95% of India’s schools fail to meet the standard of infrastructure set by the Right to Education Act. This is the story of two community correspondents attempting to fix the system.
In 2010 a boat carrying seventeen children capsized, resulting in the death of two girls. For those children, the boat ride had become a usual route from their houses in Khullaspur to their school four kilometres away in Bhitridih. That day however, the residents of Khullaspur decided that they would no longer send their children to school until a building was constructed in their own neighbourhood. Gayatri Devi, a community correspondent from that area in Uttar Pradesh, was in the village on the day for some fieldwork and saw the fear creeping through the air.
“I didn’t know how at the time, but I knew that I wanted to make their dream of having a school nearby a reality. Having fought long and hard for my own education, I didn’t want another generation to go through the same challenges,” says Gayatri whose video documentation of the issue eventually helped get a school built in the area.
The lack of school buildings is a pressing problem across India. 95% of all schools in the country do not comply with the guidelines set by the Right to Education Act 2009. In the less dreadful cases there are crumbling buildings, in other cases the schools are without boundary walls or proper classes. In still other scenarios children risk their lives, crossing flooding rivers or railway tracks, to get to a proper school.
Navita, a mother of two, is a resident ofGandhigram village, in Bihar’s Katihar district. Each morning her children, one in the 6th and another in the 7th, travel three kilometres to the other side of a railway line to get to the government middle school. The village of 5000 residents has about 300-400 children many of whom travel this distance. Those who can afford it send their children to the privately owned middle school a kilometre away. According to the latest ASER report, there is a growing trend across the country of enrolment in private schools.
“If I could afford it, I’d send my children there as well. Apart from the fact that it is far away, the quality of education is substandard at the government school,” says Navita who is a recently attempted to get a middle school built in the village using video-activism.
Navita made a video in 2013 documenting how the lack of a middle school was hampering the education of the children in the area. At the time, the residents too stood besides her, supporting a call to construct an additional building on the plot that houses a primary school. Almost immediatelya new building was constructed and Navita, then still a relatively new activist, was enthusiastic in calling out the success. To the dismay of the community the administration continued to run classes for a primary school there. They now say that the old building has to be broken down in order to make a fully functional primary and middle school. The residents themselves have lost interest and believe that nothing will happen till the existing headman is replaced.
Back in Khullaspur, a community has galvanised support behind Gayatri and the headman and has a school to show for it. After the initial video report made in 2013 Gayatri approached the Basic Education Officer of Ambedkar Nagar District to get funds sanctioned for a building. They found that a proper survey needed to be done and land allocated. Khullaspur is a somewhat divided community—the ‘upper-caste’ Yadavs and Dalits live near each other but their interaction is limited. The plot of land identified for the school was in the middle of both settlements and there was an initial hesitation among the Yadavs, of sending their children to school with children from another caste. The eventual realisation that there were more advantages of the situation than disadvantages, resolved the problem. The allocation of a budget of INR 6.5 Lakhs built the school. Today, three teachers serve the needs of eighty students.
The budget for 2015-16 announced a massive slash in the amount of monies allocated to education related schemes like SarvaShikshaAbhiyan and Mid Day Meal schemes. The shortage of funds lies at the heart of the poor implementation of the Right to Education Act; the situation is exacerbated by further poor implementation at the ground level. For communities like Navita’s,which continue to grapple with the lack of a school building, the solutions seem distant. But there is hope in that women like her are wiling to put their own necks on the line to bring their children a better quality of education.
Lack of smartphones is one of the major factors why primary students in India are not able to take regular online classes and are forgetting the habit of going to school, take classes and make education a part of their lives.