Why Odisha’s resolve to shut primary schools has got parents worried

Experts say government’s order to close 8,000-odd primary, upper primary schools with less than 20 students will destroy iconic institutions, affect future of children in tribal areas and widen distance for many others

Activists maintain that the Odisha government's decision to close down schools is in violation of the children’s right to education.

Odisha government’s decision to close down thousands of primary and upper primary schools across the state has come under severe criticism from all quarters: parents, teachers, educationists, activists as well as opposition leaders. It’s widely believed that the decision is going to have a huge negative impact on the students.

Following uproar in the Assembly, school and mass education minister, Samir Ranjan Dash said, “There are less than 40 students in 14,382 schools. The process for the merger of 7,772 such schools is underway. Among these, 1,724 schools have less than 25 students and 6,048 have less than 20 students.”

Dash said that schools having less than 15 students in scheduled areas will be merged with the ones in nearby locations. Similarly, in non-scheduled areas, less than 20 students have been set as the new norm for merger of a school.

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He argued that in doing so, “the state government is only trying to improve the teaching environment and impart quality education.”

Earlier, the government had set less than 20 students in scheduled areas and below 40 in non-scheduled areas respectively as the norm for merger.

Coming down heavily on the government, both the Congress and BJP legislators voiced their concern about the impact the move is likely to have on the backward KBK districts and warned of statewide protest if the norms are not relaxed.

The KBK region now has eight districts – Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Balangir, Subarnapur, Kalahandi and Nuapada. Every year, lakhs of people from this region migrate to other states in search of work.

Parents worried

As many as 800 schools will be closed down in tribal-dominated Koraput district alone. At present, Odisha has nearly 67,000 primary and upper primary schools.

Kabira Khiyal, 39, a painter in Harijanpada ward under Bangomunda block headquarters of Bolangir district, is worried about the education of his son Tora and daughter Iti, both in fourth standard. Kabira has heard from others that the village school, where his children and his uncle’s son Subham (standard 3) are enrolled may be merged with the one in Gohirapadar, 2km away. “I request government to consider the plight of parents like us and stop shutting down the existing schools,” says Kabira.

As the name suggests, the entire residents of Harijanpada are SCs, they are mostly daily wagers, and around fifty of them migrate to other areas to eke out a living. Thabira Bag, a resident of the area informs that one has to cross the National Highway 59 to reach Gohirapadar. “In case of a merger, not many will send their small children to Gohirapadar, they would enroll them in the school in Baba Math, which is just over 1km away in Khaira panchayat,” Thabira said and added, “Enrollment doesn’t necessarily ensure attendance.”

Arjun Yadav, Sarpanch of Bangomunda block’s Alanda panchayat viewed that the locals have protested against closure/merger of schools and will continue to do so in future. “At least the local elected representatives (PRI members) should have been taken into confidence before taking such a drastic decision,” believed Yadav. “Here, the daily wagers leave for work in the morning, some as early as 7am and return in the evening. Naturally they would be concerned about the safety of their children and will ultimately stop sending them to school in another village,” he thought.

No support for govt’s view

Well versed with the issues of the KBK district, Bangomunda-based senior journalist, Rajib Sagaria is livid. “This move will destroy the future of particularly the children of the migrant workers. Most schools in KBK region lack required number of teachers and basic facilities like drinking water, washrooms or electricity,” claimed Sagria. “How can one believe that merger of schools will improve quality of education?” he asked.

Even some education department officials posted in tribal districts don’t agree with the government’s decision. Though off the record. They say that the physical barrier is a big challenge in hilly, tribal districts where hundreds of villages are literally impregnable for major part of the year; the residents have to trek hills or cross nullahs even to reach their bordering village. For them electricity and mobile connectivity is still a costly luxury, to make a call on mobile they have to climb a hill or travel some kilometres. In such localities, the children visit schools rarely, three-four times a month.

“Even that will stop now,” said a senior officer in the education department in Koraput district. “I agree, the government will pay for the transportation of the students, but in the absence of roads how can you expect to get vehicles?” he asked.

Not only the tribal districts, even in the better off coastal regions, not many seem to support the government’s view.

According to a headmaster of a primary school in Balipatna block of Khordha district, the government should have considered the distance factor before taking a call. If a school is closed and merged with another located more than one km away, it will directly affect the students of standard one to three, whether it’s in a tribal or coastal district. Dropout rate will increase considerably.

Violation of right to education?

Citing the example of Gada Bantapur primary school in Pampalo panchayat under Balipatna block of Khordha district which has been merged with Chanahata school, he said in all likelihood most of the students of Gada Bantapur wouldn’t continue their education.

“It’s difficult to think that the children will cover the 1.5 km stretch to reach the new school,” the headmaster, who didn’t wish to be named, said. “They are from very poor background, for them mid-day meal is a big attraction. The merger decision baffles us, but we have no say on it,” he added.

Interestingly, Gada Bantapur is barely 25 km away from the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

Activists maintain that the decision to close down schools is in violation of the children’s right to education. “The decision to close down schools may lead to an end of education for hundreds of thousands of students in the tribal and hilly districts,” thought, convener, Odisha, Right to Education (RTE) forum, Anil Pradhan.

“In many villages, particularly the coastal belt, more than one school had been set up entirely for political reasons, the government should merge those schools,” Pradhan added.

The move is also set to close down a number of iconic schools. Like the 115-year-old boys school in Utkal Gaurab (pride of Utkal) Madhu Saudan Das – popularly known as Madhu Babu’s village in Satyabhamapur under Salepur block of Cuttack district.

‘In the interest of some powerful lobby’

Also doors of the earlier known, vernacular school set up in 1873 and rechristened later as upper primary school in Bangomunda (Bolangir district), has been shut down from this academic year.

“It’s unfortunate that the government is playing with the future of children of the poor in the interest of some powerful lobby. The impact is going to be humongous. The government seems to be miles away from the reality in the ground level,” asserted senior journalist Bighneswar Sahu from coastal Ganjam district.

Basudev Bhatt, president, Odisha Abhibhabak Mahasangh (OAM) reasoned that all these schools had been set up with the noble intention of providing education to students at the doorstep, also the schools attracted a lot of students. “If the government has decided to close down schools for poor enrollment, how and why the directorate of elementary education has sought application for reopening of private schools? Do they know the reason why enrollment has gone down in the government schools?” asked Bhatt.

According to senior Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo, in a welfare state it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure its people’s, among other things, healthcare and education. Government is aware why enrollment in government schools has gone down, yet it doesn’t wish to address the issues. “The state government’s intention is clear and it wants to handover both healthcare and education to the corporate sector,” Kanungo told The Federal.

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