My thematic conference was truly an eye-opening experience for me. Away from the hustle of Delhi, visiting Kutch was an experience unlike any other. As a team, we were fortunate to stay outside a small village where the only sounds you woke up to were a sound of bhajans (prayer hymns) from a nearby temple and a rooster. Each day for the thematic conference, we got up at the crack of dawn and ran down stairs to get a bucket of hot water to freshen up for the day. Then we were off for breakfast and had a choice of some of the freshest rotis I have ever tasted in my life. At the end of the day, we all had our meals and then some off us took blankets to observe the stars, a pleasure that I rarely had in Delhi given the high pollution there.
Rann of Kutch: Salt Mines
First part of the exposure visit was to visit the Rann of Kutch. Amidst Gujarat, around six hours and half away from Ahmedabad and near the ocean, lies the Rann of Kutch, one of the largest districts of Gujarat as well as India. It is where about 75% of the salt is produced for India. Through the thematic conference, my team and I were able to observe how the salt was produced, gathered, and collected. Mostly families work at the salt mines for a set price set per kilo of salt, and worked for the entire season. Entire families worked in the salt mines, including small children. It is similar to indentured servitude as the the pay given to the workers was abysmal, but the whole family had no other means to make money. The tour guide told us that often families would borrow large sums of money for personal festivities such as weddings, which they would then have to work off for the entire season.
I personally observed a girl of maybe sixteen years old dragging a machine across the salt pane without any shoes or protective device on her. It was admitted that many workers often worked without any protective devices, resulting in severe abnormalities in their feet and hands.
Education is also a real problem for the families around the area of Kutch, as many do not speak Gujarati, but Kutchi, and have a difficult time communicating with others. They are no permanent teachers along the region due to the difficultly of living in that area.
Apart from visiting the Rann of Kutch, we were fortunate enough to visit some schools for girls, as the focus of our thematic conference was education. One of the schools we visited was rated as one of the top schools in Gujarat. The administrators were quick to point out the many accolades they had received. It was all-girls school with almost an all-male faculty. There was only one female teacher in the entire school. When we asked about the lack of female leaders, the teachers responded that female teachers were less likely to travel long distances and as the teachers themselves had to travel from other villages to teach at this school, it was tedious for female teachers to travels such distances. Although the school had won many accolades over the past few years, a few things were particularly problematic for me. First, the administrators and the male teachers did not give the female teacher the opportunity to speak. Second, they started their speech by stating the girls’ socioeconomic status and lower castes, thus shedding light on their prejudices. Third, when our group mentioned about the girls volunteering and teaching in Kutch after graduation, the administrators were quick to point out that most girls would most likely just become housewives immediately upon graduation.
There was also a lack of clean toilets and facilities available for the girls. I was personally shocked that despite the accolades the school had received, they could not afford to have more than one female teacher for the girls. This was problematic because in a society that is deeply divided by gender, where things such as menstruation and sex are still considered taboo, it was unclear how the girls in this school were even able to receive general knowledge about menstruation and safe sex practices. Curious to know more, I had a conversation with the only female teacher about this issue and she stated that in the whole school of four to five hundred girls, she had made it known to the students that they could contact her if they had any menstruation issues. Despite this assurance from this teacher, it was very alarming that in such a highly reputable school, menstruation, a very important element for a girl’s education, was not taught to the students due to the fact that all of the teachers were male.
As this was a pervasive issue, our group leader was able to shed some more light on the issue. For example, our leader stated that although non-governmental organizations tried to spread knowledge about menstruation, it was hard to get that material translated properly into local languages and dialects.
Going even a step further, when I asked whether any administrators taught about good touch and bad touch as sexual assault among children is recorded at 53.22% , there was no mention of giving that type of education to the students at all. I think this is due to a lack of resources and awareness. People don’t seem to take it seriously as a topic yet.
Another issue of concern is absenteeism of government school teachers. In villages in Gujarat and in other states, absenteeism of teachers was very common where government teachers often showed up once a week or a month, leaving the students in classrooms without teachers. In one town that was partially inaccessible due to flooding, the teacher could not go for six months of the year and when they could, they often only went a couple of days of the semester.
One of the best things I observed throughout this visit was the impact of AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAMP) on the students. LAMP provides an after-school program for students. It has teachers who teach the students basic educational principles. The teachers use games, songs, and other creative exercises to teach them. The teachers are from the local area, so they use the local language to teach them concepts such as photosynthesis and geometry. I was amazed to learn about how quickly the students picked up complex concepts. Given the high rate of absenteeism of government school teachers, this was the only education that the students from these villages were likely to get in their lifetimes. I am truly thankful for programs like LAMP. Although there are still many things that we could do to implement, such as a workshop about menstruation – since it’s a reason for many girls to drop their education altogether – and a workshop on good touch and bad touch, I’ve found that LAMP is a step in the right direction.
 Ministry of Women and Child Development. Study on Child Abuse: India 2007. New Delhi: Government of India, 2007. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/sites/default/files/documents/4978.pdf