Horror of littered shells major contributor to drop in enrollment
On a rainy afternoon two weeks ago, half a dozen teachers were sitting in plastic chairs on the veranda of Government Middle School Lassipora here.
The narrative of their talk was death of a seven-year-old girl by a littered shell which exploded just yards away from the school, setting in a new description of horror in the neighborhood.
“Another student is dead here,” that’s how one of the teachers, Muneeb Rasool, put it, in a pensive mood.
“Tomorrow, somebody is going to be crippled. Then another and another,” he said, others nodding in agreement. “And this gory cycle goes on. I think we are a tribe at the brink of extinction.”
Observations by local government schools, including Lassipora, have revealed a substantial drop in student enrollment in over 20 villages near Tosamaidan meadow where the fields are littered with shells.
The presence of littered shells is the main reason why children stay away from schools, Muneeb Rasool, told Greater Kashmir.
People in the area, he said, fear sending their children to schools because they believe their wards might stumble on an abandoned shell somewhere and may get killed like Simran Riyaz, who lost her life due to a littered shell on May 19.
“In villages like Lassipora (where Simran died), children get either killed or disabled,” he said.
“They normally want to play with toys,” Muneeb said. “Here they stumble on bombs and get killed. That’s how they shape the psychology in this place.”
Javaid Ahmad, another teacher said a lot of propaganda was being carried out about Tosamaidan and the suffering of people.
“Government wants to believe in documents, not the reality here,” he said.
“The fact is that children want to stay away from schools here. They are scared and we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”
The depth of fear among school children can be gauged from a recent rally in which dozens of children along with activists took to roads and sought shifting of the firing range.
Video footage uploaded on social media by local activists had shown children marching in unison and chanting “we want justice” slogans.
Tosamaidan, which has lately earned the name “Meadow of Death” because of the previous death toll and growing fatalities over the years, stands as one of the most controversial issues in Kashmir.
In 2012, government put the death toll at 63 and said 41 have been wounded due to unexploded shells since 1965.
However, according to local activists, fatalities could be much higher as incidents in past, according to them, have gone unreported.
Prof A G Madhosh, distinguished academician, said the phenomenon of drop in enrollment in schools due to “terror” was not new in Kashmir.
“In these years of turmoil, what has steadily and mostly affected education is the continuing terror people face here in every nook and corner,” he said.
“It is the terror of shells near Tosamaidan which keeps children away from schools. The Problem is still alive there in full intensity.”
Prof Madhosh too put “threat to life” in the villages near Tosamaidan as a major factor of drop in enrollment.
There are around 50 government schools in the villages bordering Tosamaidan meadow with majority of the population living below poverty line.
Akhtar H Malik, a resident of Khaag and researcher at Centre for Biodiversity and Taxonomy, University of Kashmir, said the entire area around Tosamaidan is gripped with “fear psychosis.”
Within the reach of eight kilometers of the meadow, where shelling takes place, around 20 villages are immediate sufferers, Malik said.
The shelling takes place from 1st week of June till September, he said.
“All the activity in the area is muffled by big bangs,” Malik said. “And we have nowhere to go. Just let ourselves be dominated by the deadly sounds.”
Students, he said, were the worst sufferers of the phenomenon. He too acknowledged drop of enrollment in government schools in the area.
Villages of Drang, Sutharan, Lassipora, Shungipora, Habbar, Tchill, Brass, Zoogo Kharen, Khanpora, Arizal, Sugan and Poonchiwala Chek are worst affected, he added.
Although, international humanitarian aid agencies are familiar with Tosamaidan firing range and its impact on civilian population, most of them prefer to stay “neutral” given the sensitivity of the issue.
Sharif Bhat, State Manager (Jammu & Kashmir), Save the Children, said the organization will dispatch a team to the villages near Tosamaidan and find out the reasons of drop in enrollment.
“There is an issue of littered mines in the area,” he said.
“But we will definitely send a team to see why there is drop in enrollment.”
Radhika Kaul Batra, United Nations Coordination Advisor at the office of the UN Resident Coordinator, New Delhi, didn’t respond to repeated telephone calls from this newspaper.
Dr Alex George, ActionAid India’s National Lead on Child Rights, said it was difficult for him to comment, citing “lack of knowledge” about Tosamaidan.
Akke Boere, India Director, Médecins Sans Frontières, told Greater Kashmir over phone from New Delhi that anybody was welcome to their counseling centers but desisted to comment directly on the issue.
“Since we don’t deal with education, we can’t comment on it,” she said. “But we have our counseling centers in Kashmir. If anybody feels need to attend to them, we welcome them.”
Tanvir Sadiq, Political Secretary of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, said he will seek a report from district administration and police regarding the issue.
“We will ask for a report from the concerned Deputy Commissioner and Senior Superintendent of Police there to find out whether fright of shells is the reason why enrollment has dropped,” he said.
“And if it is there, then immediate action will be taken.”
Even though government officials and aid agencies don’t directly acknowledge the drop in enrollment, on May 19, there was apparently a drop of two students: Simran Riyaz and her brother Fayaz Ahmad.
The former died and the latter became crippled for life.
That’s the testimony of locals.