Educating the children of The Thief Village.

Written by Philip Holmes on Saturday 16th July 2022

Community Learning Centres

For Dev Narayan Mandal, the Founder of our Nepal partner NGO The Mithila Wildlife Trust, supporting the education of children from the poorest communities is a central part of the social upliftment that must underpin protection and enhancement of the natural environment. I have already seen what he has achieved in his home area of Dhanushadham in terms of engaging with the Dom and Musahar ("rat-eater") communities by establishing a "Community Learning Centre" (CLC) that helps keep children in mainstream education. But on top of that, these communities have been involved in poaching and in eating birds where they once ate rats. Children who are at school will be kept out of such mischief and through a new environmental programme will develop a respect for nature and insight into how to live sustainably within the rural environment.

Dev's vision was that his CLC model would act as a non-formal education entry point for children who were not attending mainstream school. Once enrolled at the local school, children could receive extra tuition and critical homework support that illiterate - and sometimes alcoholic - parents could not offer. A key feature would be that the tutors would be college students who themselves came from the same castes as the children, acting as both tutors and role models. The tutors would receive modest salaries that could cover college fees and allow them to complete their higher education. At this point, the tutors would have to move on and make way for new tutors who also required this short-term financial help. Three years ago, one former tutor and his brother did indeed move on to join the Nepal Army, the first time that anyone from the Musahar caste had been qualified/allowed to enlist.

The first CLC was set up in Dhanushadham and it has been a runaway success. Attendance has soared from the first 28 children in January 2013 to 286 by January 2022. We hear anecdotally that the CLC offers more than "support"; the comment has been made that local children in reality attend the CLC for their "education" and only go to mainstream school to obtain their certificates. There has even been the social impact of some parents feeling shamed into stopping consuming alcohol so that they can be worthy of their children. In February 2020 we completed the build of a brand new CLC for the village, funded entirely by The McGough Foundation in the UK. 

Gemma and Finn McGough distributing stationery at the Dhanushadham CLC in February 2022.

We now wish to roll out this innovative and highly successful model to other vulnerable communities, with a view to helping similar low-caste groups. To this end, today Dev took me to visit two such communities that he knows well and that we actually had an involvement with last year under very different circumstances.

Jai Kamala!

This morning, in spite of a temperature of 35 degrees, Mr Bikram Yadav greeted us with a broad grin and a cheery "Jai Kamala" ("Victory to Kamala") near his home on the outskirts of Janakpur. Dev whispered to me that this was his chosen greeting rather than the usual "Namaste". For he is an activist who campaigns for the protection of the Kamala river basin and its communities. 

Dev told me that the Kamala river runs for 48km, 28 of these through four Districts in Nepal (Dhanusha, Siraha, Sindhuli and Udaypur) and the remainder courses through India before joining the river Ganga. The Nepal part is very clean such that Indians will travel to Nepal to bathe in what are seen as being holy waters. Its water is used to wash the floor of a new home before it is occupied for the first time. However, Bikram was all too aware of issues like dropping water tables, illegal sand mining, hunting and the severe floods that beset the region annually. Ten years ago, he and four friends got together to form a focus for environmental campaigning that now has a membership of 10,000 and involvement from a large number of youth groups in the area. Part of the challenge has been that the floods that impact upon the communities in his home area are not just a feature of changing weather patterns, but also of poor protection and illegal sand quarrying in the hills to the north where there has historically been little concern for the circumstances of communities downstream. Happily that is changing as Bikram is now managing to engage also with youth groups in those northern hills and indeed with his counterparts across the border in India. His campaigning has developed a huge amount of traction with annual Kamala awareness days that different municipalities take turns to host. These include municipalities in Siraha District that lies across the river.

Bikram Yadav, third right, at the start of our fascinating trip.

Bikram acted as our guide in visiting two communities; one at "Pasman Tol" (aka "Thief Village") and "Kamala Tol". On the way, he introduced us to community leaders - Ward presidents and Mayors who command the respect of so many people who live on the breadline, or below. They exert a healthy influence on daily activities - I didn't see a police officer all day. It's therefore surprising, I suppose, to visit somewhere dubbed "Thief Village".

"Thief Village"

Pasman Tol - "Thief Village"

Pasman Tol (Pasman is another low caste within untouchability) looks fairly innocuous from afar, but local people avoid visiting what they call "Thief Village". Dev explained to me that if anyone is arrested for burglary in the District, chances are that they hail from this particular village. But in fact the people are the victims of natural disaster, arising both out of climate change (increased rainfall) and disregard in river management to the north, including illegal sand quarrying. Rainy season flood waters cause landslides that erode the river banks or breach the embankments that have been constructed in Dhanusha on the western bank and in Siraha on the eastern side. From time to time, the river changes its course with catastrophic consequences. Major floods have occurred in 2003, 2017, 2019 and 2021 (note the increasing frequency).

The dramatic Kamala river, both friend and foe to local communities.
A perfect illustration of how trees can protect river banks. A solitary Pipal tree stands guard over the community, but sadly so much of bank protection is reliant upon the less-effective sandbags. We can do something about that!

In the 2003 flood, a settlement of 175 households from the Dalit (untouchable) community - mainly Pasman - was swept away with a large loss of life. They had been squatting on public land attached to the embankment and the survivors were relocated to what is now Pasman Tol. Here they live a hand-to-mouth existence which explains the high degree of criminality, for which they now experience stigmatisation to compound their poverty. Today there are 412 households in the three settlements that make up Pasman Tol and there are approximately 500 children who just don't attend school.

Some from within the community have tried to help in the past. Dev introduced me to Mr Manoj Pasman and Mr Ram Kumar Pasman who conducted non-formal education in a dilapidated old building for six years. They did so as volunteers in the hope that their contribution would be recognised by the new authorities after Nepal became a Federation, but sadly this did not happen. Even the best will in the world can be sapped and these demoralised men, their heads hung, told me how they confine their support now to just an hour per day.

Meeting Manoj and Ram Kumar Pasman. The elderly gentleman to my left shoulder complained forcefully to Dev after we arrived how low caste children were roaming around the area without education and with no prospects for the future.
The school building at Pasman Tol
Inside the classrooms.

But we bring hope to his community since we are planning to create a CLC at the village by refurbishing the old building and constructing a new one. It is more eco-friendly to restore a building that is still serviceable than resorting to demolition. This coming week we will host a visit from Mr Andy Sharp, co-Founder of our not-for-profit London-based partner Community Beyond Construction who will advise on how we best go about this. We need to plan for an unexpected success and ensure that the rebuild/construction has overflow capacity in case all of the children join our classes. We have secured the funds for the building work - in large part thanks to the McGough Foundation and another UK Foundation - but we will still need to find the operating costs for the first few years.

Kamala Tol

Our next port of call was Kamala Tol, just four kilometres away. But before describing that visit, I have to report that, as is often the case on visits to Nepal, I was struck by the unexpected. I had anticipated merely visiting a very poor and depressing area, and certainly that was the case. Children were walking around totally naked. But the landscape is stunningly beautiful. There is now an expanse of marshland where the Kamala river once flowed that is home to a wealth of flora and fauna. For example we passed a species of deer called the "Blue Bull" (Nilgai) that was grazing in a paddy field, apparently indifferent to our presence.

A Blue Bull that was unconcerned by us and undeterred by the nearby scarecrow!

It struck me that this area has huge ecotourism potential and could be a fascinating area for guided camping trips that MWT might like to host in the future. But I digress….

Twelve years ago, the Nepal authorities relocated 76 families from the Musahar community to the current Kamala Tol village site which is on government-owned land. This became necessary due to the Kamala river changing course. Of the 175 children in the community only 15 attend school. Of the adults, not a single one has been educated beyond the tenth grade and they eke out a living through working in the fields or as migrant workers in India.

A first glimpse of Kamala Tol
The path into the village has a certain attraction
And then you are confronted by the poverty.

Since their relocation, the community has been terribly neglected. This is in large part because they do not have Nepalese citizenship although they have lived in the country for generations. During COVID lockdown in 2021, the community's plight came into the public domain when national newspapers reported how families were facing starvation; Government food relief was only being made available to Nepalese citizens. We responded to this by extending our food relief programme to the village, saving lives and bringing hope in the process. They were some of the 14,000 marginalised people for whom our partnership (including Guy's Trust and Our Sansar in the UK) provided food relief. 

Our plan here - for which we do still need the funds - is to demolish an old building that really is unusable and construct a new centre.

The site of the future CLC in Kamala Tol which will be constructed on the footprint of this old building and on adjacent land.

Again, the exact plan awaits the input of Community Beyond Construction, but we are budgeting for around £18,000. This will cover the demolition costs, purchase and raising of the land to make it secure from flooding (note that in future the building can double as a flood relief centre). The project could be completed within six months, assuming no delays because of COVID. Thereafter, children can attend in the morning and evening, either side of normal school hours. So, the opening of the facility will coincide with children enrolling at the nearby school, which happens to be a very good state school. The families and children just need to be motivated and supported and, from what I witnessed today, there is no shortage of the necessary enthusiasm amongst the community leaders.

A Big Give summer appeal

I hope that when I launch a formal appeal later this month - that will offer the possibility of gifts automatically doubling in value - you will bear in mind the needs of these two communities and the hundreds of children who currently have zero prospects in life. Here is the donation link that will show a donate button from noon on the 19th July for one week only. Please make a diary note or if you would like me to remind you, drop me a line. Thank you.

Underneath a spreading Pipal Tree. This species of tree is known locally as an "Oxygen Bank" as it produces oxygen 24 hours-per-day!

 

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