In a move to address learning among the children of Assam’s tea garden community — living in tribes across nearly a thousand tea gardens — Guwahati-based publishing house Anwesha has partnered with UNICEF to bring out special story books that “bridge the gap”. Development — specifically in education and literacy — has always lagged behind for these communities, who moved to Assam from places like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal centuries ago.
“Most of our communities have their own language and dialect. But, when kids go to school, it is Assamese they are taught in. This can often be an alienating experience,” says Sushil Suri, a teacher from a tea garden community in Charaideo district. Suri attended UNICEF’s three-day workshop, held from September 20-22, in Guwahati to discuss the nature and the content of the books.
“While we understand Assamese, there are certain words our children grow up hearing. For example, take birds. While a house sparrow is called ghonosirika in Assamese, we call it the puchi pakhur. The dove is kopou in Assamese, but in our language, it is parnkhi pakhur,” says Suri.
The books, aimed at children between Class I – V, while in Assamese, will use local colloquialisms, phrases and words to tell tales based on oral traditions and folktales of the tea garden community. “A famous story is sotur leeta — about a cunning fox,” says Suri, adding that, “There is barely any children’s literature in the tea garden communities. This will go a long way in getting children interested.”
The workshop was also attended by Assamese authors, poets as well as other representatives from the tea garden communities including teachers and principals of schools and colleges. “While folktales will be emphasised on, the stories will also focus on social issues,” says Rita Gowala, headmistress of a Lower Primary tea garden school in Dibrugarh. She says that many times, if a household of a tea labourer has five children, the eldest daughter will always be assigned to take care of the younger kids. “As a result, the daughter never ends up coming to school. The stories will address such issues — along with topics of health/nutrition, superstition, family and home environment.”
The schools for the tea garden community are of two kinds: one kind falls directly under the tea management, while the others have been provincialised. In 2015, the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) published a report that revealed that 80 % of the tea gardens in Assam violate the Right to Education Act, considering the high drop out rates and involvement of children in manual labour at a very young age. “Things have marginally improved since. If we notice a particular child is absent for a significant period, we make it a point to go to their homes,” says Gowala.
The books will be published in next four months. “We will have ten books in all — four for Classes I and II, four for Classes III and IV, and two for Class V,” says Paresh Malakar, President, Anwesha.
In 2009, Anwesha had collaborated with UNICEF for to publish 13 books for the tea garden community. “Even then we had held a brainstorming workshop. Till then there was absolutely no representation about their lives, culture or traditions. Hence, studying became a very alienating experience,” says Malakar, “These are all attractive picture books. The ones for the older children will have more text. The aim is to interest them and help ‘bridge the gap’ between home language and school language.”