From the moment I started planning for my 1st monitoring visit to the North East of India, I knew it would be something very special and entirely unique. This region of the country spans across a mountainous and remote terrain which is linked to the Indian mainland only through a 14km strip of territory belonging to West Bengal. Prior to embarking on my journey I was reminded about the varied circumstance of those residing in this area with differences ranging across linguistics, religion, ethnicity and traditional beliefs. You can therefore imagine the curiosity and fervour in which I embarked on this trip which was heightened as soon as I landed in Guwahati, the capital of Assam.
After disembarking at the airport I started a 5 hour car journey which took me across the Assamese border into the neighbouring state of Meghalaya. As I gazed out the window I was taken aback by a horizon dotted with hills and mountains towering down in all of their glory on the neighbouring communities. I watched as uniformed children wound down the mountains via treacherous steps and paths to gain access to transportation taking them to nearby schools. Even within the relatively urban context of this area I became acutely aware of the difficulties these children face in simply accessing their educational institutes. If this was the case on the outskirts of the city, I wondered what the situation would be of children in more remote areas attempting to practice their universal right of accessing an education. My question would be answered in the coming days.
On the 3rd day of our visit, I was taken to an extremely remote location which winded steeply uphill and crossed rivers and streams. The journey would take us to a local school established by the Montfort Brothers as an outreach educational post to neighbouring local communities. It was explained to me that this was the only functioning school in this region in which teachers sourced from the neighbouring city, 45 mins away, travelled in and out every day in order to keep the school functioning. The teachers then explained to me that during the rainy season the stream they have to cross in order to gain access to the school burgeons to the point of inaccessibility. Therefore to get to their students, they need to form human chains and wade through waist high water. The treachery of this pursuit did not escape me even in spite of the ease in which these young women recounted their story.
The school itself, located in Bolchugre operates on a hot and dusty strip of land without electricity, running water or any toilet facilities. Upon speaking to the students there I learnt the only form of access they have to the school is by foot and the majority of them spend about 4-5 hours walking one way to simply get to the school. What surprised me the most after hearing this is that in spite of the difficult conditions these children face in their pursuit of accessing an education, attendance remains high each and every day. As if their will to learn pushes them through the tiring and oppressive conditions of steep ascents uphill and across dangerous terrain.
For me as a development worker, I come across these stories on each visit I make. However, the sheer determination of these pursuits is never lost on me. Every time I hear one of these harrowing accounts I think back to my own life and those of my friends and family around me who are lucky enough to live in a Global North country in which an education is a given. I think about just how much we take the access to this for granted and how burdensome we attribute this pursuit to at times. Juxtapositioned against the will, determination and drive these children have, it seems utterly absurd that we take our rights and ease of access for granted.
As I watched the children leave school for the day I was reminded about how strong the human spirit is and how valuable an opportunity to an education represents in any context it finds itself in.