Schooling sputtering to a start in flood-affected districts of Bihar
A couplet written on the primary school building in Sitamarhi district’s Olipur village aptly sums up the plight of its people. The couplet reads: “Baadh chali aati har saal/Jeevan kar deti badhaal” (floods visit us every year and leave life in disarray). The school building – looking mauled – bears testimony to the pronouncement. This school closed a month-and-a-half ago as floods took possession of the village. The flood waters receded, leaving the school building completely unusable. It reopened under a tree a week ago. “People are struggling with bare necessities. Children are not coming to school,” says Chandrika Rai, the local school teacher, with 10 of his 143 students present in class. When Chandrika Rai is gone in a few days to prepare electoral rolls, the school will stop functioning. Government school teachers have to compulsorily perform several election related duties and have to away from their schools for several weeks. Assembly elections in the state are less than six months away.
Another village in Sitamarhi district – Gauda –has lost not only the school building but all the houses and most of its fields. The river Bhagmati flows in a wider sweep in place of the village. “We are a group of homeless, landless people,” says Ramavtar, a village resident. “There is no school, therefore, no schooling,” he adds.
In the best of times, the number of teaching days in Bihar is a cause for concern. This year’s floods however, have pushed the state back in time by causing devastation on an unprecedented scale. The state government has assessed that as many as 43,329 rooms of primary schools have been fully or partially damaged. Rebuilding primary and upper primary schools and re-equipping them with teaching-learning material will cost the state Rs. 160.8 crore (USD 34 million).
The state has a total of 1,229 secondary schools. An assessment puts the number of “fully damaged” schools to 166, and partially damaged ones to 479. The cost of repair and renovation, say Government estimates, will be Rs 28.77 crore (USD 6 million). These assessments are part of the report submitted to the Central Government team that visited Bihar to assess the damage done by the flood.
However, as the state limps back towards normalcy, there are many obstacles before schooling can resume. A very large proportion of families have been impoverished and their children have been helping them in supplementing their income. In Jafarpur village of Sitamarhi district, for instance, children were found to be selling eatables. In many villages, people are still living on embankments and schooling remains a dream for people struggling with the problems of shelter, food and water. Children have been trying to help. The sight of children catching fish – sometimes in their school uniform – is not uncommon in rural Bihar.
Moreover, parts of most of the 19 districts affected by floods this year are still waterlogged. Low-lying areas remain submerged, and a very large number of people are still living on embankments, especially in districts such as Sitamarhi, which is still not connected by road. People have constructed long bamboo bridges on their own, and these are currently the lifelines. In Jafarpur’s primary school, students came only after a bamboo bridge was constructed and made the school accessible to children from the neighbouring village. Diwakar Krishna, a resident, says regular teachers are not coming. “The school is depending on the Panchayat Shiksha Mitras (para teacher),” he says. Para-teachers were recruited a couple of years ago as the appointment of regular teachers – initiated more then a decade ago – was delayed due to a court case.
Reports from the field indicate that schools are either not functioning, or are functioning without adequate number of teachers and students. Mani Ram, a social worker from Darbhanga, says, “Most of the schools are not open, especially the ones in areas that are waterlogged.” There are unusual stories about teaching taking place under trees, or children taking boats to reach schools that are open.
However, even as areas gradually get free of water, and people move back into their houses with their access to food and water becoming a little more assured, it is not certain how long it will take before actual schooling begins or gathers momentum in areas where signs of schooling are visible. With state elections less than six months away and regular teachers busy preparing electoral rolls, school buildings either broken or washed away and life revolving around the very basics, it will be a long time before classrooms are full again.