In Odisha, schools are the dropouts -Elizabeth Kuruvilla

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published Published on Jan 21, 2018   modified Modified on Jan 21, 2018
-The Hindu

Hundreds of government schools, especially in tribal-dominated districts, have been shut down over the past year. Elizabeth Kuruvilla reports on the closures, the mushrooming of private schools, and the battles waged by tribal villages to keep state-funded local schools open

It’s a little past four in the afternoon, the time when schools ring their closing bells in the Hatsesikhal cluster of Odisha’s tribal-dominated Rayagada district. Just before Sekhal Primary School comes into view, a couple of students in blue uniforms cycle past on the concrete road that cuts through palm tree cultivations and paddy fields.

Along the highway that connects the area to the district headquarters 15 km away are rows and rows of eucalyptus trees that feed JK Paper Mills’ manufacturing unit in the district.

This particular school has been running since 1926. In 1987, it became a 40-seat residential school. As we enter the premises, students are busy sweeping the yard and classrooms. Some are watering the grounds with mugs filled from a large drum placed near a row of dysfunctional toilets.

Hobson’s choice

At 81, the number of enrolled children is double the sanctioned strength. All the students in its hostel belong to the villages located in the four or five Gram Panchayats in the area. The school’s apparent popularity is not due to its exceptional facilities. For most students, the fact that there are three teachers in this school, and they get three meals a day, makes up for the visible lack of infrastructure: three overcrowded classrooms for five classes, no dining hall or toilets, and a small row of damaged and abandoned rooms gaping at them dismally. But how could they possibly complain? The alternative — to stay on in their village schools — is far worse, and in any case about to disappear.

Hostel superintendent Rabindra Kumar Majhi allows two Class 4 students, Santha Mandagi and Siddhanta Melaka, to accompany us to Ranaguda village, which is just a few kilometres away but not easy to access because of the Nagavali, one of southern Odisha’s major rivers that originates in Kalahandi district and flows into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

As we wade gingerly across to the other bank, we realise we would be lost without the boys. Ranaguda is a 35-household Kondh tribe hamlet a couple of kilometres from the river. It has a primary school, but one with just two students. The teachers recently informed the villagers that the school will be closed down due to poor enrolment.

RTE betrayed

In 2016-17, as many as 828 government primary and upper primary schools were shut down in Odisha for having less than 10 students each. It’s less than a decade since the Indian government displayed some political will to achieve the goal of universal and equitable education by passing the Right to Education Act. But the failure, in practically all the States, of hundreds of government-run neighbourhood schools to even stay open betrays a lack of seriousness in implementing the RTE.

In Odisha, the Ranaguda case is hardly the first instance of the State government’s inability, and all too often, lack of will, to retain primary students in its neighbourhood schools. In 2014, 195 schools in the State with less than five students were served show-cause notices.

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The Hindu, 20 January, 2018,

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