A LONG WAY TO SCHOOL
Text and Images by Ruhani Kaur
Behind the locked school gates in Haryana earlier this year, lies a story of grit, perseverance against odds and an unlikely students’ movement led by teenage girls who - like Oliver Twist - want more.
In May of last year, a minor on her way to school in a neighbouring village was gang-raped by three men. The outraged residents of Suma Khera village in Rewari district, Haryana summarily refused to send their girls out to study anymore, fearing for their safety. Aggrieved girl students, however, demanded that the primary school within their own village be upgraded to higher classes, so that they could continue their studies. As one of them declared, “If the government cannot make a school till Class 12, then we would rather remain illiterate!” A three-week long protest ended with the state administration relenting to their demands for upgradation - first till the eighth standard, then the tenth and finally, till the twelfth.
A year later, little has changed. And girls of yet another school, this time from Gothra Tappa Dahina village, locked their school gates to stage their own protest for upgradation. 13 of the 85 agitating girls went on an eight-day hunger strike this May, even as temperatures soared to 42 degrees celcius. This time, though, it wasn’t an isolated incident; if anything, it triggered a chain reaction.
Tired of the ominously long distances to their schools and the constant harassment of eve-teasers lurking on the way, girls across the state have begun to follow the example set by the Gothra girls. From Kadarpur village in Gurugram district to Saroti in Palwal, Rajgarh in Rewari to Nangal Kheri in Panipat, Bidola in Bhiwani to Karsola in Jind, and Mujheri in Faridabad to even Bilapsur in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, they are locking their school gates in an unprecedented display of solidarity and vehemence.
Ironically enough, for the first time in 15 years, the girl child sex ratio in India has crossed the 900-mark for every 1000 boys. The dropout rate among girls, though, has increased by 13%, most of whom quit school after Class 8. The government’s flagship ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Save the Girl, Educate the Girl) programme has shown mixed results. Banwarilal, who has a son and six daughters and is the father of one of the protestors, laments, “What’s the point of following the government’s appeal to let our girls live, when they can’t even support us in educating them?”
At the Mujheri protest, mothers too found their voices from behind their veils, while witnessing the girls’ struggles. Bharti’s mother, who played a pivotal support role, says, “Most parents end up pointing fingers at their own daughters, when it’s the government that’s putting our daughters’ honour at risk by making them walk through long, desolate paths for schooling. We won’t let them weaken our daughters, we’ll support them wholeheartedly to the end.”
The stubborn resilience shown by the protesting girls, surely a sign of changing mindsets in today’s India, is finally having its desired results. The state government has given its nod to upgradation of 122 schools, while also relaxing its norms of having no other senior secondary school within a 3.5 km radius for 79 of them. In some cases, even the prerequisite of needing at least 150 students for a school to be upgraded from middle to senior secondary, has been waived.
As news of the Mujheri school’s upgradation spreads, Bharti, a Class 10 student, cannot contain her joy, “I’m happier than I would be at a wedding!” For her classmate Abhilasha*, it means a fresh lease of school life – her parents may delay her gauna (ritual of sending a bride to her in-laws) for a little while longer, now that she can study safely in her village. Sangeeta, who has stayed at home after quitting school for a long spell, eagerly looks forward to putting on her uniform once again.
There is, of course, a long way to go as yet. According to a parliamentary report, a sum of Rs 43 crores was set aside for the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ programme in 2016-17. Of this, a mere Rs 5 crores has been utilised so far, that too on items like laptop bags and mugs. Schools like the one at Mirzapur (that got upgraded earlier this year) have an abysmal pass rate for students in Class 10, with just eight students from the village having made the grade in 2017. Given this reality, Education Minister Ram Bilas Sharma’s plans of setting up 21 colleges across the state, most of them for girls, may come across as a pipedream.
Alternative strategies to upgradation have also been proposed, ranging from building girls’ hostels and plying more buses to forming ‘Balika Suraksha’ (Girl’s Safety) Committees in schools. These, it is felt, could work in tandem with local panchayats (village councils) to address the ever-increasing problem of rampant eve-teasing. And while providing cycles has managed to reduce dropout rates in higher classes, safety still remains a point of concern. There is skepticism, too, among many in the state educational system about the sudden spurt in school upgrades. Deepak Goswami, General Secretary, Primary Teachers’ Association, Haryana told Shreya Roy of Scroll, an online news portal, “Adding senior secondary classes is like building the roof before the walls.”
It’s when one takes a hard look at the economics, that the real magnitude of the task becomes evident. A proper senior secondary upgradation requires 11 posts for teachers and 4 laboratories, an investment of about Rs 12 lakhs a month. And for the trendsetters at Gothra, the elation seems to have been rather short-lived. In spite of being upgraded to Class 12, the entire school runs with just four teachers in place. Admissions in the Commerce and Science streams weren’t even allowed till mid-July.15-year-old Sujata, whose emotions have been on a rollercoaster ride these past three months, has enrolled for Arts but there is no teacher as yet. She remarks, “Our school got upgraded, but actually it didn’t really happen - we just got a letter saying it happened...”
And then, with a defiant note, she adds, “We’ll wait till Monday for the staff to come or else, we’ll lock the school and start our dharna (demonstration) yet again. We can’t let all our hard work go waste.” Listening to her, one can only believe that her time has come… as it has for the many Sujatas of Haryana.
* Name changed for privacy
A version of this was published in News Deeply