They oversee the framing of the syllabus, punish students cheating in examinations, supervise teachers' attendance, and unmask fake appointments, financial bungling and errors in state exam question papers. Yet, they are neither government officials nor teachers. They are, in fact, a group of student bodies that are doing all they can to ensure a fair and successful education system in Manipur.
Now, they have called for ensuring that education is not impacted by 'bandhs' (closures), general strikes, protest rallies and 'dharnas' (sit-ins) - which are held a dime a dozen in the conflict-torn state.
According to a state government report, there were a total of 110 days of 'bandh' during the last three-year period, from April 2004 to January 2007. The same period also saw 234 days of economic blockade on the national highways running through the state - highways are essentially lifelines to this landlocked state. The total economic loss due to the 'bandhs' and blockades is estimated to be around Rs 13,199.6 million (US$1=Rs40).
These 'bandhs' were called in support of diverse issues by various social organisations and civil bodies - including students and teachers organisations. In fact, during any kind of civil protest, the student community is often expected to take on the key role or at least offer greater participation. The students' community in the state has been actively involved in several agitations on a number of issues, be it the recent call for removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 or the use of plastics and polythene.
"What has been the norm during the last few years is that even small children at primary school levels are often made to participate in 'dharnas' and other agitations. This has no logic or reasoning and it can bring no useful result," says P.C. Newton, Vice President, Democratic Students' Alliance of Manipur (DESAM), a leading student body in the state.
Recently, DESAM devised a way to protect students and their education from being at the mercy of frequent protests. The alliance has come up with a striking and rather unique proposal: Making education an essential service - on par with medical and media services.
The proposal came after a recent two-day discussion organised by DESAM on giving a new direction to education amidst obstacles. Representatives of the All Manipur College Teachers' Association, Manipur University Teachers' Association, All Manipur Government Higher Secondary Lecturers' Welfare Association and All Manipur Recognized Private School Welfare Association attended the meet.
Amongst the several issues discussed, it was recommended that all 'bandhs' and general strikes called by any organisation for any reason should not affect or hamper educational institutions and persons attached to them. All NGOs and underground groups were urged not to make any "unreasonable monetary demands" on places of learning, while pressure groups were urged not to take contract work related to such institutions.
While calling upon teachers and students not to boycott classes as far as possible, student representatives urged the state authorities to frame a new education policy that would be in tandem with the modern world, while simultaneously serving as a knowledge window to the state. The representatives also called for regular orientation and refresher courses for teachers and impartial state law enforcers who would act judiciously during transfers, postings, appointment and other education-related issues.
Observing that the frequent blockades and general strikes lead to brain drain and the wastage of precious state finances, Newton said, "Let us try to find an alternative or exempt educational institutions from closure during strikes so that the normal flow of teaching is not hampered."
However, the recommendation to exclude students from protests and 'bandhs' only covers children in classes pre-nursery to Class VIII. "If they (students) are somewhat mature, say at the high school level, then participating in 'dharnas' and so on is reasonable and ok," he said.
Parents and teachers, who are tired of the school curriculum being thwarted by frequent strikes, have welcomed the initiative. "For children, routine work is the best. If the routine of going to school and studying is disrupted often, they start losing interest in their studies and we have to send them for tuition," says S. Tombi, a mother of two school-going children.
Says Laishram Rosalin, who teaches at one of the leading private schools in Imphal, "Strikes and 'bandhs' - or for that matter any agitation that disrupts the school calendar - have an adverse impact on both students and teachers. If we can't complete the syllabus, we have to take extra classes. This means an extra workload. Moreover, how would the quality of education be good if you are covering, let's say nine chapters in a month when you are supposed to teach the same in a year. Ultimately, the student's understanding will suffer."
"Students in private schools go for extra classes. In a government school, no one is bothered if the syllabus is not covered. But only a privileged few can afford to send their kids to private schools," adds Tombi.
According to Newton, "The political and social problems faced by the people of Manipur cannot reach a logical conclusion without education - the backbone of development." Fortunately, the need for obstacle-free quality education is felt by other student unions, too. Helien Lupho, one of the general secretaries in the National Students Union of India, Manipur, says, "I agree that education should be made a free zone. Education is the beginning of everything - for the development of the society, for the next generation..."