing five months after the disaster.

[2] Represented here by D. Raghunandan, president of All India People’s Science Network.

Formulating our task

“So what are we doing here and how will we, two interns not knowing much about Uttarakhand and even less about the daily lives of the local village communities, contribute to the work of SOPHIA and UYRDC[1]?” I have kept asking myself, both before the departure to India and also while here. The answer that keeps resounding in my head is getting more and more developed and more specific for each day. The intended main purpose of our stay at SOPHIA in Dehradun and at UYRDC will be to, together with the two organizations and their target groups, develop a format for how these organisations will review their projects in 2015.

But as I, and my colleague Isabell, think that we have sort out the answer to the question mentioned above, more questions arises. After more than two weeks at SOPHIA in Derhadun we are quite clear about how they work to strengthen the capabilities of the Van Gujjars to claim their domicile[2] and forest rights, at least in theory. When we joined the Van Gujjars in their forests this Saturday, some ideas of how this might be carried out in practice also arose but there is still a lot of thinking and tinkering to do before we actually know what will be included in the forthcoming review in 2015.

Lal Sen of Timli village has long been well aware of the high stakes involved in the forest conservation projects by the state forest department. As cited already in 1991, he expressed the difficulties of claiming political and forest rights being a pastoralist people among a society where settled farming is the norm.


Lal Sen's grandchildren feeding their buffalos in the post monsoon desiccated river bank.
Lal Sen’s grandchildren feeding their buffalos in the post monsoon desiccated river bank.

Initially SOPHIA worked with SSNC (Swedish Society for Nature Conservation/Svenska naturskyddsföreningen) in the forests rights programme and with the Swallows (Svalorna Indien Bangladesh) in a sustainable farming project. In 2010, however, SNNC withdraw their operations from India and the Swallows continued the funding of the Agency and Forest Rights programme, which aims to strengthen the Van Gujjars in their ability to claim domicile rights and rights to their forests. But UYRDC then, how do they feed into this programme? UYRDC joined the Swallows’ Agency and Forest Rights programme in 2011 in order to build a common platform with SOPHIA for capacity building, information sharing and most important, to perform advocacy towards the state government. And while SOPHIA is working towards the Van Gujjars, UYRDC aims to build the capacity of village hill communities in order to improve forest management.

Then again, how will we be able to contribute to their work the coming month while staying at their office in the small village of Narayanbagar in the Himalayas? How can we integrate the people to whom this programme is aiming into the review exercise? These are questions I hope we will sort out in next couple of weeks!

And after a few delays, it just got confirmed that we will  do the 10 hour journey via serpentine roads to the small village of Narayanbagar and the office of UYRDC this Saturday. Traffic jams, city life and paneer masalas will then turn into, at least as we have pictured it, steep mountain hills, leopards hunting us in the evenings, weak internet connection and more daal, millets and vegetables than masala curries and Cadburys.



[1] Society for the Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities and Uttaranchal Youth Rural Developement Centre

[2] Domicile rights include voting rights, ration cards, photo IDs etc.

Hej och välkomna! Namaste och vanakam!

Hej och välkomna! Namaste och vanakam!

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Från och med nu kan du följa oss: Ida, Johan, Isabell, Henrik, Michaela och Emilia, som i höst gör praktik på olika partnerorganisationer till Svalorna Indien Bangladesh i Indien.

Vi sitter just nu på en solig varenda omgivna av hemodlade chilifrukter (hipstervarning) och laddar för avfärd på lördag morgon! Efter två intensiva introduktionsveckor på Sida Partnership Forum i Härnösand och på Svalornas kontor i Lund så är vi nu riktigt ivriga på att ge oss av till Bengaluru (Bangalore) för ytterligare en introduktionskurs på Svalornas lokalkontor.

Vi kommer att skriva om ämnen kopplade främst till miljö/klimat, jämställdhet, demokrati, markrättigheter, jordbruk. Men så klart kommer även mer personliga reflektioner att återspeglas här, och där kan lite vad som helst dyka upp (cliffhanger)!

/Johan, Emilia, Ida, Michaela, Henrik och Isabell