COVID-19: Locals in Bengal's Chhatni Join Hands to Save a School Facing Closure

The locals decided to first demand that the school, shut due to the pandemic, should reopen the school. If that doesn’t happen, they decided to use the school infrastructure to run it themselves.

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Purulia (West Bengal): For a month now, Jitulal Murmu, like other parents who reside in Chhatni and neighbouring villages of Ajodhya hills in the Purulia district of West Bengal, has been making trips to the office of the sub-inspector of schools in Baghmundi, 17 kilometres away.

A worried man, he wants to find out if his son’s school that has remained shut from the onset of the pandemic through the lockdowns will open again. The information that he has with him is worrying: the state government is likely to discontinue a whole list of schools for lack of students, and the Chhatni Upper Primary, the school in his village, is on the list.

Reports suggest around 64 schools, from primary to high school level, are likely to be shut in the state as they do not have any students. However, the state government hasn’t confirmed or denied it.

When asked, government officials say some schools have to be shut for the lack of students but do not authenticate any such list of schools facing closure. On the other hand, however, over 200 teachers have been issued transfer orders in the last few months.

With the transfer of two full-time teachers that the Chhatni school had, there is a palpable fear in the village that the school might soon shut down. The only remaining teacher at the school received a transfer order in December. Moreover, families in the village say that midday meals that continued during the lockdown have also been stopped for the last two months.

Before the pandemic, the school catered not just to students in Chhatni but to the neighbouring villages of Bhurshabera, Lahadungri and Punyashashon.

Also read: Schools Closed Due To COVID-19 Impacted 247M Children in India: UNICEF

Parents like Murmu ask that when their children are still studying there, how can one say the school does not have students, and how can all teachers there be transferred.

“In the last many decades, schools and bridges have made the biggest differences to our lives. With bridges, our access to the world has become easier. Similarly, schools are bridges for us. A school being shut is like destroying our hopes,” laments Murmu.

Murmu is a farmer with a little over an acre of land where he grows vegetables and paddy. He could not complete his school education but dreams of seeing his son graduate and get a government job. His son, Sanjit Murmu, is a student of Class VIII in Chhatni Upper Primary School, which provides education from class V to VIII.

“If this school is shut, our children have to travel over 14-15 km to the only other school that caters to this age group in the area. It is a long journey in these hills,” says Murmu.

This can effectively mean ending their education, says Nakul Baskey, the head of Chhatni Village Gram Sabha, who is also the priest of the village according to the traditions of the local Santhali community.

Baskey explains that having a school in the village ensured that the children could continue to work in the field after school hours, to help their parents, who mostly survive on small incomes from farming and animal rearing.

“But that changes when one has to travel far in these hills. It takes a lot of time to go and return, so they find it difficult to find time for work in the fields. It is even more difficult for the girls who have to be sent all the way to study. The parents then would not send them to school,” explains Baskey.

Villagers look for alternative options  

When the only teacher in the school was transferred in December, Baskey immediately called a village gathering where they decided that they will demand reopening of the school, and if it doesn’t happen, they decided that they will use the school infrastructure to run it themselves.

According to official documents available with the gram sabha, till September 2019, there were 35 students in the school. Since then there has been no official record of the number of students; however, villagers have estimated the number to be around 24.

Also read: India Can’t Keep Citing the Pandemic to Deprive Children of Education

“A lot of schools in villages start as small schools and eventually grow into large schools. Why should they shut this school? Is it because it is small now? How do we know that this school cannot grow into a high school catering to matriculation or higher secondary students? The government should revoke its plan and continue running the school. If the government does not come forward to help, then gram sabha will use the available infrastructure to run a voluntary school,” says Baskey.

“It is very much possible,” says Baskey, “because the infrastructure belongs to the gram sabha, and we can utilise it in the way we want it.”

The sabha has already enlisted volunteers in the event of the government shutting it down.

Ukil Murmu, a young graduate from the village, is one such volunteer. He has already been helping students in the village by providing free tuition from the onset of the pandemic.

“With schools shut, education for children here stopped. While in other places classes resumed online, in Chhatni high-speed internet or laptops are a rarity. So the students here have been falling behind, clueless about what is going on in online classes in city schools. If this school is shut, it will be a further blow to whatever hopes they have of finishing their education,” says Murmu.

However, the likes of Ukil Murmu offer hope. “Apart from me, there are other graduates from the village and other parts of the state who are willing to volunteer,” he says.

The question the sabha, however, faces is of the finances and how to continue classes. “We are discussing a process by which we all pool in our resources to support the teachers. This way the families are not burdened too much and the school too continues,” says Baskey.