Closure of Schools in Odisha Leaves Marginalised Children in the Lurch

Rayagada district alone has witnessed closure of 121 government schools, followed by 90 schools in Kandhamal. The two districts have more than 60%  tribal and Dalit population.

RAYAGADA: For almost a year, the inhabitants of Khalapadar village in Odisha’s tribal-dominated Rayagada district have been apprehensive of the government closing down the village’s only primary school. Established in 1979, the school has for years been providing education to Khalapadar village children. Situated in the Muniguda block, the village comprises nearly 30 households including tribal and Dalit families, with most of their children dependent on the primary school for their education.

Recently, however, multiple circumstances leading to a steep decline in student attendance have put a question mark over the school’s survival. Whereas the number of students attending the school was a little above 45 approximately four years ago, there are just 17 of them now.

The process of closure plaguing the school system in Odisha’s tribal districts dates back to 2014, when the Odisha government put up a notice announcing closure of all state primary schools with less than five students. Two years later, the government served closure notices to schools with less than 15 students. Predictably, the primary school in Khalapadar received a similar notice because of sluggish student attendance.

The villagers, however, have a different story to tell. They argue that teachers rarely attend school. The headmaster opens the school only to do official work, while the cook prepares mid-day meals. A primary school in such remote areas are usually run with just two teachers. In fact, some teachers have only one teacher.

The Khalapadar school has two teachers – one of them heads the school and the other is a regular teacher. The students between classes 1 to 5 sit in a couple of rooms, in one of which the headmaster does official work. The teacher takes classes whenever he comes to school. If the headmaster doesn’t open the school, the students are deprived of their mid-day meal.

“The teacher teaches when he comes to school. But I have not seen the teacher more than 15 times in the last six months. I had to enrol my daughter in a residential school in the district”, said Jatindra Bag, father of a student.

The school’s management committee (SMC) members have taken serious note of the closure notice. They have urged the parents to bring their children from hostels to enable them to rejoin school. Some students from the Anganwadi centre have been enrolled in class 1, in a bid to increase the number of students. “This may rescue the school from closure. But, the class teacher is yet to attend school and teach students regularly. If this continues, there is a higher possibility of closure – something that will add to more children dropping out of school, besides driving them to residential or private schools”, says Dalmi Ghanta, an SMC member.

In 2014-15, the government sent notices to all DPCs for closure of schools less than 5 students, in 2016-17, notices were sent for closure of schools with less than 10 students and in 2017-18, notices for closure of schools with having and less than 15 students were sent. But government is yet to close schools with having less than 15 students. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh

In 2014,  a total of 195 state schools with less than five students were served show-cause notices. In 2016-17, as many as 785 government primary and upper primary schools, with 10 or less students in each, were shut down. The idea behind the closure notice was to get students of the closed schools enrol in another primary school, within a radius of one kilometre. The state was to provide transport facilities or direct the shiksha sahayaks to escort these students in case the school was situation beyond a radius of one km.

In this period, Rayagada district alone has witnessed closure of 121 government schools, followed by 90 schools in Kandhamal. The two districts have more than 60%  tribal and Dalit population.

Schools not for all

The 2009 Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates every village to have a primary school, so that every child in the village can have access to education. In Odisha’s tribal-dominated regions, primary schools are located in remote, high-terrain villages. These schools were built long before the RTE Act came into effect. Education rights activists and RTE state convener Anil Pradhan said, “Primary schools in remote villages are a marker of development, especially when you have these schools in remote and inaccessible villages of tribal-dominated districts. Thus, before closing down schools, the government should have consulted local bodies like panchayati raj institution members, parents, civil society organisations.”

The Khalaguda New Primary School in Muniguda block is yet another example of government-sponsored school closures. Till 2012-13, young children of Khalaguda village used to study under the tamarind tree. The new school building that was constructed in 2014 was shut down in 2016. “The previous teacher was coming regularly and nearly 17 students of this tribal village were attending school. After he was transferred, a new teacher joined, but we have hardly seen him in our school. This prompted parents to enrol their children in residential schools,” said Banamali Sikaka, who has enrolled three of his daughters in Rayagada’s residential schools.

The primary school in Khalaguda village in the same block shares the same story. Since 2009, the school was catering to children of the village’s 35 tribal and Dalit families. In 2016, however, it received a closure notice, which led some students to enrol in residential schools, while others started to attend a neighbourhood school within a 1 km radius. Some children, forced to drop out of school, helped their parents in their work.

The Kauguda primary school used to have 12 students. But after an official notification was issued to merge with Gumudi primary school, 1 km away from the village, the school now has only eight students. Kasu Saraka, assistant teacher at the Gumudi primary school said, “Though these students enrolled in our school they are not regular in attending school. Sometimes before going to to the field for work, their parents leave them at school. Or they stay at home. During the rains, attendance sharply drops, given that there is no connecting road. And the children have to walk through agricultural fields, which is difficult for these young children. Parents prefer to not send them to school.”

Sometimes, the teacher escorts children from Kauguda village to the Gumudi primary school so that they can attend classes.

Impact of Closure

A visit to Rayagada’s remote villages showed how closure of primary schools has accelerated the number of school dropouts. Sanatan Sikaka of Kauguda village is now about 12 years old. He abandoned studies when he was in the 4th standard. “After the closure of our village primary school my parents didn’t bother to send me to the neighbourhood school. Now I support my parents by working in agricultural fields, taking care of my siblings and doing domestic chores”, says Sanatan. Eight-year-old Nilabati Banjalika is now studying in the third standard. After her village primary school was shut down, her parents enrolled her in a neighbouring school. But Nilabati is a frequent absentee. And one of its primary reason is the absence of a proper road to reach the school, which has made it particularly difficult for her to attend classes during the monsoon season.

Rabindra Meleka, a volunteer of Sikshasandhan, an NGO working in the field of education says, “If there is a school in the village, children at least get to finish the primary level. Otherwise they don’t bother to attend school on a regular basis. Poverty, indifferent attitude of parents, burden of domestic work forcing them to drop out. “Closure of schools in villages is leading to child labour, migration, illiteracy and early marriage.”

“This policy also violates the objective of guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children, so that they can complete elementary education. Fewer children would have been affected had the government conducted impact assessment or discussed the issue of closure with villagers,” said Pradhan, RTE state convener.

According to civil society organisations working in the field of education, nearly 4,659 children in 785 closed schools, have been relocated to other schools. However, there still remains a gap of more than 261 children in the number of children who were in schools at the time of closure and the number of children relocated to other schools. The state project director of Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority (OPEPA) Bhupendra Singh Poonia clarifies, “We are planning to start using Aadhar link to track the enrolled and left out children.”

Residential Schools an Alternative

As the government pushes for residential schools in tribal districts, parents keen to ensure education for their children, are beginning to turn more and more to residential schools as a viable alternative to village primary schools.

Arabinda Meleka has been waiting since early morning in front of the Muniguda Girls’ High School to enrol his daughter in class 1. His other two children are already studying in a residential school. “I was not willing to send my younger daughter to hostel at such a tender age. She is still dependent on her mother, who bathes and feeds her. But this is the only alternative if we want her to study because the village primary school has already been closed”, said Arabinda, with his wife sitting beside him and sobbing.

Parents crowd in front of a residential school to enrol their children after closure of village primary schools. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh

Basaba Manjilika, a farmer in the Khalaguda village says, “We are not happy about sending our children to hostels. We are both farmers. Before leaving for work we put our children in school so that the child will be at school and have mid-day meal. But we rarely get to see the teacher open the school. Our children roam around without having food. At least by enrolling them into hostels we assure that they are safe”.

During admission season, a huge crowd of parents gather before residential schools. Their number has steadily been going up. The Headmaster of Government High School, Muniguda, says, “While the school has only 70 vacant seats, the number of applicants is above 500. It is a tough job to select a student who genuinely needs to get enrolled. Though these children are first generation learners, their parents encourage them to at least complete elementary education. They also have several government schemes to assist them.”

In Rayagada district, there are a number of 100-seat residential schools for tribal students. Many more schools are on the anvil. Educationists, however, feel that first standard students should not be given admission in residential hostels since staying away from parents at such a young age could adversely impact their social and psychological development. The need of the hour is to have village primary schools that can be accessed by children living with their families.

Examples abound of children who drop out of school after failing to get admission in residential schools. Ghasi and Amle Mausika of Sanyasiguda village in Bissamcuttack block have four children, who were studying in village primary school. But the teacher hardly came to school, which was finally shut down in 2016. All of its 17 students dispersed, some shifting to neighbourhood schools.
Ghasi enrolled his two daughters in a residential school. “But our children could not perform well. They lagged in studies. The village school teacher did not teach them anything. We can’t afford private tuition. Failing to cope, my daughters returned home,” said Ghasi. “Enrolling our children in private schools is too much of a financial burden on us”.

“If parents enrol them in residential or private schools it increases their expenditure. There are instances where parents have even opted for small loans to get their children admitted,” said Pradhan, RTE state convener.

Mamata Bag, class 4 student of Khalapadar Primary School was admitted in a residential school in Muniguda block. But unable to grapple with the hostel environment, she returned home. “I suffered from high fever and was feeling lonely. I missed my family, our village, my friends and this environment. When I am a little older I will join a residential school. Till then I want to continue here”, says Mamata.

Not only government-run residential schools, even private-funded residential schools have opened in the state to ensure education for the marginalised children. For instance, Bhubaneswar-based Kalinga Institute of Social Studies runs residential schools in this region, providing free education to 27,000 tribal children. In addition, there are residential schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission. The culture of sending tribal children to private residential schools, far removed from their homes, has evoked concern among a large number of educationists and researchers. They believe that government-sponsored closure of primary schools is going to result in alienating tribal children from their organic culture.

Strengthening of SMCs

After understanding the ground reality, the OPEPA has now taken steps to open schools in inaccessible and vulnerable areas regardless of the number of students who attend them. “We are now planning to train and strengthen SMCs and shift their focus from infrastructure development to quality of education and attendance of both students and teachers,” said OPEPA director Poonia.

Given the widespread practice of absentee teachers in remote and inaccessible schools, he underlined the need to have a strong monitoring system. “Each child is precious and we will start monitoring from periphery schools rather than focusing on the centre. We are also considering digital devices to ensure monitoring through Cluster Resource Centre Coordinators and Block Education Officers. Besides, we plan to strengthen SMCs in remote areas.”

Rakhi Ghosh works as a freelance journalist in Odisha and is based in Bhubaneswar.