Very often these days, H Lalsawmliana’s five school-going children leave for school a little after 7.30 am on empty stomachs. As in most rural households in Mizoram, the older children pitch in with the cooking, but a change in school timings across the state this academic year — classes now begin at 8 am, an hour earlier — has meant that the meal is almost never ready by the time the children leave.
“We all used to eat breakfast together but now that’s impossible,” says 41-year-old Lalsawmliana, who does odd jobs with his wife on days they do not attend to their small farm outside their village of Thingsai in Mizoram’s Lunglei district, close to the Myanmar border.
Lalsawmliana says cooking gas is beyond the family’s reach and it takes very long for food to be cooked on wood-fired stoves. His children — who attend classes 2, 3, 5, 8 and 9 — usually come home during recess at a little past 10 am to grab a quick bite before going back to class.
Morning meals in Mizoram are what would be considered lunch elsewhere (rice, vegetables, eggs and perhaps some meat), while lunch is usually a snack of a few biscuits with tea.
The new timings have upset traditional schedules and led to considerable debate and, at some places and among some sections, an uproar.
A group that calls itself the Sikul Tan Hma Duh Lo Pawl (which translates into ‘Those who do not want schools to start early’) have been picketing schools in the southern town of Lunglei in the mornings, making sure students cannot enter the campus until 8.30 am, which effectively means classes can start only at 9 am.
Those opposed to the new timings say the move is only aimed at easing traffic congestion in state capital Aizawl, where the same timings for schools and offices meant there would be traffic snarls all over the city from 8.30 am to as late as 9.30 or even 10 am.
Student unions are divided on the issue. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the state’s largest student body, has supported the new timings saying it finally does away with the “arbitrariness” of a standard time being imposed on the entire country.
“The sun rises at least two hours earlier in Mizoram and other eastern states than in, say, Gujarat or Maharashtra. Since the Centre has no plans to even consider a separate time zone, the best we can do is start schools and offices early so we can make the best of the daylight that we have,” says Renthlei.
The state’s other major student body, the Mizo Students’ Union, has rejected the new timings on the grounds that the National Curriculum Framework 2005 says schools should have the authority to set their timings.
The MSU picketed some schools in Aizawl but later withdrew saying they would wait to see if the timings were beneficial or not.
Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, meanwhile, has taken a dig at student leaders and others opposed to the change, saying, “Those who claim to represent students without even being students themselves should sit with their arms folded.”
C Lalnunpuia, whose 12-year-old son Joseph studies in Class VI at Saichal village in Champhai district, considers these arguments and says, “Well, it is true that we wake up earlier than usual and sleep a little earlier as well. But little boys will certainly have more time now to take their catapults and hunt for small birds in the afternoons which isn’t very good.”