Hundreds of government schools, especially in tribal-dominated districts, have been shut down over the past year. Elizabeth Kuruvilla reports on the closures, the mushrooming of private schools, and the battles waged by tribal villages to keep state-funded local schools open
It’s a little past four in the afternoon, the time when schools ring their closing bells in the Hatsesikhal cluster of Odisha’s tribal-dominated Rayagada district. Just before Sekhal Primary School comes into view, a couple of students in blue uniforms cycle past on the concrete road that cuts through palm tree cultivations and paddy fields.
Along the highway that connects the area to the district headquarters 15 km away are rows and rows of eucalyptus trees that feed JK Paper Mills’ manufacturing unit in the district.
This particular school has been running since 1926. In 1987, it became a 40-seat residential school. As we enter the premises, students are busy sweeping the yard and classrooms. Some are watering the grounds with mugs filled from a large drum placed near a row of dysfunctional toilets.
At 81, the number of enrolled children is double the sanctioned strength. All the students in its hostel belong to the villages located in the four or five Gram Panchayats in the area. The school’s apparent popularity is not due to its exceptional facilities. For most students, the fact that there are three teachers in this school, and they get three meals a day, makes up for the visible lack of infrastructure: three overcrowded classrooms for five classes, no dining hall or toilets, and a small row of damaged and abandoned rooms gaping at them dismally. But how could they possibly complain? The alternative — to stay on in their village schools — is far worse, and in any case about to disappear.
Hostel superintendent Rabindra Kumar Majhi allows two Class 4 students, Santha Mandagi and Siddhanta Melaka, to accompany us to Ranaguda village, which is just a few kilometres away but not easy to access because of the Nagavali, one of southern Odisha’s major rivers that originates in Kalahandi district and flows into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
As we wade gingerly across to the other bank, we realise we would be lost without the boys. Ranaguda is a 35-household Kondh tribe hamlet a couple of kilometres from the river. It has a primary school, but one with just two students. The teachers recently informed the villagers that the school will be closed down due to poor enrolment.
In 2016-17, as many as 828 government primary and upper primary schools were shut down in Odisha for having less than 10 students each. It’s less than a decade since the Indian government displayed some political will to achieve the goal of universal and equitable education by passing the Right to Education Act. But the failure, in practically all the States, of hundreds of government-run neighbourhood schools to even stay open betrays a lack of seriousness in implementing the RTE.
In Odisha, the Ranaguda case is hardly the first instance of the State government’s inability, and all too often, lack of will, to retain primary students in its neighbourhood schools. In 2014, 195 schools in the State with less than five students were served show-cause notices.
In tribal areas like Rayagada and Kandhamal, which also have pockets subject to Maoist influence, the government seems to wilfully favour young children studying in residential schools, cut off from their families. Ostensibly, this is being done to make educational facilities available to those living in remote and conflict-ridden areas. The government even has special programmes to help children who missed out on early education, so that they can be ‘mainstreamed’ into regular schools. But the fact remains that Ranaguda is 15-20 km away from the district headquarters, and the only reason the children here end up going to residential schools is that the local one doesn’t function.
This past year, the highest number of free government schools struck off the list, 124, is in the economically backward, though mineral-rich Rayagada district, followed by Kandhamal, which has lost 101 schools.
The idea was to ‘merge’ these erstwhile schools with a primary school located within a kilometre’s distance or an upper primary school within 3 km. The state would provide transport facilities or an escort if the distance is above the prescribed limit or the terrain difficult. According to Binodini Panda, district project coordinator, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, another 268 such schools have already been identified for closure in Rayagada, and are awaiting formal approval.
Earlier this month, a circular issued by the OPEPA (Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority) to all district project coordinators appeared to provide some relief, as it stated that geographical barriers are valid grounds to consider re-opening schools. But Panda clarifies that so far as re-opening goes, “there are no schools under consideration in Rayagada.”
The Ranaguda villagers, for their part, have appealed to the CRCC (Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator) to reverse the decision. About ten students will be ready to join primary school from the Anganwadi centre next year, they say. But even if the administration agrees, the reason for the low student strength is likely to continue.
Gathered together outside one of the pucca houses built under the Indira Awaas Yojana scheme, the parents say that the two teachers hardly ever make the trek here and had last come two days before this reporter’s visit. Even the Anganwadi worker has been refusing to come here, they say. Complaints to the CRCC have proved futile. In frustration, the residents have been pulling the children out of the village school and sending them away to the nearest ‘hostel schools’ for adivasi children.
The majority of these kids are first generation students. Most of the Kui-speaking women in the village are also non-conversant in Odia, the medium of instruction in the schools. But the will to ensure at least elementary education to their children is high. The basic requirement, which they rightly demand, is the regular presence of teachers.
Biju Kolaka is a student of Class 10. He is one of the few older students who continue to live in this village of small farmers, who grow vegetables like tomato, brinjal and chilli. He crosses the river on foot every day to reach school in Jemadeipentho. During the monsoon, when the river swells, it takes Kolaka an hour on bicycle to cross the bridge 10 km away and get to his school. Kolaka’s elder brother, though, has been sent to study at a residential high school in Rayagada city.
The distrust of the education department is palpable. Even though staff strength is low, not in a single government school that we visited were all the appointed teachers present. The teachers in school had their attention divided between students of two or three classes, all sitting together in the same room. Sending students to residential schools is not uncommon here.
Increasing cultural alienation
The preference for hostel schools is not from the parents’ side alone; it is a strategic decision on the part of the State in this fully Scheduled area with a low literacy rate. According to the 2011 Census, the rate of literacy among the Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Odisha was 52.24% against the overall literacy rate of 72.87%.
Among the communities living here, dependent mainly on agriculture for their livelihood, the SC & ST Development Department of Odisha states that “improving educational facilities through residential institutions has been an identified thrust area”.
There are different categories of free schools it runs, from high schools to ashram schools for elementary education, sevashrams for primary education, and educational complexes for particularly vulnerable tribal groups. Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, a central government initiative, focusses on girl students from the SC, ST and OBC groups. Then there are institutions such as the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a private residential school in Bhubaneswar, which claims to provide free education to 27,000 ST children within its 80-acre campus, and has plans to open more such schools in 20 districts of Odisha.
Social activists have expressed concerns that this strategy has been increasing a sense of cultural alienation among the students. “They are forgetting their family culture and imbibing alien values. A child from a residential school is unable to cope with her village circumstances; he or she looks at it with disdain, has a sense of inferiority, and is always looking for a way out,” says Vidhya Das, from the NGO Agragamee that works in 10 districts of Odisha.
The current policy is similar to the setting up of residential schools for aboriginal children in Australia and Canada that started in the late 19th century, with assimilation the stated reason. The physical and emotional abuse faced by children removed from their homes, the denial of their cultural heritage and history, their subsequent demands for reparation, as well as the Canadian government’s apology for the hardships they faced, are well documented.
With the aim of ensuring that tribal children get their education in local schools, Agragamee has provided additional teachers conversant with the Kui language in 18 government primary schools in Rayagada district. They say that this has increased attendance. The education department also runs a similar programme of multilingual education. And yet, the emphasis on residential schools has gained momentum. Anasthesia Kerketa, assistant district education officer, points out that aside from 40 and 100-seat schools, there are now 500-seat ones too.
Flourishing private schools
In contrast to the government schools in villages, which have been running short of students, many of these residential schools are overcrowded. Gorakhpur High School, an ashram school in Kashipur block of Rayagada, has 1,050 students, of which 220 girls and 473 boys are in residence. The 15 teachers in residence here are well below the mandated student-pupil ratio. “We end up admitting so many students due to political pressure,” says the headmaster Pitambar Bhoi.
Students of the residential Gorakhpur ashram school have their mid-day meal, two to a plate, on the school grounds | Photo Credit: BiswaranjanRout
Even as the government promotes residential schools, it has been unable to address the main issues that are driving students out of the government schools in their own locality: teacher shortage and teacher motivation.
The primary school in Sana Raisingh village in Rayagada block closed a year ago. It used to have a single teacher who would come for just an hour a day, say the villagers. They have already petitioned the collector to reopen the school.
When this school closed, the existing students dispersed, some to the closest government school, many to a private school in the neighbourhood. But three physically challenged ST children were left behind. Unable to walk properly, Shadin Menaka, Nimak Raja and Diksha Kolaka dropped out.
Opposite the closed school in this 30-household village is a neat row of newly constructed toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme. The hamlet includes both Kondh tribals as well as Telugu families belonging to the general category. Some of the latter started sending their children to a private, English-medium convent school in nearby Jimidipeta, which charges annual fees starting from ₹3,000. Unlike the nearest government school, the private school sends a vehicle for the children. “There’s a bypass road here, with trucks going to Vishakapatnam. So we don’t want our children to walk to school. But if the local government school were to reopen, all the students would come back here,” says Virata Jagdishwari, who has two daughters studying at the private school.
This is by no means an Odisha story alone. State governments across the country are preparing the ground for the mushrooming of low-cost private schools. According to several media reports, Maharashtra has identified 4,093 schools for closure. Andhra Pradesh, which closed 9,000 schools last year, was one of the first States to experiment with public-private partnership in school education. Rajasthan, which merged as many as 17,000 schools in 2014, will adopt the same policy from the next academic session.
“Minimum RTE norms are not being achieved in government schools, from maintaining the student-teacher ratio to infrastructure to providing a support system for teachers. With the quality of education dropping, children have been leaving for private schools,” says Ambarish Rai, national convenor, RTE Forum.
This is clearly the case in the Humma Gram Panchayat area of Odisha’s Ganjam district, which is also Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s home turf.
In 2013, Ganjam was badly affected by Cyclone Phailin. The cyclone shelters and rehabilitation houses in its rural areas alert one to the fact that this region is prone to natural disasters. The district, which has the highest proportion of SCs living in the state, closed down 70 primary and upper primary schools in 2016-17. District education officer Sanatan Panda says that the migration of skilled workers to Surat and other places has led to the drop in the student enrolment in many blocks. The proliferation of private schools is another reason.
In Baunsiapada, a village of Dalit families that make bamboo products, a primary school opened in 2004. The village, situated close to a railway crossing and a busy highway, had to fight hard for it. But the school had a short life. Since 2015, it has been merged with the primary school in Gada Humma. According to the in-charge of the school, Lingaraj Mahankuda, only two of the nine students from Baunsiapada made it to Gada Humma.
In 2013, when Mahankuda joined the Gada Humma school, it had 75 students. The number has since shrunk to 42. “Educated people who can afford it send their children to private schools,” he says. Prafulla Kumar Nayak, who was the president of the school management committee of the now-defunct Baunsiapada school, has enrolled his son at the nearby Sri Sai Saraswati Vidhya Mandir. He considers it a better option for his son.
Started only in 2014, this private school presents a stark contrast to the pitiful number of students in the two classrooms at the Gada Humma government school. P. Ravindra Reddy, pradhan acharya of the school, and Suresh Chandra, secretary, put the total number of students at 519, with each paying ₹1,200-₹1,800 annually.
Run under the aegis of the RSS-backed Bharat Shiksha Vikash Sansthan, the classrooms of this institution turn into hostel rooms at night. Aluminium boxes containing the students’ belongings are pushed against the walls of the classrooms during the day.
The State government has put its hands up, claiming to be overburdened. Of the 11 blocks of Rayagada, only four have block education officers, of whom Kerketa is in charge of two in addition to her duties as assistant director of education. Teachers, too, claim to be overworked.
Battle to keep school open
Mahankuda of the Gada Humma school points out that apart from having to juggle several classes at the same time, they also have to be available for compulsory election duties, do survey work, and supervise mid-day meals and the distribution of iron tablets. Shiksha Sahayaks, or assistant teachers, also mention “discriminatory pay scales” as a reason for the low motivation level among government teachers.
Simanchak Pani, a Shiksha Sahayak at Gabudi primary school in Subalaya panchayat, complains that though he has completed three years at his job, he will be regularised only after another three years. In the meantime, he must make do with ₹6,000 per month. “How is it possible to remain motivated?” he asks.
About six months ago, the villagers of Gabudi made a forceful bid to stop the village primary school, which then had seven students, from being closed down. They decided that increasing the student numbers was the only way. Kailash Jena, a farmer, brought his son, Biswajit, back from Saraswati Shishu Mandir, and a few more children living with relatives elsewhere returned to the village. The school now has 11 students, and its future remains precarious unless the numbers increase.
Several residents of the village (all of them non-SC/ST) have migrated to work in the Alang shipyards, and to seek employment as skilled workers in the textile and marble industries of Gujarat. As his neighbours laugh, Jena says that family planning has been their downfall so far as school enrolment numbers are concerned. “An SC-ST village a kilometre down doesn’t have that problem,” he jokes, “creating traffic jams on their road to school.” Clearly, Gabudi village doesn’t want its own primary school merged with that one.