Reflections From a Project Tackling Learning Challenges in Assam’s Bodoland Region

The Learning Ecosystem Augmentation Project aims to improve quality education in lower primary and middle schools in the region. How has it fared?

This is the first story in a three-part seriesRead Part 2 and Part 3.

The Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), located in an ecologically sensitive zone, shares a significant portion of its territory with the Bhutan border. The BTR has seen decades of political instability, inter-community conflict and subsequently remained underdeveloped across most socio-economic indicators. 

Decades of violence in the region led to numerous deaths and injuries amongst security forces and civilians alike. Prolonged displacement of communities and the breakdown of governmental services also resulted in major access inequities, particularly to education for the children local communities.

The Learning Ecosystem Augmentation Project (LEAP) emerged as a response to the widespread learning challenges faced by the children and youth of communities in BTR. As a social organisation working in the region, the ant (the action northeast trust) launched its LEAP initiative back in 2019, aiming to improve quality education in lower primary and middle schools for 12 educational clusters. 

The project aims to improve learning outcomes and teaching processes for more than 8,000 children in more than 120 government lower primary schools and another 15 middle schools by training the teachers and engaging the community, besides providing access to education for more than 1008 children through community run learning centres in forest areas bordering Bhutan where there is no access to government schools. 

Children engaged in a learning session at a Forest Learning Centre(FLC) at Gwjwnpuri village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

To understand the operative role and functional outreach of the ant in transforming the socio-economic landscape of the BTR area through multiple areas of interventions: education, health, employment and women-empowerment, the visual storyboard team from the Centre for New Economic Studies spent over six weeks at the ant’s campus, located in the Chirang district. The broader rationale of our team’s study was to study the project based initiatives of the organisation and also connect with local communities to understand how some of these interventions had helped them in improving their lives-livelihoods.

LEAPing forward

LEAP is divided into three wings; the first for improving the quality of education in lower and middle grade government schools, the second for introducing new techniques to teach Assamese for the non-Assamese speaking children in government LP Schools, and the third establishes and run forest learning centres for children living in forest areas, who don’t have access to any schools (or institutional presence of learning) in the next 5 to 10 kms. 

The first wing has reached over 5,810 children through 141 lower primary schools in which 2,888 are boys and 2,922 are girls. In middle school, the ant has reached 2,827 children, out of which 1,358 are boys and 1,469 are girls. The second wing facilitates Assamese learning for children whose first language is not Assamese. 

The third wing comprises of Forest Learning Centres, which aim to provide quality education to more than 680 children from forest fringe villages by establishing community-run learning centres, training education volunteers, and liaising with the government. 

Children listen to Alongbar Wary at Forest Learning Centre (FLC) at Laimuti village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The factors which contribute to recruiting teachers (members from local communities) at the ant, reflect and counter some of the key issues faced by the rural schools in other parts of India. The teachers at the ant are from within the local community (mostly Bodos) who also often have alternate means of livelihood. 

While they are qualified to teach the children, the ant primarily focuses on their will to improve the future of the community by contributing to the education system. “As it usually is the case with teachers the salary is not that high, I continue to stay because I wish to pass on what I learnt to the children”, a teacher from the ant told us. 

A classroom of Forest Learning Centre(FLC) at Laimuti village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The ant’s primary principle is to prevent and avoid violence, as explained by its co-founder, Sunil Kaul, who’s leadership and mentorship inspired the teacher training programme – and for much of the ant’s work in education across remote forest villages. The programme focuses on being friendly and open to students as opposed to punishing them – for poor performance when there is already so much information overload, to help students/children be at a space “where the mind is without fear!” 

The Socio-Legislative Significance of LEAP

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 guarantees that all children must receive quality elementary education, which the state would be responsible for. In remote forest villages of border zones however, this ‘right’ appears more as ‘ink on paper’, where the government’s own ability to provide affordable, quality education (even as per RTE norms) remains deeply circumscribed.

A classroom wall with posters of Model Learning Centre(MLC) at Koraibari village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

English is a primary focus of learning in these schools – due to the ant’s role, and activity-based teaching-learning materials (TLMs) are provided by the teachers for children to find ‘learning more enjoyable and inclusive’. The teachers, in our observations, have been able to give personalised attention to student needs and learning processes. Teaching and mentoring are both combined in the pedagogical learning instruction and engagement of teachers with students.

Archana Soren, an English Teacher train childrens at Model Learning Centre(MLC) in Koraibari village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The forest learning centres (also known as FLCs) prioritise holistic learning with a combination of academic teachings and sports sessions. Unique to this conflict-ridden zone, spatially, the incubated role of classrooms has seen an increased focus on democratic proceedings-participatory learning. Such a form of learning, often termed as “peace education”, has been recognised by UNICEF as an important step in conflict-ridden zones. The ant has used this method extensively in designing the curriculum of subjects taught to kids of communities which have been exposed to conflict in the past.

In teaching ‘peace’ methods to students, teachers at LEAP also communicate the value of education to parents across the various communities in conflict in the area. “Education is above the conflict. It is about the future of the children. So, they can live better than we do now,” a teacher at the ant added.  

A Teacher arranges words to create a sentence at Model Learning Centre(MLC) in Koraibari village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Day-to-day lives of students

Like most other schools in the country, the day starts at 8:30 am with a school assembly, followed by a day of learning which ends at 12 pm. Various learning centres, forest or otherwise, called FLCs and MLCs, almost rarely have a homogeneous population. Children who attend the classes are from Santhali, Nepalese and Bodo communities, and also those from Sutradhar castes, all learning together.

These students come from families, with parents working as seasonal farmers, daily wage workers and those who manage the forest. “Prior to such learning centres, parents here had no hope of their children receiving education at all-much less at par with the rest of the country. Now, parents involve themself in any way they can with the schooling system, through construction or any event. It is a positive change,” a staff member at the ant told the team. 

There is a set training programme for teachers implemented to make sure that the mental and emotional well-being of students and a gender-safe environment in classrooms is ensured. A team of staff members in LEAP is assigned specifically for such training measures and programmes. 

Childrens mimic along with Teacher at Model Learning Centre(MLC) in Koraibari village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Despite the high interest among parents to teach their children which also reflects on the student’s intrinsic motivation towards education, attending sessions, the operational running of learning centres requires capital investments and providing adequate resources from paper, books to stationery for children to use and learn. With poor state support, the nature of funding is not enough to provide enough resources – it is also difficult for parents who themselves struggle in making ends meet, to support their children’s education. The ant has used donations to support its initiatives (more details can be found on their website here).

Achieving desiring outcomes

Significant learning outcome differences were reported with reference to general government schooling systems where alphabetical letters were being taught at the Class II level. At the ant, these were being taught in Class I, with improved outcomes. According to the 2017-2018 annual report by the ant, there has been a considerable increase in mathematical skills amongst students enrolled in their Learning Centres, wherein only 8% of children were left handicapped in these skills. Also, the percentage of children who can perform multiplication has gone up from 31% to 57%. Literacy rates have similarly improved; with a jump from 6% to 24% in children who were able to read a paragraph. 

A classroom of Forest Learning Centre (FLC) at Laimuti village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Amongst other programmes, the LEAP initiative of the ant, despite its noble intent and positive outreach, the operational dynamics of such programmes still face structural issues of navigating ‘accessibility’ for intended groups due to spatial issues (stemming from flooding and elephant encounters the forest areas), and due to the shortage of material resources in running/and expanding the program’s outreach, particularly in remote forest areas where road-connectivity is absent. A lot needs to be done.

While over recent years, episodes of inter-community conflict have been contained through numerous peace-building efforts, for communities to become more ‘capable’ of managing their own lives and livelihoods, education and targeted skill development are two areas which need greater impetus. The ant’s own effort in ensuring the progressive realisation of rights and educational learning for children, despite all the challenges an organisation may face, is astounding.

Many of the development issues in Assam could be solved using larger structural changes like proper roads, designated flood combat plans and networks. But even beyond this what plagues Bodoland is the lack of children completing a full education cycle.

A makeshift bridge near Laliguri village, Chirang District, Assam. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Education in these parts is still only provided till the middle school level. Beyond this, children have to migrate to pursue further studies, hampering the long-term positive effect that the ant envisions. This is corroborated by the decreased school enrollment post Grade VII in both girls and boys in the region. If going forward, more infrastructure and investment are not used for education and other development projects, the current trend of constant migration to find better opportunities will worsen. This will continue to leave only a few regions in the country fully developed, propagating further inequalities.

This study is part of a Visual Storyboard project undertaken by the Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University in collaboration with the ant. All photographs and video essays are documented by Jignesh Mistry. Video essays can be accessed here.

The authors would like to especially thank the entire ant staff, its founders, the campus team, and the field outreach team for making this project possible. Field studies would not have been possible without the mentorship, guidance and support offered by Sunil Kaul, Jennifer Liang, Rhondeni Kikon, and the project leads of LEAP, CTR and Aagor Weaves at the ant. Special mention to Samrat Sinha, Professor at Jindal Global Law School, OP Jindal Global University for introducing the CNES team to the ant and guiding the researchers along. To support the ant’s work, please visit their website here.

We also thank The Wire’s editorial team: Jahnavi Sen, M.K. Venu, Seema Chishti and Soumashree Sarkar for their undistilled faith in the Visual Storyboard team of CNES and their support in taking the students’ work forward.