Field notes from Dakshin Dinajpur and Malda by Kumar Rana, Mukhlesur Rahaman Gain and Piyali Pal

Chenchai village is about 2 Km away from Balurghat-Tapan road. Both sides of the murram road are lined by trees, planted by a villager of Chenchai, Nimai Tigga, an environment-fanatic. It’s a small village with 52 households; there are 20 households in the adjacent hamlet Parbatpur. The inhabitants are mainly Oraon and few Santhal (Adivasis) and some Rajbangshi and Vaishnav. The economy is entirely dependent on agriculture and signified with poverty.

The school is on the main street of the village. A newly built structure, thanks to Sarva Siksha Mission, it is well equipped with classrooms, toilets, kitchen, etc. There are two school teachers, Pabitra Mohanto and Sanjib Majumdar, who took charge of the school in 2009, and in the following 5 years the school has experienced a sea change. The infrastructure provided by the SSM has metamorphosed to a real school with ensured cleanliness and picturesque surroundings. The Mid-day Meal kitchen is not only one of the cleanest we have ever come across but is also beautifully arranged with dining tables for the children; the cooks use all safety measures, including caps and gloves. The used water is scientifically recycled to irrigate the school garden.

The general smartness and liveliness of the children, which is often seen to be suppressed by hostile school environment and uninteresting teaching, blossomed with newer energy: each and every children was found to be creatively responding to their school-activities – not just reading, writing and solving the sums but also singing, dancing, drawing, taking part in keeping the school enviably clean and so on. Just five years ago, there were only 10 odd children; the near defunct school failed to attract them. Now the enrolment strength is 52, and not a single child is being labelled as slow learner or first generation learner. The children have a store – “Amar Dokan”; it has no salesperson, children collect the necessary items – exercise books, pencils, etc. and drop the exact price in a box. “We have not yet found any irregularity here”, says the teacher.

Certainly, in this transformation the role of the teachers is central; but, the most important factor behind this change is the ability of the teachers to bring the villagers into the arena of the school. The local club – Adivasi Juvak Sangha – has been playing a pivotal role; it facilitates children’s out-of-school learning every morning and evening; it has set up a kitchen garden for the school on a plot of land opposite the school donated by the villagers. The school, the club, and the villagers are inseparably attached. Every household of the village has set up toilets – the teachers coordinated this effort. Unlike what happens in the programme mode initiatives, which emphasise on target but not on actual utilisation, all the toilets are being used with maintained cleanliness.

Chenchai has perhaps pioneered a movement, which is spreading fast among other villages. We had had the opportunity to see two nearby schools – Manipur Primary school and Shulapanipur Primary School. Both the schools not only look like ideal schools but are also engaged in quality teaching. State’s role is quite detrimental: the head-teacher of Manipur coordinated to expand the sanitation programme to each household and as advised by the BDO villagers deposited their share of money to get the toilets under subsidised scheme. After they had deposited the money, however, they were told that only selected households would be given the subsidy. Had this been clearly stated villagers would have prepared themselves differently. Now, this breach of trust has created several issues within the village, though the teacher, Ratahbabu, is trying hard to find an amicable solution. Nevertheless, schooling of 67 enrolled children with 4 teachers seems to be going on quite well.

The Sulapanipur primary school is a small one, with only 26 enrolled children. The assistant teacher, Muktinath Haldar is a genius: he has filled the classrooms with his own creations – sculptures, portraits and drawings. And this has infected into the children.

In the evening we had a meeting with about 60 teachers. The meeting was facilitated by a retired primary school teacher, Susanta Das, who has so far established three primary schools. He spends his savings for the purpose of spreading education. The meeting was also attended by the Chairman of the District Primary School Council, who acknowledged the deficiencies of the school education system, but promised all helps to strengthen the movement the teachers have started. Although the meeting was originally planned to discuss the possibilities and problems of National Curriculum Framework (NCF)2005 and the Comprehensive Continuous Evaluation (CCE), many important issues related to state neglect and directionless-ness regarding the policies and implementation came out forcefully. At the same time, teachers reinforced their commitment towards enhancing quality education to each and every primary school in the district. A suggestion of building up of a teachers’ platform with Pratichi’s help for sharing the experiences and planning further activities was also raised quite strongly.

On the second day, that is 6 November, we visited the border villages, Uttar Agra and Haripukur. The aim was to see the ICDS centres which we had visited previously. This being a holiday (Guru Nanak Jayanti) the centre was closed and after hainteractingving some interactions with the villagers and BSF personnel we headed for Simantasikha Club at Hili, where Manojbabu of Noapara primary school organised a meeting with the retired teachers of the locality. The retired teachers and the club members wish to get involved with some or other education-enhancing activities. We did discuss some points which need to be elaborated further in course of the coming interactions.

Despite being a holiday, teachers of Chakdapat, Ferusa and Noapara were present and showed us the schools, which clearly reflected some major changes in the recent years. Cleanliness and children’s creation exhibit the schooling quality. Ferusa Primary School had a surprise in store for us. The teacher Bidyut Kumar Das has painted murals of the original woodcut drawings of Nandalal Bose in Tagore’s Sahaj Path on his class room walls which reflected his creative self at its best.

As scheduled, we reached Malda on November 7 and headed for Manickchawk Sikshayatan, a Higher Secondary school. It has 1245 children, and all of them are provided with the Mid-day Meal, cooking of which is being organised by a local club. There is no system of washing hands before or after meal – children bring a spoon from home to eat the meal. The process of taking the meal gets completed in ten minutes time, since the meals come in pre-packed lunch boxes, and no time is wasted in serving. The school is quite renowned, and hence there is a competition among parents to get their wards enrolled here. When the RTE act was implemented, the Government guidelines demanded that admission to class V would be done through lottery; but a section of local politician gheraoed the headmaster to push their list of candidates. The adamant headmaster declined.

But, this added to his problem in a different way. Since children were selected through lottery, they had to sacrifice the advantage of selecting them through admission test, and thus a section of children got enrolled in the school who could not even write their names – due to the erratic functioning of some of the primary schools. The headmaster, Jyotibhushan Pathak, devised a system: the poor children are being given special training – a sort of bridge course – which enables\ them to catch up with others in a short while.

Similar system has been adopted at Narhatta Gopeswar Shatiar High School, which is located near Kotowali, residence of the famous Khan Chowdhurys. Five years back the school wore a gloomy face: the surrounding was filled with cow dung and human faeces. Now it has transformed into a vibrant institution with a set of dedicated and forward looking teachers, one of whom was teaching the children Macbeth using the school audio-visual system used to show films on the subject. Another teacher was using a computer to teach geography. And, here too, the poor children enrolled in class V are facilitated with special coaching to enable them to join the others. One major difference that we found between Narhatta and Manikchowk was that while in the former the poor children came from government primary schools in the latter most of them came from a local private school.

Changes are taking place; and we need to respond to the demands of the changing situation. The visited schools were principally located within the area close to India-Bangladesh frontier. In spite of the political hullaballoo about illegal infiltration, life seemed to be placid and peaceful for the villagers. When asked about illegal cross-border dealings, the guarding sentries calmly proposed that legalisation of the trading can easily solve the issue without any hue and cry. The problems linger, the solutions are at hand, now it’s up to the people’s representatives to decide what their people would appreciate best.