In our last article, we talked about Teach for India, an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of Indian teaching across the country. However, the diversity in India is such that some regions require more specialised and focused attention. The Northeast of India is a land of untapped potential and immense natural beauty and culture, one which many do not know much about, even within India. Its education system is similarly underdeveloped, and that is where the Sunbird Trust is aiming to make a difference, in a region that has been ravaged by insurgency.
We sought to learn about the challenges of teaching in the Northeast, and how the Sunbird Trust is attempting to overcome those challenges and improve the quality of education in the region. As a result, we spoke to Mr. Christopher Rego, a former Colonel in the Indian Army and the Founder and CEO of the Sunbird Trust, as well as Ms. Michelle Markos, an Assistant School Leader with the Trust.
The North-Eastern Educational Landscape
Col. Rego was in the Army for 32 years and had been fascinated by the Northeast for a long time due to its natural beauty and culture. “I specifically asked the Army to post me in the region. I spent 7 years in Meghalaya, Manipur and Mizoram over the course of 2 tenures. When I served with the Assam Rifles back in 2003, I noticed that despite the signing of the Peace Accords back in 1986, there was still some suspicion, mistrust and sometimes, anger against the rest of India. Development appeared to be tardy and there were few jobs available. As a result, my wife and I decided to try and make a difference in a region we had grown to love”.
“We found that there are two big barriers to education in the Northeast. The first is a lack of physical accessibility due to the remoteness of the region, which makes for an immense impediment. Many of the people in this region live in small, remote villages in the hills. As a result, having a school in every village is not feasible. At times, there may be 1 school for every 20 villages, and many students have to go through the hills or across the rivers to get there. Apart from cities in the Northeast like Shillong, Guwahati, Imphal and Kohima, most of the region is spread across the hills and the forest areas with very poor physical infrastructure. Roads are few and far between”.
“The second problem is financial accessibility, which is a significant barrier to entry given how expensive education is in private schools. Many people in these areas are subsistence farmers who only have enough food for their families. With their limited income, they cannot afford to send all of their children to school. Due to this, the children sometimes have to skip school due to financial constraints”.
Another significant challenge for the Trust is the cultural diversity within the Northeast itself that the rest of the country is barely aware of, as Col. Rego elaborates: “Take Manipur, for example, where 70% of our work is. It is a state with a population of 2.90 million. The city of Bengaluru alone has more than triple that number. Within that small population of Manipur, there are 34 different identities, each with their own language and culture. In some areas, you can come across a new tribe every 40km and in the deep interior regions, many people only speak their tribal language. Otherwise, they speak a mix of Manipuri, English and Hindi. This diversity in culture and language makes the educational landscape very fragmented, making our work quite difficult. There are areas that have schools teaching in the local language, but they struggle to prepare their students for transitioning into larger institutions that teach in the state or national language”.
“In this region, the decades-long conflict has made things worse. Things have never been settled and there is frequently turmoil in the civil sector. The instability sometimes affects the school calendar, which is unlike anywhere else in India. The amount of learning days is curtailed by this unpredictability. This problem is compounded by the harvest months around June, where the children have to help their families out, as well as the winter break. As a result, in some areas, only 8 months of learning is possible”.
Students of the Sunbird Trust at School
Sunbird’s Current Operational Overview
“My wife and I started sponsoring the education of children from Mizoram and soon people from around the country started joining us in this venture. We thought this was a good way of creating bonds with local folks, as education can be very empowering. Beyond that, this endeavour would help get to the minds of the younger generation and build bridges of friendship between people from different parts of the country, which is vital in this conflict-affected area”.
“Our vision is Peace through Education. Sunbird Trust came into being on December 11th 2014, although we have been sponsoring children since 2003. Back then, we only sponsored a few children. Now we support 3,800 children across 5 North-Eastern Indian states. We target areas that were heavily affected by the insurgency and where there is still suspicion and a lack of trust. This sponsorship helps create the impression that the rest of the country is with the local communities, partnering with them in giving their children access to school. This has the added effect of winning their parents’ understanding and further developing the bonds of friendship”.
Col. Rego’s work saw him receive the international Ashoka Fellowship from South Asia in 2016. This helped accelerate the progress of the then-nascent Sunbird Trust, as he testifies: “Getting the Fellowship gave us credibility and put us on a different platform. Various organisations and High Net-worth Individuals (HNIs) started supporting us, which gave impetus to our work. Our emphasis on transparency and accountability has given our donors and partners plenty of confidence in our work”.
“We have 53 partner schools in the Northeast where we sponsor children. The money that goes into sponsoring these children goes towards our partner schools’ teachers’ salaries, helping to keep these schools sustainable. We select schools that are already functioning and are aligned with our values: they are not for profit, work for the underprivileged, do not seek to impose any political or religious agenda or otherwise alter the culture of the students. We choose individuals, groups or institutions with a demonstrated track record of years of service”.
“We do not want to transplant our students outside their tribe, community and culture. On the other hand, we have a policy of “Deepen your Roots and Broaden your Vision”, whereby we encourage our children to celebrate their roots, culture, festivals and religion, while simultaneously respecting others’ beliefs and backgrounds”.
“We assist our partner schools in building up educational infrastructure such as computer laboratories, libraries and science laboratories. We also send them interns to help boost their teaching manpower, which they are happy to receive. We make sure that the work we do is in partnership with and for the locals. We also ensure our work is aligned with their culture and way of life as far as possible. Normally, we do not own any of the buildings we help build. Instead, they are managed by the local Society or Trust. We strengthen these local communities and ensure the benefits of our work are collective. We only ask the communities we support to participate and donate land, building materials and labour to help us build these facilities for them. We consider them as equal partners and respect their dignity by not treating them patronisingly or coming in with a ‘saviour’ complex. At the same time, we try to avoid building in a culture of dependency and entitlement. Cooperation is the basis of our work”.
“The strength of our organisation is our team of 20 passionate and committed young professionals. We are people from 5 different religions hailing from across India. Our numbers include 9 Teach for India Fellows, Engineers, MBA graduates, some with a Master’s in Social Work and even a Hotel Management graduate. Many have given up lucrative opportunities in towns and cities to serve in our remote, conflict-affected areas, experiencing much hardship. They bring a lot of knowledge and experience across various domains to the organisation”.
The Sunbird Trust Team
On the Ground
Of the Sunbird Trust’s 53 partner schools, there are 7 schools that the Trust has helped to build (or is building) and maintained almost in their entirety. Additionally, they have also built 8 hostels to help give students from remote villages access to these schools.
Ms. Michelle Markos is an Assistant School Leader at one of these schools in a village called Puichi in Manipur. She grew up in Kerala, a state known for its education system and literacy. A Teach for India Fellow, she completed a Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University, specialising in School Leadership and Management.
The school in Puichi is a primary school and she is its Principal, overseeing students from Nursery to Class 4 alongside her colleague Ms. Josmy Joseph. She aims to incorporate the stories, songs and games of the Inpui Naga tribe she stays with into her lessons to keep the children rooted in their culture. In her own words, “English education should not create a huge divide between their culture and move them away from it”.
Alongside teaching children, Ms. Markos also aims to help develop the teaching capabilities of the local teachers, who generally do not have the traditional qualifications required to teach in the rest of the country, which she is keen to stress is not their fault given the system they grew up in. “Most of our teachers have not gone beyond their 10th and 12th, but they are a very motivated bunch. We have been doing our best to partner with them in building their capacities, as getting outside teachers to plug the gap is not sustainable in the long run. As a result, my colleagues Ravi, Angela and I started the Pedagogy Project to train our local teachers. We had our first residential training session in February with 30 teachers in attendance from 8 different schools. They were trained by a team from Azim Premji University, who have been pioneers in teacher training in India for years. We had a mix of content knowledge and subject-specific sessions, as well as general sessions regarding how to make classes more activity-based and how to make morning assemblies more fun”.
Both Col. Rego and Ms. Markos are keen to point out that the story behind the school’s formation is a special one. As Ms. Markos explains, “The Sunbird Trust built the school I work at from scratch using an old Army Barracks with the full support of the community and the Assam Rifles. It is wonderful how a place where weapons were once stored is now a place of learning and play!” Col. Rego adds that he got the enthusiastic support of the local Brigadier, making this possible.
The idea behind forming a school in that particular location was not merely symbolic, as both of them explain. Ms. Markos explained that the idea was to cut the travel time for small children, who previously had to make a tough daily journey involving slush, rain and leeches to get to school in the neighbouring village. “We wanted to keep them at home with their parents in the early years, which even research says is important”, Ms. Markos says. Talking about the impact of Ms. Markos’ and Ms. Joseph’s work, Col. Rego says, “The transformation Michelle and Josmy have helped bring about is incredible. A place that once used to be very suspicious of outsiders have practically made those two the daughters of the village!”
Flying through a Storm
The pandemic completely halted education in most of the Northeast, especially in the areas where Sunbird Trust operates. Ms. Markos elaborated on the struggle she had in her village: “The pandemic made the situation of a marginalised, vulnerable community even worse. Most here are underprivileged and there is a dire lack of physical infrastructure. We have 95 families in the village that send around 82 children to my school. I did a survey in my village which indicated that 36% of my students did not have access to WhatsApp or the internet. Realising that we had limited scope to attempt a transition to digital learning for our children, we tried various other solutions including printing workbooks for children to engage with at home”.
Col. Rego concurs with Ms. Markos’s points, stating: “We have been trying various ideas but getting momentum is difficult; every time a new COVID-19 case appears, the villages shut down completely, making the movement of teachers extremely difficult. As a result, we aim to strengthen parents’ awareness of their roles and responsibilities in the education of their children. COVID-19 hit Manipur much later than the big cities, so it is currently in a bad phase. In such a situation, digital learning may look like an attractive solution but most of the people here cannot afford phones. We are currently asking one of our sponsors to help us with handheld tablets to resolve this issue”.
How can things be improved? Col. Rego has a few suggestions: “With regards to North-Eastern India, out of sight is out of mind for most people from the ‘mainland’. While there is considerable support for schools and education in the mainland, the same cannot be said about the Northeast. This stems from stunning ignorance about the realities of people in the region. If we are to bring about equity in education, it is incumbent for people to be more aware of the needs of children here. A lot can be achieved if companies look to the Northeast for more CSR initiatives to address the prevailing gaps”. Col. Rego also mentions that Sunbird Trust is trying to start a movement where young professionals, especially teachers from across India, volunteer to serve in the remote areas of the Northeast. This will contribute immensely to raising the standard of education in the region.
The Sunbird Friendship Hostel at Ijeirong Village (Blue Building)
Looking to the Horizon
Regarding the National Educational Policy, Col. Rego says, “There is much within it that should be commended. However, it would appear to require more context and nuance to make it relevant and effective for the Northeast, given the huge diversity of languages and cultures within each state”.
“I would like to see vocational training included as a part of the curriculum. I would also like higher education to be more multi-disciplinary and credit-based, with multiple exit and entry points so that the youth can balance studies with taking up a job. This lack of flexibility in the system means that children have to choose between studying and earning at an early age. The system should be sympathetic to students such as those in the Northeast who also support their families whilst studying, enabling them to both earn and learn at their own pace”.
“Take, for instance, a brilliant student we sponsor who comes from a financially challenged family. He was studying Agriculture in Roorkee. We sponsored his education due to his financial circumstances, which were about to compel him to return home and abandon his studies. He soon started doing well, until one day I found him back in Manipur. He had returned home to do some construction work and help earn for his family to buy food. He had told his college he would do his work from home, because he had done well, which they agreed to”.
As for the Sunbird Trust itself, what does its future look like? On this, Col. Rego has expressed his hopes as follows: “At Sunbird, we look to unite all stakeholders in the conflict zone such as local communities, the Army and the rest of the country in an endeavour to educate and empower children. This would not only help build understanding, but help shed toxic mindsets of the past. We look at the day when hundreds of young professionals from across the country volunteer to serve as teachers in our remote, conflict-affected areas. Furthermore, the kind of sustainability we aim to achieve through the Trust is one where sponsored alumni are individual arrows for peace and help pull their families out of poverty. We are already privileged in that many Sunbird alumni are already joining the organisation”.
“Our vision is to build 50 institutions (schools or hostels) and help educate 25,000 children across North-East India by 2025. It is not merely about getting these children academically qualified. We seek to make them arrows of peace imbibed with the ideas of broad-mindedness and plurality whilst proudly representing their culture, religion and tribe. Through them, this will undoubtedly permeate through to their larger communities. If we can achieve this vision, we can achieve physical, tangible impact and foster peace and amity in a very big way”.