School Children and adolescent girls’ club members of Romai Tea Garden perform `Shikari Burhi’ (Old Woman Hunter), based on one of the 13 storybooks released by Assam’s Minister for Tea Tribe Welfare Department on 17 November 2009 at Guwahati
By Nipurnh Gupta
GUWAHATI, Assam, India, 10 December 2009 – As the peels of laughter from inside the Kalakshetra auditorium grow louder, the swelling queues of children outside the hall, waiting to be seated, start getting restless. They are missing all the fun.
The Boga Hati (white elephant) has just flown high into the heavens with Birsa, hanging by his tail.
“It is unbelievable,” says young Sabita, who has travelled all the way from the tea gardens of Dibrugarh to watch a familiar folktale transform into an enthralling puppet show.
Sabita’s disbelief is not just at the white elephant flying. “After all it’s only a puppet,” she says matter-of-factly.
“What is amazing is that this is the story my grandmother told me and probably her grandmother told her. Just like this play Shikari Burhi (Old Woman Hunter), so well performed by the primary school children and Adolescent Girls Clubs of Romai Tea Garden,” she adds.
“I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be watching these quaint tales of our community with so many children, government officials and also the Minister,” says Sabita.
“It is wonderful that thousands of children in our tea gardens will now get a chance to read these stories,” she adds, showing off the colourful set of 13 storybooks she has just received.
Storybooks embody culture of tea communities
Attractively illustrated and written in simple Assamese, the storybooks embody the flavour and culture of tea communities and have been specially designed, keeping in mind the language needs of first-time school goers in tea garden areas.
The path-breaking initiative is an outcome of the collaborative efforts of UNICEF and Anwesha, a publication group in Assam.
“The objective is to make reading fun and easy for tea community children who find school lessons difficult to cope with - the reason being, the difference in the language spoken at school and at home,” informs Paresh Malakar, President, Anwesha.
These books were developed in a workshop mode, where people from tea communities developed manuscripts based on folk stories. Experts and resource persons helped refine the shortlisted manuscripts, he adds.
Illustrations were meticulously developed to capture the essence of the stories as well as the tea garden settings, recalls one of the resource persons, AC Bhagabati, former Vice Chancellor, Rajiv Gandhi University. “UNICEF must be congratulated for ensuring a very high quality, both in the content and design of the storybooks. As a result, the books appeal to both children and adults alike,” he adds.
On 17 November 2009, the thirteen story books were released in Guwahati by Assam’s Minister for Tea Tribe Welfare Department, Prithbi Majhi, in the presence of senior officials from the Government of Assam, NGOs, UNICEF, media persons and most importantly, the proud authors of the books and the very excited children from Guwahati and the tea-intensive districts of Upper Assam.
Storybooks to address language barriers for children
Hailing the initiative as an important step in the history of tea communities, the Minister stated that the books will be immensely useful in promoting reading habits among children in tea communities.
Underscoring the importance of the right to education, UNICEF Assam Chief, Jeroo Master, highlighted that the storybooks will address language barriers for children of marginalised tea communities in Assam and help bring them back to school.
The tea communities of Assam, comprising 17 per cent of the state’s population, fare poorly on human development indices, including education. As per the District Information System For Education (DISE 2008-09), 17 per cent of the 440 primary schools under tea garden management, are single-teacher schools.
Only 20 per cent of the children obtained higher than 60 per cent in class IV exams of 2007. Some 34 per cent children from 2005-2008 have left school between class I and IV.
The high dropout and poor performance of tea garden children in lower primary classes is as a result of the lack of proper educational environment at home, The language barrier faced by tea community children whose home language differs from the Assamese used at school also affects their performance, informs Hara Kanta Das, Headmaster, Romai Tea garden LP School, Dibrugarh.
But things are changing. With the support from the Government of Assam and UNICEF, tea garden managements are actively working on improving the quality of teaching-learning in the tea garden schools. Tea garden workers have also started aspiring for better opportunities for their children.
“My parents do not have any formal education, but they want me and my three siblings to be educated, “says Kabita, class IV, LP School, Romai Tea Garden,
Each of the 440 Lower Primary Schools and Adolescent Girls Clubs in 80 tea gardens will get the set of storybooks as a complement to the Reading Enhancement Programme in the tea gardens of Dibrugarh.
Of course, after looking at the colourful books and the riveting play and puppet shows based on them, the demand for the books has far exceeded the 3,000 sets printed by UNICEF and Anwesha. The Tea Tribes Welfare Department, Government of Assam, is supportive of expanding the reach of the books to more children.
Hopefully, the interest generated by the storybooks will translate into improved reading abilities, and eventually better learning outcomes, for children of marginalised tea communities of Assam.