Teaching the Nomads in the Wild

Country Profile: India


1,210,193,422 (2011 census)

Poverty (population living on less than US$1.25 per day)

42% (2005)

Official languages

Hindi and English

Total expenditure on education as % of GNP


Primary school net enrolment / attendance ratio (2005–2010)


Primary school completion rate


Total youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 74%
  • Male: 88%
  • Total: 81%
Adult literacy rate (15 years and over, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 51%
  • Male: 75%
  • Total: 63%
Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleTeaching the Nomads in the Wild
Implementing OrganizationRural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK)
Language of InstructionHindi, Gujjari
FundingThe Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India (the first three years), the community
Date of Inception1993

Context and Background


With more than 350 tribal communities, India is estimated to have a nomadic population of at least 60 million (between 7-10% of the population). Sadly, marginalization continues to characterize the nomadic experience while urbanization and environmental conservation schemes continue to threaten the livelihood of nomads. The Van Gujjars—India’s legendary and colorful nomads of Uttarakhand—have not been an exception.

For centuries the community of Van Gujjars has lived in the forests of the Siwalik and the Himalayan highland pastures where the summer months are spent. The people have developed a sustainable relationship with the environment,becoming part of its biodiversity. Their lives center on tending to their buffaloes and producing milk products. However, over the last few decades, Van Gujjars like many other nomadic groups have had to deal with rapid changes to their way of life; while a large section of top-down policies remain highly unsympathetic to them. It is deeply unfortunate that the systemic inequities and injustices have deprived these communities of their fundamental human rights such as the right to access education. Due to their nomadic way of life and unwillingness to move out of their forest dwellings, the peace loving, vegetarian Van Gujjars have remained dominantly illiterate.

It has been against this background that for more than four decades the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) - a Non-Governmental Organization - has been working with the tribal and nomadic communities in the hill state of Uttarakhand. The organization has evolved after years of struggle against the discrimination towards underprivileged and marginalized Van Gujjar communities in the region. The organization’s strategy has been “Reaching the Unreached” and “Including the Excluded”. Its efforts aim at achieving “a just and sustainable society” and its Mission Statement has been “to empower indigenous groups, marginalized populations, women and children to claim their rights.”

To meet these goals, since its inception in 1970s RLEK has pursued different lines of actions and conducted projects in various but interlinked fields such as legal protection, gender equity, women rights and empowerment, environmental protection, human rights, and adult education and literacy.

Under the aegis of the National Literacy Mission, RLEK identified illiteracy of the Van Gujjars to be the root cause of their exploitation. To remedy the situation, in the early 1990s it started a unique and innovative adult literacy programme - Teaching the Nomads in the Wild. The programme has been appraised both nationally and internationally. In 1998 the Rotary International Awards for Service to Humanity (India) Trust Award was bestowed upon RLEK for its innovative education programme for the Van Gujjars. In the same year, the program won the UNESCO National Literacy Mission (UNESCO-NLM) Award for its outstanding contribution to the Adult Education Programme for the tribal Van Gujjar community.

Aims and Objectives

The main objectives of the programme were: - to promote literacy in the Van Gujjar community with a special focus on improving their livelihood skills which is mainly dependent on the markets of dairy products - to raise awareness and thus protect the community from exploitation at the hands of forest officials and money lenders - To empower the community to stand up for their rights and bring an end to the oppression they have faced for years.

The Bane of Illiteracy

The increasing illiteracy and ignorance did put them at the receiving end of the government officials, forest bureaucracy, moneylenders, middlemen and milk traders. The marginalized and politically non-existent Van Gujjars used to be cheated of their dues by milk traders. This was simply because the community did not know how to count and keep an account of the milk supplied and payment received. For long Van Gujjars used to barter milk for their daily essentials. In fact, milk traders used to advance loans to Van Gujjars at a very high rate of interest, and commodities such as cattle feed required by them were made available at their doorsteps with a view to ensure that the community remains dependent on them. The Van Gujjars are true followers of Gandhi, believing in need and not greed. Their philosophy is that one should not have more belongings than they can carry on their or their mules’ back.

Nomadic Instinct

Ecologists who have studied the community from close quarters point out that the nomadic practice contributes to the regeneration of vegetation in the forest stretches left behind by the community for summer. And as the winter approaches, Van Gujjars return to the forests stretches in Shivaliks. For those unaccustomed to such a way of life the nomadic instinct of the community may appear terribly unrewarding and anachronistic. But nomadism has its own rewards and excitement. Van Gujjars, who have a sound insight into the intricacies of nature, can be described as barefoot botanists, since they know each plant and herb in and around their forest dwellings.

Literacy Key to the solution

The nomadic lifestyle, involving habitation deep inside the forest and a thinly spread population over a vast geographic stretch made the task of turning the Van Gujjars literate highly challenging. Moreover they were not mentally attuned to the benefits of being exposed to literacy and education. But the RLEK programme was clearly against changing cultural patterns of the Van Gujjars, existing only for the sake of creating a well-functioning adult literacy programme. RLEK believed in preserving the culture of Van Gujjars and strengthing their culture by imparting education.

Innovative Education programme

To support this ambitious and innovative adult education programme, a forest academy of sorts was put in place with 350 highly motivated volunteer teachers. These young barefoot “literacy missionaries” were trained and deployed in the Van Gujjar settlements to teach the tribals at their doorsteps. Indeed RLEKs educational campaign deep in the wild was reminiscent of the ancient Indian gurkula where the teacher and taught had a “noble and abiding relationship”. For instance, Puran Singh, a teacher who used to sleep in the dwelling of the community, along with their herds of buffaloes, taught them to read road signs, billboards and registration numbers of heavy vehicles, many of which used to zoom past Dehra Dun after killing their cattle. The timings of the teaching were decided upon after taking into account the daily routine of the community. For Van Gujjar families in the RNP it was a point of prestige to host these volunteer teachers. Indeed, sharing the colourful and healthy lifestyle of this nomadic pastoral tribe was a novelty for them.

The Mobile teachers

In order to prevent recidivism, the teachers trekked up and down with the community and their buffalo herds during their transhumance and also stayed with them in the highland pastures during the summer months. And they would move back to the forests of Shivaliks for the winter along with the community. In this way, it was ensured that there was continuity in the adult literacy programme which laid stress on functional aspects of literacy, making the community reliant in keeping it accounts, lodging police complaints, petitioning the authorities for the redressal of grievances and fighting for their rights. The community was taught how to read and write Hindi besides simple arithmetic.

Threat to the programme

The RLEK adult literacy campaign also faced opposition from RNP authorities who tried to put hurdles in the movement of volunteer teachers, by citing the provisions of forest conservation laws. As Lai Nambardar, a Van Gujjar elder from Mohand range said, “They (RLEK) are doing what no one else dared or even thought of”.

RLEK got three warning letters from the forest department stating that educating the Van Gujjars in the forest area was illegal and the adult education programme (which was a national programme) should be stopped with immediate effect. The forest department further stated that if the programme was not discontinued with immediate effect the volunteers would be arrested. Subsequently, RLEK called a meeting of Van Gujjars and volunteers in which it declared that any volunteer who would be arrested for educating the Van Gujjars would be rewarded with Rs. 10000 by RLEK and also a letter would be written to the President of India for honoring such volunteers. This announcement regenerated the confidence and courage amongst the young volunteers. After seeing the courage and commitment of the young educators the Forest Department was forced into a silence.

Use of Information Communication Technolgy (ICT)

RLEK believes that if you are empowering someone you are disempowering another. This was true in case of the Van Gujjars who became empowered through the adult education programme.They were harassed by the forest department and milk traders/middlemen, this harassment reaching its height in 1994. Under these circumstances RLEK asked the Ministry of Telecommunication, Government of India to allot two frequencies of wireless i.e., 167.525 MHZ & 167.725 MHZ, and RLEK distributed 100 wireless sets to the Van Gujjars, so that in an emergency situation they could communicate with each other.. This is how RLEK used the tool of Information Communication Technology in the form of wireless, which gave these communities the much needed confidence and boost. Now, each family is also using mobile handsets.

The United Nations invited me as a panelist and Mr. Talib, a Van Gujjar neo-literate and user of wireless technology at the World Summit in Geneva held in December, 2003 to deliver a talk on the importance of local content within Information and Communication Technology.

A Challenging Campaign

In order to counter the argument that the RLEK literacy campaign in Van Gujjar settlements was an “eye wash” and “publicity stunt”, Van Gujjar Saksharata Mela (Literacy Festivals) were organized at Mohand near Dehra Dun every 6 months where neo-literate Van Gujjar men, women and children demonstrated their literacy skill in the presence of educationists, social workers and administrators. Mustaq, a young Van Gujjar boy from Saharanpur said that a year ago his world was confined to just grazing buffaloes and selling milk .He was candid enough to state, “I did not even know what literacy was”.

Similarly, a young Van Gujjar girl Fatima Bibi said, “I have picked up a bit of mathematics, I can now easily calculate the amount of milk I sell and put my foot down when my customers refuse to pay an appropriate amount”. Another Van Gujjar adult Abdul Rehman observed, “Now we not only keep our settlements clean but have also become aware of something called personal hygiene”.

Thanks to the exposure to functional literacy, the once docile Van Gujjars have now started asserting themselves. Many neo literate Van Gujjar men and women are now discussing the virtues of a small family and various methods of fertility control. Following the enumeration of the community members into the Voters’ List, many Van Gujjar men and women have successfully fought the Panchayat elections. What’s more many of them have become Panchayat Pradhans (Chiefs). It is tribute to the boldness and confidence that the adult literacy programme has helped instill in them, that many Van Gujjar men and women have addressed international audiences in countries such as Brazil and Denmark.

Success of Adult Education creates the demand for Children´s Education

The success and benefits of adult literacy nudged the Van Gujjar adults to request RLEK to set up schools for imparting formal education to their children. Thus, the success of adult education created the demand for children education as they realized that if their children get a head start in life through education, it would benefit the community in a synergistic fashion. These adults were the first generation to be educated and similarly their childrenare also the first generation receive formal education. Thus RLEK set up four well-equipped schools exclusively for the children of Van Gujjar community at Mohand, Dhaula Thappar, Sahasra and Tarbar at Gaindikhata.

These schools are a reversal of the usual top-down approach, as RLEK believes in the power of grass roots; thus the land for the school is donated by the community, while the cost of construction, furniture etc. is borne by RLEK with support of an external funding. This not only works as cost sharing structure but it also ensures active participation of the community. The location of the school is decided according to the specifications of the community, which eliminates the problem of access.

In an endeavor to bring about holistic development through education, RLEK has facilitated all its schools with well-equipped libraries, not only the children of the school but also the neo-literates of the community.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

With the support of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, RLEK started the Adult Education Programme in the Van Gujjar Community in October 1993. The need for initiating a literacy programme was identified in one of the need-assessment interventions that RLEK had carried out with the Van Gujjar community. In one of the large open meetings in forests, some members of the community stated that most of the problems they face were results of illiteracy. In taking an immediate step, RLEK, ran inquiries to assess the demand for literacy programmes. Almost the entire community responded positively. Through further negotiations, it was suggested that to start a literacy programme RLEK provide free teachers and learning materials and the community contribute by providing board and lodging. Initially, about 500 Van Gujjars showed their interest in such an arrangement and thus the literacy programme kicked off with these families. After considering the result of the programme, the families who were reluctant or skeptical in the beginning also requested to join at later points.

Teaching the Nomads in the Wild was a need-based intervention and unlike many similar literacy programmes which target children, RLEK decided to focus the literacy programme on adults. The underlying assumption for taking such an approach was the idea that once adults understand the importance of education, they would automatically demand for and support education of their children.

In order to adapt to the special lifestyle of the nomads and their social and economic background, RLEK employed a series of innovative measures. First of all, literacy was integrated with other issues of concern to the community such as veteran health and livelihood security, thus providing an opportunity for economic and social empowerment.

Moreover, as it was decided to maintain the learners’ interest and to avoid long breaks, volunteer teachers travelled with the community during the transmigratory cycle. The programme was unique in the sense that volunteers adapted themselves to the lifestyle of the Gujjars and there was no disruption of teaching during migration. To maintain the continuity of education during summers when Gujjars trek along with their herds of cattle to the upper reaches of the Himalayas, these voluntary teachers joined the Gujjar caravan. Similarly, they moved down to the plains along with the Gujjar with the onset of autumn. This activity was termed as “Literacy on the move”.

The teaching methodologies adopted were a combination of a lecture and participatory system based on the needs and demands of the learners. The local languages (Gujjari) and Hindi were used as the main languages of instruction. RLEK barefoot teachers used to hold classes underneath the canopy trees at the time convenient to the community members. Evening classes were arranged for community members who could not spare time during the day.

The community participation has been a very distinctive feature of Teaching the Nomads in the Wild programme. It has been ongoing and ever-present during the entire process of programme planning and implementation.

Learning Material

The learning materials were prepared with the help of the community and all efforts were made to make sure the content is relevant to the social reality of the nomadic life. The localized content was used to facilitate the community for easy and better learning. The prospective learners were also involved in the entire process.

Three primers, named “Naya Safar” (New Journey) based on the technique of Improved Pace and Content of Learning (IPCL), were prepared with the community’s assistance and in Hindi and Gujurati - local languages of the community and took into account specific vocabulary of the nomads and their day-to-day experience. Stories and parables from the everyday life of the Van Gujjars as well as lessons on cooperative systems, social harmony, significance of environmental conservation, personal hygiene, family planning, child health care, immunization, education, cattle breeding, milk production and marketing were also incorporated.

Recruitment and Training of Volunteer Teachers

The initial group of teachers consisted of 350 volunteers who travelled with the community from the foothills of Himalayas to the higher alpines. Each volunteer was put in charge of five families who lived nearby.

The volunteer teachers were selected from high school graduates who were out of employment and looking for jobs. Almost none of them had teaching experience before and at the beginning this made some of the families skeptical. As volunteers had to trek with the community, they were also checked to be physically fit and capable of handling difficult conditions. The volunteers were given a month long training in the culture and practice of Van Gujjar community as well as special training on how to survive in the wild and learning methodology (i.e., in terms of teaching skills for the volunteers).

The volunteer teachers were not remunerated but contingency expenses were provided. The boarding and lodging was also taken care of by the community and volunteers would share the same food as the community.

Monitoring and Evaluation

In order to secure transparency and also as a means of self-evaluation, every year, Shaksharta Mela (Literacy Fairs) are organized in which the members of community would show their newly acquired learning skills before the public, press and interested citizens to come and see for themselves how far the community has learnt to read and write. In addition, internal and external evaluations are also conducted to assess the results. The evaluation reports were submitted to the funding agency annually. By the end of the third year of the programme, an external evaluation was conducted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Challenges and Impact


The main challenge of working with Van Gujjars has been the marginalized and isolated nature of the community. Since the community resides in forests which are isolated from the outside world, not only has it been very difficult to reach the community but also to bring their voices and concerns to the policy making level and develop the programmes based on their real needs and demands.

In addition, the nomadic lifestyle and the seasonal migration of the community brought its own challenges to the programme. The volunteers had to be very committed as working implied surviving harsh conditions.


A total of 21,000 Gujjars became literate during the course of the programme. Literacy was defined as the ability to read and write and the following three levels were introduced to assess the literacy skills of the participants:

At level II & III reading pace should be increased in comparison to level I. In level II & III difference of reading pace depends upon words, length of sentences, vowels, and phrase. Please see the following table:

Level Length of sentence Length of paragraph Content of length
I 2-6 words 25-30 250-350
II 7 words 30-40 350-500
III 8 words 40-50 500-750

In level II & III, a person can read & write numbers and do addition and subtraction with simple mathematics like multiplication, division, etc. The concept is very clear: they learn from simplistic to more complex skills and gradually increase their speed in reading, writing and numeracy. If we divide all sound symbols into five categories; very high, high, moderate, low and nil, the sound symbols which fall into the very high category used level I and those which fall in category high and moderate will come in level 2 and rest in level 3.

The successful launch of the programme made it move to a second phase where the education programme continued by assisting the new literates to use their literacy skills to acquire information on various issues like health, sanitation, environment protection and management, rights of people, children’s immunization, veterinary care etc.

Overall, the literacy initiatives with this community led to their enhanced negotiation skills and empowerment. As a result, the community was able to fight for their rights. Since then, harassment in the hands of the forest department has decreased as the community can now read the government’s orders by themselves and the forest officials cannot falsify and manipulate the information. The community has been able to take two hectares of land from the government which is allotted for those who want to settle down. In the same line, The Van Gujjars were able to fight for their voting rights and have succeeded in securing them. Thanks to their acquired numeracy skills, they can now calculate the rate of interest and the right price for their milk products. In addition, no more middlemen for the business trade is needed which in return maximizes their gain from the products.

Literacy has also had visible impacts on the health aspect of the community. Some of the best learners have turned into being paramedics and paravets. Now the community can read the instructions on medicine labels and check their expiry dates; thus, unlike earlier, they are not being cheated into buying expired products.

As had been foreseen, the successful implementation of the adult literacy program created the demand from the community itself for children education programmes. RLEK has established two mobile schools, four primary formal schools for Van Gujjar children and fourteen formal schools for the marginalized communities residing in rugged and remote areas in the hills of Uttarakhand. Also RLEK established 154 non-formal education centers after 3 years which for 2 years have been running literacy initiatives in the areas where the Van Gujjar community has been resettled.

Lessons learned

The following are some of the lessons which have emerged during the course of the programme


Since the start of the programme, the beneficiaries were treated as equal partakers in the functioning and implementation of the project. The community was sustaining the project and did so for 5 years. When the adult literacy phase of the programme was carried out, the community bore the cost of boarding and lodging the volunteers. Thereafter the model became self-sustainable through the continuous support of the community. Unfortunately RLEK could not raise funds for the teacher’s contingencies and other material. The programme suffered after 5 years but the same teachers who taught the parents are now teaching their children in the school.



Mr. Avdhash Kaushal
68/1 Surya lok Colony, Rajpur Road, Dehradun – 248001, Uttarakhand, INDIA
Tel: ++91-135-2746071, 2745539
Fax: ++91-135-2746881, 2741931
rlek (at) vsnl.com, rlek (at) sancharnet.in