It’s a mild November morning, as I walk through the village, when I spot her working the dhaan (unpolished rice). Harvesting season is here and the streets are devoid of all men. “Kis class mein padhte ho?” A fairly innocuous question posed during the basic introductions.
The teen in front of me pauses, eyeing me suspiciously. Her gaze flickers to her mother for a brief second before turning back to the dhaan at hand.
“Oh her? She’s not in school now. We needed help so we pulled her out after a year.” A nonchalant shrug from her mother. “They don’t teach anything there anyway,” she points at the government primary school around the corner. The conversation shifts to other topics, even as the girl continues labouring over the dhaan.
This conversation stands out for me from my first field visit. In a way, it gave me an initial glimpse into the factors influencing the state of education in Thakurganj, Kishanganj where I’m currently working as an India Fellow with Azad India Foundation. Located in the North-Eastern part of Bihar and bordered by Nepal, Bangladesh and West Bengal, the Kishanganj district is often considered the corridor to the North-East. It is also touted to have the lowest literacy rate in the country. Within Kishanganj, the Thakurganj and Pothia blocks share the distinction of having the lowest rates in the entire country. Not surprisingly, they also have extremely high numbers of out-of-school children.
It’s one thing to read about it in literature, quite another to witness it first hand. On any given day, groups of children working in the fields or herding cattle is a fairly common sight here. The sheer number of them in the fields comes as a shock to any outsider, but to the community members, it has been the norm.
The community is primarily an agrarian one and most families practice a combination of sustenance farming combined with maybe one or two cash crops. The family sizes are fairly large (think 6-8 children). However, the area does not have many industries to support this large population, forcing most to depend on their land for their income. A common refrain I’ve heard is that while there is enough produce to put food on the table, there is not enough income generated to hire farm hands. This combined with the large family sizes means that it’s all hands on deck for most families. It becomes especially true during planting and harvesting season, when classrooms empty out and farmlands fill up with tiny humans assisting their families.
I catch them loitering on a Tuesday afternoon when the sun is still high in the sky. “Aaj koi school nahi gaye kya?” A fair question on a weekday afternoon.
Six pairs of mischief laden eyes look at me. “Haan, gaye toh the didi!” Showing me their shiny plates as proof.
“Khane mein kya mila aaj?”
“Khichdi aur anda. Lekin teacher ne doodh hi nahi diya.” They pout at the injustice.
“Sirf khichdi khaye ya kuch padhayi bhi kiya?” Wagging my finger in mock sternness.
“Hindi kiya na didi! Baaki teacher nahi aaye. Woh kabhi nahi aate.” Followed by giggles. “Nahi! Maths ki ma’am aati hai, sirf khichdi ke time!” More giggles as they elbow each other. “Par hum school hi wapas ja rahe the.”
Their shout reaches me as they run in the exact opposite direction of their primary school.
Twice a year, the harvest season arrives and classrooms empty out. But for the rest of the year, even when the children do attend school, not much learning happens. I was expecting it somehow, even before coming here. The government schooling system has become synonymous with incompetence in the past few years, so why should it be any different here. The Right To Education Act ensured that schools became physically accessible but almost all of them are grappling with a severe shortage of teachers and resources. Here are primary schools in villages that manage with 2 teachers for 350 students. Vacancies for teaching positions are piling up since only a few teachers want to be placed in an area that’s touted to have such low literacy levels.
In many ways, it is a vicious cycle. Teachers lose interest in teaching because the children are irregular and the children become even more irregular once the teachers lose interest.
Many principals also insist that they are not even receiving enough funds to cover the cost of pencils for an entire year, let alone run a school of that size. The resource crunch leaves many principals feeling like their hands are tied. It leaves many more believing that since the system is so flawed, they might as well look out for their own gains. It becomes highly evident when one looks at the mid-day meals provided for the children (the only resource admittedly to actually reach the schools). ‘Khichdi Chor‘ is the colloquial term for principals due to their siphoning of the meal resources. It has reached a point wherein this is all that the management is good at.
The mid-day meal scheme is not one of the many incentives in place to ensure student enrolment. But clearly, all it ensures is that the kids get enrolled for the benefits and then only show up with plate in hand for lunch. A lack of accountability from the school staff – many teachers that don’t show up, many more that show up but don’t teach as well as the corruption allegations, have caused most of the communities to lose faith. On paper, the enrolment rates have gone up but in reality, the school gates act like revolving doors. Children and staff come and go as they please, briefly overlapping during lunch times.
I strike up a conversation with a young girl on the local bus. I’m traveling to catch a train, she to get her hall pass and we both have a long ride ahead. “Tum matric (10th board) ke baad kya padhogi? Arts ya science?”
“Umm pata nahi, shayad arts? Science toh nahi le sakti.” She fidgets uncomfortably next to me.
“Kyun? Science achcha nahi lagta ya kisi ne kuchh kaha?” I gently probe.
“Science achcha lagta hai lekin mujhe door nahi bhejenge na? Aur waise bhi…” She seems lost in thought. I wait patiently. “Waise bhi mujhe padhne nahi denge. Meri teen choti behne bhi hain aur abbu nahi hain. Toh meri shadi karenge. Kab tak ghar par rakhenge? Shadi toh karna hi hai, abhi kyun nahi? Aur shadi ke baad kaun mujhe padhne dega? Shadi ke baad padhne ki jarurat bhi kya hai?” The words tumble out of her in a rush.
“Kya tum aage padhna chahti ho?” All I get is a pensive nod before she shifts the topic.
Even when the system doesn’t let them down, the path forward is still not easy, especially when it comes to girls. The dropout rates for girls are much higher than that for the boys, which becomes especially acute in secondary classes. The conservative value system places girls at the bottom of the pyramid when it comes to agency. Added to this, daughters are often seen as liabilities, with an unrealistic amount of importance placed on their honour. Many are married off by the time they are 14-15 to safeguard the said honour. Even in families which look to educate their daughters, it is seen only as a way to secure a better alliance, not their agency.
The fact that middle and high schools are not available close to home is another big factor in girls dropping out. Children wanting to study science after 10th grade have no choice but to move to Kishanganj or farther as there are simply no good quality high schools in and around Thakurganj. Sending young girls away to live independently is a big no-no. As a result, either the girl is forced to study arts for a lack of options or drop out entirely. The conservative belief system coupled with the fear of trafficking (border district after all) ensures that girls become dependent on their male family members for information, income and decision-making. These socio-cultural inhibitions effectively keep the girls from pursuing any dream not directly connected to marriage. And so, naturally, this means that parents are less inclined to invest in the education of their daughters.
During a routine centre visit, I spot a new face. “Yahan aake isko padhna babu.” We’re checking their reading skills today.
The boy in question doesn’t move. “Nahi aata.” Barely a whisper.
“Daro mat, jitna aata hai utna hi padhna.” We smile and beckon encouragingly.
“Nahi aata” Louder this time with a vigorous shake of the head. I must look confused, because he goes on to clarify further. “Hindi padhna nahi aata. Madarse mein nahi sikhate.” Almost a whine this time.
“Par centre mein toh padhate hain na?”
A shake of his head “main madarse mein hi rehta hoon, centre nahi aa sakta.” We let him sit back down without reading.
Every conversation adds another layer of context, of complexity. The population of Kishanganj is predominantly muslim. Every village has its own masjid and madarsa. Often, they aren’t big or even completely pucca, but they are put together with care and pride by the communities. Deeni taleem (religious education) is given high importance along with the derived value system. The village Maulana/Maulvi is regarded with utmost respect and their advice, sacrosanct.
The madarsa system has its own set of levels/qualifications and until recently, it was considered at par or equivalent to clearing the board exams or getting a degree. One could even land government jobs after passing out of the madarsa system up until 2012. And since the Maulvis are definitely more dependable (they show up and actually teach) than the public school teachers; and are seen as upholders of morality, it’s no surprise that families place deeni taleem higher on the priority list than mainstream education.
Children are expected to show up everyday at the madarsa even as they play truant from school. This attitude reflects in the children as well. And while initiatives are being taken to introduce math and science into the madarsa curriculum, there haven’t been consistent efforts or resources poured into the same. Deeni taleem isn’t inherently bad, it definitely has it’s place but it’s unable to bridge the gaps left by the lack of proper schooling. By the age of 11 all (Muslim) children are well versed in Urdu and the Quran but only a few can even write their names in Hindi, the state language of instruction.
Even as I write this, I’m interrupted by an eight year old pulling my arm. “Didi tum IPS jaanti ho?” Jumping up and down in anticipation.
“Aaj ma’am ne bataya uske bare mein. Kya woh sach mein gun rakhte hain? Main bada hoke IPS banunga. Aur bad man ko pakdunga. Is ke liye bahut padhna hai na? Main padhunga. Pakka.” He clearly doesn’t wait for my answer.
“Par pehle yeh dekho, maine kya likha aaj…” his gap-toothed smile leads me away from my notebook towards his own.
All the factors mentioned above paint a dire picture. But this little future IPS officer proves that change is definitely on the cards … (read the next blog by me, coming up soon)