In strife-torn Assam districts, Bal Bandhus are trying to resume studies in schools presently turned into relief or paramilitary camps and track down children to put them back in classrooms

Amidst news of the breakout of ethnic violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar and Chirang districts runs the subtext of schooling in the area being held at gunpoint once again. All schools were forced to shut down as the strife escalated. Many of them, like the Jaraguri primary school in Kokrajhar’s Gosaingaon block which now houses 3000 Bodos have been turned into relief camps. Classrooms are serving not just as shelters for the displaced but are also housing paramilitary forces.

Schools here will not open for a long time now even as thousands of young girls and boys studying for board exams have been forced to abandon their books along with their hopes for the future. While children’s schooling is the last thing on the minds of traumatised families fleeing for their lives or of a beleaguered administration trying to maintain law and order, the vacuum caused by the loss of education and development is sucking in an endless spiral of violence. This awareness has prompted the Centre to send an army of child rights defenders — called Bal Bandhus — in troubled areas like Kokrajhar and Chirang.

Undaunted by the civil strife, the Bal Bandhus are going about ensuring that classes start soon in the camps. And once the violence ebbs, they will push for schools to be resume operations immediately. They will help the community track down children, who may have been lost in the conflict and put them back into schools.

The 20 Bal Bandhus working in each of the two districts are local youngsters familiar with the ground situation. They were recruited for their leadership in various youth forums. By constant networking and holding meetings, the Bal Bandhus have increased the involvement of parents, members of the community, the local administration and students unions in the proper functioning of schools and other child welfare activities.

The region witnesses forced shutdowns due to bandh-calls for five-six days every month even during peacetime. “Many schools take advantage of the civil unrest to open late in the day and shut early while some cited the disturbed situation to remain closed from December last to April this year,” says resource person T. Subhan Goud, who is heading the team of Bal Bandhus in Kokrajhar. The closure of schools during bandhs has been reduced by as much as twenty per cent, he said, citing the ‘Bal Bandhus’ strategy of turning up at schools on bandh days with members of the school management committees (SMCs) and calling up head teachers to enquire if official orders had been received for closure of schools. Community meetings have also been organised with student unions to discuss exemption of schools during bandhs. However, there is no relief when bandhs are called by militant groups.

In violence-hit Chirang’s Sidli block, for instance, in the past two years, 533 schools have been made functional by the Bal Bandhus; three schools vacated of security forces; 400 out-of-school children identified and enrolled in schools; over 100 children given support for their final exams and the local community saved from paying school fees up to the tune of Rs. seven lakh by either forcing schools to return the fees illegally collected under various heads or by preventing them from charging such fees. Officials have been encouraged to counsel malleable youngsters influenced by militancy, to the extent that many are now keen to join the Army.

The Bal Bandhu Scheme for Protection of Child Rights in Areas of Civil Unrest is supported by the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. It is being implemented as a three–year pilot project by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

The aim is to support communities struggling with violent situations like the current Bodo-Muslim conflict in which children have been separated from their parents, homes and livelihoods razed to the ground and institutions for children such as anganwadis, schools, hostels and health centres not able to function. The scheme ties in with the landmark Right to Education Act which has made education mandatory for every child whatever be the situation.

Since the project was launched in January 2011, the Bal Bandhus in Kokrajhar and Chirang have trod a fine line between rallying government departments and the community on child rights without, however, raising the hackles of armed groups. Bal Bandhu Raising Tudu said: “I was stopped by a Bodo militant in Chirang on my way to meet a group of parents on the day of a bandh. However, after I explained that we only had the interests of the children at heart, I was allowed to leave.”

The Bal Bandhus are ready to take on paramilitary forces, too. “We sent photographs to the authorities of children from two schools studying out in the open because a few battalions were housed in their school buildings,” said resource person Mohammad Khaja adding, “even though the Superintendent of Police told us the children’s parents themselves wanted the forces there for the sake of security.” The Centre eventually released Rs. 1.5 lakh to the Chirang District Commissioner to build an alternate shelter for the forces, allowing 476 children to return to their classrooms.

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