By Yambem Laba
IN 1957, two Italian priests, Fathers Bianchi and Revilicho of the Salesian order, arrived in Imphal and established the Don Bosco Youth Centre at Chingmeirong, about three kilometres north of Imphal along National Highway No. 39, and which later became Don Bosco High School. Catering to the needs of boys of the state and adjoining Nagaland, the school soon began to occupy centrestage in the matter of education. Salesian nuns soon followed suit and established Little Flower School for Girls. Till about 10 years back, these two schools would produce most of the Top Ten rankers in the annual matriculation examinations conducted by the state. In fact, the two schools began to be identified as elitist institutions that catered to the needs of the “high and mighty” of Manipur. The joke at one point of time was that these two schools together produced more first divisioners in the matriculation examinations than all the government schools of Manipur put together.
Perhaps it was this stigma of being labelled an elitist establishment that prompted Father MC George, rector of Don Bosco High School, Imphal, in 2002, to conceptualise and put into action a concept now called Bosco Mangal — Bosco being after Don Bosco and Mangal in Manipuri meaning light. This was long before the Centre conceptualised the Right to Education Act and the Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan programmes that aimed at education for all Indians.
The Bosco Mangal project, launched on 12 October 2002, heralded a revolution in catering to the educational and allied skills needs of a people then caught up in almost 50 years of insurgency and conflict. In a way Father George inverted the pyramid of established educational norms and practices of the so-called elite school establishments by taking education to the doorstep of the have-nots for little or nothing.
The Bosco Mangal project includes Youth Animation and Peace Programmes, Primary School Teachers’ Training, Basic Education Programme, Sponsorship for Poor Youth, Community School Programme, Intensive-Leap Frog Schools, Life Aid for People Living with HIV/Aids, Caring Community Project and Vocational Training Courses. These programmes were framed to contribute in making Manipur a better place, offering all young people the possibility of learning, growing and blooming so as to be able to live in good health, peace, joy and harmony.
Till date, when we imagine a child reciting his/her nursery rhymes in English, one tends to place such children in the metros’ income group, taught by well-paid teachers. But what the Bosco Mangal project has done is reverse this very notion. I was surprised to meet village children assembled in their teacher’s outhouse doing the same with much gusto. The teacher herself is just another village girl who finished her higher secondary school education and had the good fortune of becoming part of the Primary School Teachers’ Training Programme. Her students do not carry any text books because they are so poor they cannot afford these, so the teacher has to do double time to make sure her wards can copy the lessons down and also memorise them. She is paid by the Bosco Mangal project, but it is a pittance compared to what her compatriots earn in government or established private schools. But the satisfaction on the face of the young teacher in Keibul Lamjao village near Moirang in Bishenpur had to be seen to be believed.
To the village elders, the Bosco Mangal project is almost a Godsend. They still cannot believe their children can now recite poems in English without their having to spend a fortune in the process. That Christian missionaries are doing this and not once have spoken about conversions has added more credence to the crusade for universal education. So unlike the case in conservative Hindu villages as also even more conservative Muslim villages.
What is innovative about the project is that the Basic Education Programme aims at providing basic literacy skills to enable children — between seven and 12 years of age, who have never been to school or who had dropped out at an early stage — to get admission in regular schools. This is achieved by working in close coordination with village elders, women and youth groups.
At the Bosco Mangal Literacy Centres, the children are taught English, Maths, Hindi and Manipuri for two hours. The teachers too are put through life skills training.
What follows is parental sensitisation, courtesy Village Educational Committees, and after the children are put into regular schools financial assistance and scholarships are then provided for the needy ones. The Bosco Mangal project does not end with just teaching children how to read and write — they are provided with health check-ups and made part of a Self-Help Group in each Literacy Centre.
A unique innovation is the “leap frog” programme, whereby a child who had missed school for a couple of years is made to sit through two to three promotional examinations in a year so that he/she can be relocated to a class appropriate to his/her age. This has resulted in a very positive response from parents who want the Literacy Centres to continue and have pledged their support for the teachers concerned.
But educating children does not appear to be enough for the protagonists of the Bosco Mangal project for they have also successfully launched vocational training classes for young people. At the Thangzing Vocational Training Centre near Moirang, girls are being trained in embroidery. The trainees say they earn about Rs 1,500 a month but once out they can earn about Rs 3,500 a month on their own and this gives them the economic independence that has been lacking for so long in Manipur.
Heading the Bosco Mangal project in Manipur today is Father PX Francis, a soft-spoken Salesian from Kerala, who is a linguist in his own right and authored the first copy of the Bible in the ancient Meitei Mayek script. He speaks fluent Kabui dialect, besides Manipuri, and he is at ease amongst representatives of the foreign funding agencies as they weave across numerous villages where the Bosco Mangal project operates.
In a place like Manipur where the government has been such a dismal failure in providing education to the masses — so much that quite a few insurgent groups had taken up education as their agenda, besides the liberation of Manipur — the Bosco Mangal project has shown the way for both the overground and underground governments of Manipur can learn and try to follow the ideals of St John Bosco, who was born in 1815 and died 73 years later near Turin in Italy. Today, thousands of his establishments across the globe are reaching out to young people in their areas.
The writer is a former Imphal-based Special Correspondent of The Statesman