Shilabati, 9, is named after the river flowing by her village
Chachanpur, in West Bengal’s Bankura district. The village has long had a
school, the present one being a
four-room all-weather structure. But it still has only one teacher. The state
government couldn’t recruit a single teacher in the last seven years. So, one
elderly man plays hide-and-seek with his 80-odd students at Chachanpur Primary
School. If he is sick, or goes on an errand, Shilabati and her schoolmates go
to the river to play.
In 2007, India took an initiative to encourage poor children into classrooms. The government extended the midday meal project—free lunch at school—to learners up to the age of 14. It also made school education free. By 2016, 96.5 per cent of children were enrolled.
The enrollment boom didn’t lead to better learning. In their book An Uncertain Glory, Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen show that in reading and writing, knowledge of science and mathematical aptitude 15-year old Indian students are among the bottom three in a survey of 74 economies. The authors conclude that a child gets just 25 per cent of allotted school days—one in four of the lessons actually intended for a year.
But there are individuals who have the fortitude to overcome the greatest odds, becoming institutions unto themselves. Shilabati is fortunate to have Reba Murmu who started a school that runs parallel to the government school. Shilabati goes to both. Everything is free, including breakfast and dinner.
When Swapan Maharaj reached Chirakuthi village in Jangalmahal he was disturbed at the state of the Lodha Shabars tribals, notified as a criminal tribe by the British. Seventy years after they left Lodha Shabar still live off the forest’s waste, and death from starvation is a sort of norm. Swapan Maharaj went from village to village asking for help to set up his schools. Now four schools run in Jangalmahal where about 200 Lodha Shabar boys and girls are getting their lessons. Everything is free.
Prafulla Nayak was caretaker of the Kanchinda Forest Rest House inside Simlipal forest, Odisha, where nobody came. The state government decided to declare it abandoned on the day he retired. Prafulla Nayak, with the small terminal benefit he was paid, got the rest house repaired and requested the government to allow him to run a school. It agreed and Prafulla Nayak set out in search of students deeper into the tiger reserve, among the Kol and Munda kids. In no time he returned with 80-odd boys and girls who got a new home. And people who never cared to visit a dilapidated forest rest house now come frequently—to salute Prafulla Nayak and his school.