A man limped toward a makeshift camp set up by the Nepal Army (NA) to distribute relief packages to the victims of recent Sunkoshi landslide. The man, who identified himself as Mangal Tamang from Ramche VDC-5 of Sindhupalchowk district, held a card out of his shirt´s pocket and slung it over his neck, just before he entered into the camp.
It was the first evening of September and the sun was about to set in just half an hour. But, the camp was still teeming with people desperate to grab a few kilos of food grains, which NA personnel have been distributing to the landslide victims for almost a month now.
An NA soldier assigned to distribute relief packages took Tamang´s card that was green in color, meaning he had lost all his property in the Sunkoshi landslide that killed 156 people on August 5. Those who lost both their family members and properties have been given red cards.
After examining Tamang´s card, the NA solider gave him two sacks of rice grains. As a proof of his receiving relief materials, Tamang was asked to sign a paper, but he said he was illiterate.
“I can´t write down my name,” said Tamang. “I would rather use my finger print.” He sought stamp pad. But, there was no stamp pad. The NA soldier, who asked for his signature, started to ink Tamang´s thumb with a fountain pen so that the latter could use his finger print.
All of a sudden, another NA person sprang up from his chair and said, “Wait, we should not be doing this.”
“Why?,” asked the NA person who was still inking Tamang´s thumb. “What´s wrong with it?”
“Sindhupalchowk is a total literate district,” said the other NA soldier. “It would be embarrassing if someone finds the locals still using their fingerprints in a total literate district like this.”
The two NA soldiers discussed this for a while. After sometime, they decided to help Tamang write down his name. So, an NA man held Tamang´s right hand and guided him to write down his name.
This little incident, which took place in a makeshift relief distribution camp set up by the NA hardly a kilometer south of the Sunkoshi landslide area, exposes the dark side of Nepal´s ´first´ total-literate district Sindhupalchowk. In June this year, the local District Education Office (DEO) declared Sindhupalchowk as Nepal´s first total-literate district — a declaration that came into dispute when the local DEO declared Lalitpur as Nepal´s first total-literate district.
Later, the Non-Formal Education Center (NFEC) recognized Sindhupalchowk as Nepal´s first total-literate district, stating Lalitpur DEO´s claim came only later.
Rejoicing its status as Nepal´s first total-literate district, the Sindhupalchowk DEO has hung a sign board at the entry point of its area, a little way up from Dolalghat.
But, the picture of Sindhupalchowk is not as rosy as claimed by the local DEO. There are still a significant number of people like Mangal Tamang, who cannot even write his name.
Chandra Tamang, who lost his mother and three children to the Sunkoshi landslide, says many landslide victims are illiterate, just like Mangal.
“In Mankha and Ramche village, as many as 64 Tamang people were killed by the landslide and around 20 of them, all above 15 years of age, were illiterate,” says he. “Although the government had conducted adult literacy classes in our village, all illiterate people had not taken part and even those who participated did not learn much.”
The Sindhupalchowk DEO says it made the declaration as 97 per cent of people aged between 15 to 60 years in the district are literate. Education officials claim that only three per cent of the locals are illiterate and 95 per cent of literacy rate was sufficient for them to claim that status.
However, education experts disagree with the method that education officials relied on to declare total-literacy status. “It is ridiculous,” says education expert Dr Visnu Karki. “Where is on earth is it written that total literacy status can be claimed by making just 95 per cent people literate. Some countries like Sri Lanka have used this threshold but only to claim universal education, not total literacy.”
Dr Karki also says it is absurd to talk about total literacy as long as the drop-out rate at primary level remains high. “How can we claim to have achieved total literacy as long as children continue to drop out even from first grade,” asks he.