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Among the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set up by UN to be achieved by 2030, quality education stands at the number four positions from the top. That means ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all is a top priority of SDGs worldwide. UN states that education is a right. It empowers individuals to increase their well-being and contributes to broader social and economic gains. However, gender-based discrimination has been a deterrent to this right in many developing countries like India. Improved education accounts for about 50% of economic growth in Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries over the past five decades. About half is due to more women entering higher levels of education and greater equality as to the years men and women spend in school.  India is not an OECD country and therefore the need of inclusive and high-quality education is a high priority for her. SDG 4 is envisioned with a view to ending gender stereotypes and to tackle elements that limit schooling or channel women and girls into ‘acceptable’ areas of study or work. It also calls for availability of education to all girls and boys, men and women across their lifetimes.

Assam has the distinction of the first government anywhere to adopt and implement SDGs. Formally adopting the SDGs on 1 January 2016, the Government of Assam, launched “Assam Vision-2030 Initiative” in August that year towards achieving the goals. Significantly it has selected Char areas of the state as one of the models in particularly identified deprived and vulnerable areas for preparing model SDG plans and implementation. The Char areas of the Brahmaputra valley has a unique feature of development exclusion coupled with geographical isolation, hostile terrain, naturally disaster prone with a society afflicted by poverty, poor health, population explosion and heavily gender biased. Widespread illiteracy and lack of educational fecilities and the distances the Char dwellers have to cover to access them is a major challenge that the state has to face to achieve the SDG of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. The issue of women related to literacy and education in Chars is of prime importance as it transcends SDG 3 to SDG 5 (Gender Equality).

The status of women in a society is highly determined by the education and literacy they have. Gender issues are always related to education. The UN-Women estimate that women account 60% of world illiterate population and terms quality education as core pre-requisite for gender equality and women’s rights. In the Chars of the Brahmaputra in Assam, the literacy and educational scenario in general and that of women in particular is very dismal. No latest data is available on the state of education in Chars of Assam. However a survey conducted by the Directorate of Char Areas Development (DCAD), Govt. of Assam in 2002-03 shows that about 81% of the males and 92% of females in Chars of the state are illiterate.

As a part of a media fellowship programme under the ageist of National Foundation for India, New Delhi, a study has been made on women in Assam’s Char areas and SDGs covering 9 districts of Assam—Dhubri, Barpeta, Darrang, Marigaon, Nagaon, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts. The existing literacy rate and the education scenario vis-à-vis women found in a pathetic state in Char areas of Assam.

In Dhubri district of western Assam, the educational status of Char women is very poor. In the Chars like Airmari, Aminer Char, Katiyar Alga, Moinakandi, Dharabandha, Bangshir Char, Khedaimari the educational fecilities for women and girl are non-existent. Baladuba, a village under Golokganj Revenue Circle of Gauripur Development Block is a perfect example of this. Here only 0.7% of the female has studied up to the 10th standard as against 3.9% male. Significantly all the respondents interviewed in these areas expressed their unwillingness to study beyond the 10th standard. The dropout of girl students is also alarmingly high in these Char areas where 88.2% of the girls discontinue their education in the high school level. The district has 14.6% of literacy in Char areas as per 2002-03 survey by DCAD.

In Barpeta district, which has highest numbers of permanent and semi-permanent Chars, the educational status of Char women has no difference. The Chars belong to five (Mondia, Keotkuchi, Chenga, Goma  and Rupshi) out of twelve rural development blocks of the district 469 (26.8%) of the women interviewed (1750) are found to be literate. Among them 43.4 % are of primary level, 32.8% of high school level and only 15.2% are in graduate and post graduate level. The district has 12.34% of literacy in Char areas as per 2002-03 survey by DCAD. Apart from large Chars like Moinbori, Bohori, Baghbor etc. which has accessibility and some infrastructures like schools, health centres and other state establishments, there are many remote Chars in Brapeta district which are still devoid of all modern amenities. The Alipur Char, Rasoolpur Char and Kawoimari Char under Govindpur Gaon Panchayat in Mandia Rural Development Block do not have any road, water ways ghat, electricity, primary school and health sub-centres. The only state service available is some Angawadi centres in these Chars. Same is the case in Chars of Sonapur, Sidhani, Kandapara, Sayedpur, Mominpur, Dharmapur, Islampur and villages of No 3 Baghmara N C, No 4 Bagamara N C, Mowamari, Chapari Gaon, Chapari Pathar, Kalpani N C, Kalgachi, Ujirar Char, Mowkhowa Char N C, Tekla Chuti, Matha Ranga of Kopahtoli Char under Baghbar Rural Development Block there are no educational facilities. Here girls are raised only to be married after their puberty. Some of them are sent to Madrassas where only teachings of recitation and memorization of Quran is taught with strict Islamic dress code.

Darang district in north-central Assam is known for its Chars where huge amount of crops are produced and supplied across the state and many places of North East, mostly to Arunachal Pradesh. But despite the bumper products of agriculture and its allied products, the Char areas of Darrang district are still devoid of development though situated not far from the district headquarter Mangaldoi. The literacy rate of Char areas of Darrang district is 12.34% (2002-03 survey by DCAD). In Phuhuratoli, Borbari, Dariapara, Kaniatari, Ghatarag, Banglapota Mowamari, AlgaChar and Dhalpur Chars under Sipajhar Rural Development Block there is only 4 high schools and 1 HS Schools. In Atakata Chapori, Badli Char, Gadhowa Chapori, Garapari Chapori, KashiChar and KasomariChar no educational facilities are there. Literacy rate among women of these areas is 34.3%.

Morigaon district in south-central Assam has the dubious distinction of most erosion affected riverine areas of the state. The Brahmaputra in last quarter of the century has eroded 10256.93 hectares of land with 64 revenue villages in three revenue circles of the district, namely Bhuragaon, Lahorighat and Mayong (Source: Circle office of District Revenue Deptt., Morigaon, 2001). The Chars of Morigaon district are scattered around Bhuragaon and Lahorighat areas which include Gariamari, Sunarigaon, Sitalmari, Dhekermari, Neetmari, Jhaogar, Kahitoli, Borigaon, Sialmari, Harangtoli, Rowmari and Dhumkara. The literacy rate of the Char areas of Morigaon is 18.5% (2002-03, DCAC). Educational deprivation is prominent in the sample population of the studied Char areas where female illiteracy rate is 12.5%. Not more than 1% of the sample population is found to have managerial, technical or post-graduate qualification.

The literacy rate of Char areas of Nagaon district is 17.59% (DCAD, 2002-03). Educational deprivation is prominent in the Char population of the district. More than 70% of the surveyed women is illiterate while 32% of them of these areas has the educational attainment only up to the primary level. The middle level of education is completed by about 17.8% and 9% per cent of the females have completed matriculation level of education. After matriculation, the enrolment rate in higher classes was found to be poorer in these Char areas of Nagaon district like Bhurbandha, Gakhirkhaiti, Katiachapari, Jawani, Bogamukh, Sani Tapu and Kandhulimari.

Sonitpur district in north Assam has a literacy rate of 16.93% (2002-03, DCAC) in its Char areas Bhojmari, Mirihola, Katarati, Makuwa Chapori, Tenga Basti, Chatai Chapori, Bogoriati, Jahajdoba, Salmari, Singimari, Goroimari and Baghmari. Though most of the Char areas of Sonitpur district are not far from the administrative headquarters of sub-division or other centres, education among its dwellers is very low. Only 9% of the surveyed women found to be literate and only 0.5% of them have completed their education up to matriculation.

Dhemaji district on the north-eastern part of Assam has comparatively small Char areas of the Brahmaputra. The largest concentration of Char dwellers in the district is found in Kobu Chapori on the confluence of Lohit and Siang where almost all basic amenities for life are unavailable. The literacy rate among the Char people in the district is 15.69% (2002-03, DCAC) However the female literacy rate is dismal 4% in the surveyed area. None of the women interviewed have gone to the high school level of education as the Char does not have any high school.

In neighbouring Lakhimpur district the literacy in Char area is 18.5% (2002-03, DCAC) where the female literacy rate in the surveyed areas is 12%. Availability of one high school and a college nearby has contributed of having 7% of its females completing the matriculation and 1.7% studying at intermediate classes.

The teacher-pupil ratio is also widest in Char areas of Assam.  The No 1 Sukharjar Lower Primary School in Barpeta’s Char area has 400 students to one teacher. The school has earned a dubious distinction for that attracting attention from the concerned departments in the state.

Though the literacy rate in char areas increased from 15.45% during 1992-93 to 19.31% during 2003-04, it was much lower than Assam’s overall rate of 53.79% and 50.48% in rural Assam in 2001. If taken as one administrative unit, the chars under 59 development blocks and accounting for 9.35% of Assam’s total population form the most illiterate part of India. In 2011, the country’s least literate (36.10%) district was Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh while Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh held this record in 2001 with 30.35%. Women constitute a considerable portion of this illiteracy.

As per the 2002-03 survey by Directorate of Char Development, Assam, there are 1,852 lower primary schools, 574 middle schools, 218 high schools, eight higher secondary schools and 18 colleges to cater to the educational needs of the char dwellers. This, for a population of 25 lakh, means less than one lower primary school for 1,000 people and worse in the case of higher education. Moreover, these areas have a very high dropout rate for the female child at the primary school level. In the present study area comprising nine of the total fourteen districts having Char areas, the number of lower primary schools is 1076, middle school is 312, high schools is 88, higher secondary school is 2 and colleges is 11 including two private ones. Districts with Char areas like Darrang, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Dhemaji do not have a single college in these areas. In Lakhimpur district there is one college near Katori Chapori which was founded in 1995 and still awaiting state take over.

Social constrains in a heavily gender biased tradition have been afflicting women in Chars of Assam in attaining education. Most of the girls are not allowed to continue education beyond the high school level and get married. The distance, which one has to cover by boats, from Chars to nearest high schools also forces the girls to dropout in large numbers. Religion also plays a constraining role in Char so far women education is concerned. Girls are usually not allowed to go to colleges which are mostly co-educational in areas nearby the Chars. Not a single college for girls are found in the study areas of Char. Land for a girls college for Char areas has been selected in Chenga of Barpeta district

But traditional Islamic schools called Madrassas have a considerable presence in Chars of the  Assam. Though most of the Madrassas, which teach recitation and memorization of Quran in its curricula, are for boys, of late girls Madrassas are also coming up in Chars of Assam. Called Banat Madrassa, these girls Madrassas also impart similar Islamic teachings with strict dress code of Burqa and classes conducted by male teacher on the other side of a screen.

The Government of Assam, in a bid to achieve SDGs within the timeframe launched “Assam Vision-2030 Initiative” in August, 2016. A nodal department, Transformation & Development (T&D) has been formed since January 2016 for coordinating all the activities within various state departments for achieving the SDGs in Assam. Working groups have been formed with all state departments for plan preparations and Capacity Building trainings have also been organized so far. In the Economic Survey of Assam (2016-17) a chapter has been included on indicators and targets for monitoring the progress of achievements of Assam Vission-2030. These indicators and targets have been designed in sync with the SDGs. A 7 Year SDG Strategy Paper and 3 Year Action Plan (SPAP), as desired by NITI Aayog, was initiated in mid-2016 and an Outcome Budget has been taken with strategic mapping of SDGs for the first time in Assam. Five state conclaves on various goals of the SDGs have also been held so far in Assam. However, the most important part of implementing the SDGs is monitoring and documentation of progress. Government of Assam has been working on identification and determination of state-specific core SDG indicators and benchmarks for SDG targets. A set of 59 State-specific Core Indicators have been identified and are planned to be monitored at regular interval at different disaggregated levels. For SDG Quality Education (Pre-primary, Primary, Secondary including vocational, and Higher Education) state Education Department is synergized with  Social Welfare (Pre-primary Education), Labour and Employment (Coordination on skills development) Departments as primary supporting departments and with Cultural Affairs, Sports & Youth Welfare Department as secondary. From these developments there is optimism about a change and transformation concerning life in general and for women’s education in particular in Char areas for Assam.

(The writer is a fellow at National Foundation of India, New Delhi)

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