The Jammu and Kashmir administration is nearing a final decision to change Kashmir division’s academic calendar and the new session may now begin in March and end in December, when severe winter and cold climatic conditions force children inside their houses for at least two months.
The decision to change the academic calendar, however, has been widely criticized by educationists and civil society members who have valid arguments that such a change has failed in the past and is likely to fail again while damaging the educational growth of the Himalayan region.
The existing academic calendar, referred to as the October session as the exams were held in late autumn or early winter before the onset of the bitter cold conditions, had been in tune with Kashmir’s weather conditions. The harsh winter that begins in mid-December and lasts till late March, with severe snowfalls and cold spells recorded even in April in the past decade, has usually served as a vacation time for the students. The winter vacation allowed the students to relax after their annual examination and also prepare at home for the next academic session.
As the extreme cold and snowy weather forced closure of roads to remote northern regions of Kashmir, which remain cut-off from district headquarters for most part of the winter months, the October session did not hamper their educational activity. After the examinations, students would be home-tutored in preparation for the next class.
There were also other benefits associated with the October session that allowed more working days and more instructional days for the students at school. Winter’s harsh conditions were turned into an advantage as they served as the vacation time and also gave time to parents to tutor their children.
The idea of a March session, which remains in place in Jammu division where exams are conducted before the onset of the harsh summer months, had been previously tinkered by the administration but the decision had to be immediately reversed.
In 1984, the government of Ghulam Mohammad Shah had ordered that the academic calendar in Kashmir be shifted to March. The administration wanted the children in Kashmir’s rural areas to remain available to help their parents during the harvest season.
As a result of the change in academic calendar in 1984, the students had to sit in the same class for 18 months, wasting their six months. Also when the exams were held in March, many remote regions were still inaccessible and weather was cold.
Shah government’s decision, however, was reversed in 1986 following a review of the Education department by the then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Jagmohan, who ordered an immediate shifting of the academic calendar back to October session.
The expert committees formed in the past decades had not only recommended October session in Kashmir division but also recommended against shifting it to March. One such committee had argued that the number of working days available for teaching and learning programmes in school would be much less than the mandatory 200 days if the winter zone academic calendar in Kashmir is changed.
A grim aspect of the March session can be foreseen with the help of a past example. The schools in Kashmir division functioned on the basis of the March session till 1974 and the school would remain functional till mid-December and then close for two and a half months of winter vacation. When the schools would reopen in March, they would immediately prepare for exams and results which would consume at least two months before normal classwork would begin.
While the current administration seems adamant on shifting Kashmir’s academic session from October to March, it needs to ask itself whether it will be prepared and ready to conduct exams in remote parts which remain inaccessible during the winter months. Also, with the changing weather patterns caused by climate change and freak climatic events, like heavy snowfall in April, would it be proper and justified to ask the students to sit through the exams. While the administration has clarified that exams in remote parts will be held in April, instead of March, will it be appropriate to delay it further in case winter lasts longer and roads remain inaccessible.
So, the administration has to give a rethink to holding exams in March-April and it also has to take into account the large number of working days that would be lost in the process.
The administration should be in no haste in making a decision on the uniform academic session in Jammu and Kashmir. The Jammu division and the Kashmir division are distinct in geography and weather. While Jammu division faces a sweltering summer, Kashmir faces a harsh winter. The two regions require different approaches and different thinking, based on realities on the ground. The whims and haphazard decisions can prove disastrous for the education of the region and it will inflict an irreparable loss on students, who will have to sit in the same class for additional six months.
The administration should initiate a debate and listen to the voices that are against shifting the academic calendar in Kashmir. The voices speaking against the shifting are sensible voices who have spent their lives in the education sector and know the region and its needs.