Jharkhand Primary Schools Merger

Primary schools: Merger muddle

Print edition : July 19, 2019

Phoolmati from Tengrapathar village in Latehar district. She stopped going to school when her school was “merged”. Photo: ABINASH DASH CHOUDHURY

Bigni Kumari, Phoolmati’s grandmother. They belong to the Parhaiya community, recognised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Photo: ABINASH DASH CHOUDHURY

This photograph of what used to be a school in the recent past carries the untold tales of children of vulnerable communities who have been thrown out of the school education system by the merger move. Photo: ABINASH DASH CHOUDHURY

Sumit (right) from Nimitanr village with his siblings. After his old school closed down, he often skips school because the trek to his new school at Sangadhwa proves too arduous. Photo: ABINASH DASH CHOUDHURY

The mergers of small primary schools with low enrolment rates with bigger ones may have saved money for the Jharkhand government, but it has wreaked havoc on the lives of children in remote areas who find it difficult to commute to their new schools.

It is a little past seven in the morning, time for children to get ready for school. But for nine-year-old Phoolmati Kumari, in Tengrapathar village of Jharkhand’s Latehar district, there is no hurry. She has only just woken up and for the rest of the day will loiter around and, maybe , help her ailing grandmother to cook. Or, as the summer approaches, she will scrounge for mahua, which fetches the only cash earning for her family.

It was not always like this for Phoolmati. Two years ago, she had joined the government primary school in her village, where she spent most of her time during the day. “I used to go to school regularly. The master never came more than once or twice a week, but we had food in the afternoon,” she said. “About seven or eight children would go to school every day.” Now the school, its dilapidated building overgrown with weeds, is closed. “The school closed down and there is nothing to do,” she said, pointing to her old school, disappointment in her voice.

The school in her village, in Matlong circle, opened in 2006. It was one of the few thousand primary schools with low enrolment that were merged with a bigger school “nearby” in the last couple of years. The closure of her school came as a shock for Phoolmati. “The master said we had fewer than the required number of students, and the school would be closed down,” she said. She was asked to join a school in Khirakhar, an hour’s walk from her home and not an easy trek in the hilly terrain of Latehar. In any case, Phoolmati, who has only her ailing grandmother as family, was not able to complete the arduous procedure of admission in the other school. No one stepped up to help, and she has ended up as an early dropout.

Phoolmati belongs to the Parhaiya community, recognised as one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups in Jharkhand. These tribes live deep inside the forest area, without any viable means of earning, suffering from acute food insecurity. Phoolmati’s generation, arguably, was the first to go to school, despite all the odds. She chose the school she went to not because of any exceptional facilities on offer. Indeed, the school had barely two rooms, one teacher for five classes, no functioning toilets or dining area, and no electricity. For most students, it was one guaranteed meal a day and the promise of a few hours of engagement that took them there. Phoolmati’s grandmother, Bigni Kumari, said: “I never saw a school building; even her parents never went to one. We sent her to school as it was close by, she could get to eat, and she could learn to read and write.”

Jharkhand’s Department of Education, supported and advised by a private consultancy group appointed by the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog, had proposed to merge over 6,000 schools in the State. About 4,600 new primary schools, which were opened under a universal education scheme in the early 2000s, have been merged with bigger schools nearby. This “reorganisation” of schools, undertaken by the Raghubar Das-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, was similar to an enterprise in Rajasthan that started in 2014. Teachers and education activists in that State, however, had expressed scepticism about the move.

In July 2017, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued a set of guidelines on “rationalisation of small schools across the States for better efficiency”. A letter to the States sent along with it said that the guidelines were born of a “Prime Minister’s review” in March 2016 and “NITI Aayog’s follow-up points”. The next month, the Ministry drew up an “education roadmap” for Uttar Pradesh and recommended school mergers. By November, the NITI Aayog was independently signing memoranda of understanding with States that wanted its assistance in restructuring their education systems—a programme called “Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital” or SATH-E. “SATH-E aspires to be a ‘saathi’ to the educational system with the student and the teacher at its centre,” said Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog, underscoring the significance of the project. The project is run through a cost-sharing mechanism between the participating State and the NITI Aayog.

Jharkhand was one of the three States picked for the 30-month programme under which the NITI Aayog enlisted Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to implement reforms. The Jharkhand government then merged schools in two phases. In the first phase, schools with fewer than 10 students and in the second phase, schools with fewer than 30 students were merged with primary or upper-primary schools nearby. The third round of mergers was stalled when BJP MPs from the State objected and said that the closure of schools was affecting thousands of lives in the hinterlands. The entire exercise is meant to save Rs.400 crore for the government through the pooling of resources. According to BCG, 151 schools in Latehar were scheduled to be merged by 2018; 43 per cent of these were merged by the end of 2017.

The “mergers” come barely after a decade of the enactment of the Right to Education Act in 2009, which guaranteed primary education for all. The RTE showed some political commitment towards equitable access to education for many in this country. The closing down of schools now, however, raises doubts about how serious the state is about the legislation. The government’s claim has been singularly repetitive: schools are being “merged” and not closed. The “reorganisation” is aimed at “ensuring access of all children to fully functional neighbourhood schools and to consolidate the resources for the best interest of the child”. Yet, for people affected by the mergers, the schools are as good as closed.

Rajmati Oraon, who stays in Nimitanr village, about 20 kilometres away from the Manika block headquarters of Latehar district, finds it difficult to send her daughter Pratima to school after the local school closed down two years ago. Ten-year-old Pratima, the first to go to school in her family, is now in Class III. “The new school that we have enrolled her in is in Semarhat, about 3 km from here,” Rajmati says. The road to the new school is full of fast-moving vehicles and has dense forests on either side. For a primary schoolchild, it is hardly a safe commute. The change has affected Pratima’s performance in school, too. Rajmati claims that whereas her daughter enjoyed school earlier, her attendance is now highly irregular. “The road is dangerous. Only last month there was an accident and a young boy lost his life; he was trying to cross the road,” she said. “Children often skip school, saying, ‘mar jayenge toh?[what if I die].” There are others like Pratima, children who are formally enrolled in another school after the merger of their old school but who in reality hardly ever make it to school.

Merged In a Hurry

The mergers, which have caused such upheavals in the lives of children, have consistently violated the agreed guidelines. These had emphasised “consent” and mandated that a proper student-faculty dialogue mediated through the school management committee should lead to “effective and useful” rationalisation. This requirement was ignored for most schools that faced “merger” in Latehar. In Tengrapathar, for instance, Phoolmati was not consulted before her school was closed and she never got a chance to give her opinion on the move. Her grandmother said that they were just told that the school would be “merged”.

The guidelines also stipulated that the move should not violate the fundamental right to education of all children and directed the States to take precautions against the possibility of such violation. Yet, one of the most visible ways in which the move has failed children is that the State has not come forward to help the children of the “merged” schools to secure admission in new schools. Aniket, an employee in the Block Education Office of Manika, said: “The students have to get themselves enrolled in the school closest to them.” This process is often cumbersome, especially with mandatory Aadhaar and other prerequisites. Many children slip through the cracks.

The guidelines, however limited, recognise that access to education is contingent on particular conditions. They assert that in “areas such as remote islands, hills, desert areas, densely forested areas and other remote and far-flung areas” the “stand-alone schools despite low enrolment will have to continue”. BCG has also suggested that travel facilities, according to the norms prescribed by the Supreme Court and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, could act as a bridge to aid students. It has proposed a three-tier model of transportation: public transport, cycles, and residential system. In reality, however, none of this has been acted upon. For many children like Pratima, walking to school is the only option.

Section 6 of the Right to Education Act envisages neighbourhood schools: a primary school within a distance of one kilometre from a village. Many schools were opened in the country, including in Jharkhand, in keeping with this vision. The guidelines clearly say that no “mergers” should flout this basic structure of the legislation and should in no way create hindrances for students in reaching school. Yet, most of the mergers have given short shrift to these concerns. The NITI Aayog and the Jharkhand government, along with BCG, bulldozed the lives of many young children as they rammed into the most intricate arrangement of lives through a top-down system that aims to “save” the State’s money, without putting an ear down to hear the people who would be most affected. A senior employee in the District Education Office, on being asked about the procedural lapses, said: “The mergers have been the primary focus of our work, we conducted surveys and got them merged at the earliest, and it was tedious as it had to be finished rapidly.”

The promise of quality education in the newly merged schools has not been kept. In Nimitanr, Sunita Devi’s youngest son, Sumit, enrolled himself at a school in Sangadhwa. On the days that he reaches his school after battling the stream that blocks the road during the monsoon, he finds himself in a school barely different from the one that was adjacent to his house. “There is no electricity, and more than two classes are held in the same room, just like in the old days,” he said. The student-teacher ratio, which should ideally be 30:1 for primary school and 35:1 for upper primary schools, remains one of the worst in Jharkhand. Only 28.3 per cent of the schools comply with the norm, and the mergers have not helped. The issues of electricity, water, toilets and other core infrastructure remain unaddressed.

Mithilesh, a young para-teacher, admits that the closures have made it difficult for children to make it to school on a daily basis. “They depend on someone to drop them at school. Most of the parents are migrant workers and daily wage labourers who cannot afford to leave work, and hence many children miss school,” he explained. “It is difficult to retain children in school under ideal conditions, as parents need to supplement their income and children are pushed to work. With schools going far away, it has become all the more tough,” he said.

The mergers have thus wiped out the hope of education for many. Some parents hope that the closed schools will reopen. Bigni Kumari, for instance, would like to see her granddaughter get back to school, but she has no idea how to make this happen. People like Bigni Kumari have no channel of communication to put forward their demands, not least because the block offices are as far as 30 km away from the villages. The guidelines state that the process of rationalisation will “not necessarily lead to closing.... but also opening of new schools”. However, as the Block Education Officer, Jaishankar Ram, confirmed, there is no possibility of new schools being opened or closed schools being reopened in the near future. Jharkhand has one of the highest school dropout rates in the country, a staggering 10 per cent against the national average of 6 per cent. Literacy rates are also low in the State, especially among the vulnerable tribal groups such as the Parhaiyas (25.6 per cent for seven years and above). Activists claim that the high dropout rates and the low literacy rate are a result of policy failures that have kept tribal languages from being adopted as the medium of instruction in schools. While Jharkhand needs to prioritise education and its qualitative aspects, the government seems to be moving on with a plan that has been decided without consulting the people.

For Phoolmati, and many like her, the fundamental guarantee of education seems to have slipped away. The callousness of the state has snatched their entitlement and blown a hole in the Constitution of the country that promises every citizen an equal share of opportunities and rights. The state has made a “dropout” of her, and it is difficult to tell if she will ever go back to school.

Abinash Dash Choudhury is an independent scholar.

(The author is grateful to Jean Dreze and Varsha Poddar for their comments and suggestions.)

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