No meal, no school for Bodo children

By Sumir Karmakar

There are 793 primary schools in Bodoland which, in the absence of government recognition, have no concrete buildings, free textbooks, water, sanitation and, most of all, midday meals. As a result, school attendance is low, an unfortunate situation in a region that has 33% literacy compared to 64.28% for Assam as a whole

no school for Bodo children
A teacher of an unrecognised primary school in Assam's Kamrup district struggles to conduct classes.

It’s around 11 o’clock in the morning. Dithun Basumatary (9), a Class III student, plays on the road with his younger brother Biren (Class I). Although it’s time for school, the two boys are pulling a handcart down the narrow lane close to their school -- the Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma Gudi School, a Bodo-medium primary school in Kundorgaon village in Assam’s Baksa district. Their teacher, Dilip Kumar Boro, says both boys are good students but are never eager to attend classes because they do not get fresh cooked food at school like their friends do at the Kunthamari Lower Primary School, a government-run school situated about 4 km away, on the other side of the Pahumara river.

Why does Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma Gudi School not serve its students food when the midday meal is compulsory at primary schools across the country? Because their school is not government-recognised, so there is no provision for a midday meal.

“We didn’t go to school yesterday or today. We have got to go to the river to catch some fish. My mother will cook it and we will have food at home,” says Dithun, struggling to pull the handcart. His brother smiles and nods his head. “We do not get food in school but Sachin (his cousin) gets,” the child says. As soon as they spot their teacher, Dilip Kumar Boro, making his way to the school on his bicycle, they run away into the nearby bamboo thicket.

The boys’ parents cannot do much to alter the situation. Their father, Korendra Basumatary, is a small farmer who is busy in the fields or working as a daily wage earner. He can’t put his two children in the government-run school because it is 4 km away from the village. He is afraid to send the children to a school on the other side of the river as there is no proper bridge over it and the river turns ferocious during the monsoons. “I am a poor man and am busy looking for work. I am concerned about their future, but too scared to transfer them to a faraway school,” he says. Besides, he wants his children to study in a Bodo-medium school. And the only nearby Bodo-medium primary school is not recognised by the government.

The teacher admits that, like Dithun and Biren, many of his students are reluctant to attend school because they do not get food. Established in 1990, Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma Gudi School currently has 44 students (22 girls), half of whom are almost always absent.

It’s not just the absence of a midday meal. The bamboo-and-mud school struggles to get a timely supply of textbooks; there are no proper toilet facilities; no clean water supply. Students are forced to visit nearby houses for drinking water. “There are no good desks or benches or stationery like those provided at government schools. And we have to shut the school for weeks due to floods almost every year. I really feel bad when I look at the good buildings and facilities provided these days at government schools,” says Boro, the school headmaster.

He explains that after the introduction of the midday meal scheme, attendance at the government-run Chaloguri Lower Primary School increased. “Most of the people in the nearby villages are poor; the children at Chaloguri village are drawn to attend school because of the food that’s provided.”

If attendance rates are sliding, the condition of teachers at the Kunthamari Lower Primary School is not much better. When young people of his age left home to join rebel groups during the Bodo militancy, Boro, a matriculate, stayed behind to work as a teacher at the school. He has been teaching now for over 17 years, but doesn’t get a salary. He hasn’t got a mobile phone even though most of his friends own one. Thirty-five-year-old Boro, who lives in Bunmaja village, is still a bachelor. He wants to get married but is waiting for his school to be recognised and his job made permanent. “I have been working here since 1991, but without a salary. I have to work in the fields in the morning before coming to school. I also work after school. My parents want me to get married but I am waiting for my job to become permanent,” he says.

Boro runs the school with help from his assistant teacher Madhunath Swargwary and local villagers. Located about 18 km from Musalpur, the district headquarters, the area has no electricity and suffers poor roads and broken bridges as do many other villages in the BTC area.

Benudhar Ramsiary from Kundorgaon, a father of two, says: “This school is very necessary. We can’t send our kids to schools far away. We have been demanding that the administration recognise the school, but nothing has happened.” Ramsiary is on the school management committee.

Bodoland is an autonomous council area established under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, comprising four districts in lower Assam -- Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. These four Bodo-dominated districts witnessed large-scale violence during the decade-long history of Bodo militancy. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed in 2003 after the rebel Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) reached an understanding with the central government, resulting in the formation of an autonomous council headed by ex-rebel Hagrama Mohilary.

While the present literacy rate in Assam stands at 64.28%, the rate for Bodos is 33%. Although the BTC has a separate education department, the condition of schools in the area has remained the same.

According to the All-Bodo Students Union (ABSU), there are 793 non-provincialised primary schools in the BTC area, of which 614 are Bodo-medium, the rest both Assamese- and Bodo-medium. The student body claims there has been no provincialisation of schools since 1991 and that its repeated demands to the authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

Provincialised schools are recognised by the state government and provided with concrete buildings, water supply, and sanitation. The children receive free textbooks, stationery and midday meals.

“About 1 lakh primary school children studying at unrecognised schools in the four districts are deprived of midday meals. The unrecognised schools are in a shambles and attendance is low. Besides, the supply of textbooks is irregular. Absence of midday meals at the schools has affected attendance and many of our kids are leaving school, hampering education among first-generation learners. People in our villages are economically very backward and the poor condition of schools is hampering the development of future generations,” says ABSU president Pramod Boro.

He adds that a few of the recognised primary schools in the BTC area are not much better off. As many as 634 primary schools (some recognised) in the BTC area are run by a single teacher; 60 of them have become non-functional due to lack of government support. “Many unrecognised schools were forced to shut down as the teachers could not continue without any government support. Many of the children studying in those schools become dropouts,” Boro says.

According to Khairuz Jaman, spokesperson of the All-Assam Shikshak Karmachari Aikya Mancha, no new schools in the state have been recognised since 1996; around 17,000 educational institutions, including primary schools, are awaiting provincialisation by the Assam state government. “We have been demanding provincialisation for years, but nothing has happened,” Jaman says.

Meanwhile, officials at the state Directorate of Primary Education (DPE) in Guwahati say schools have not been recognised as the government still has to start the new teacher appointment process. “Since the government decided to stop new recruitments in 1996, no school has been recognised since then,” a DPE official said. Regarding the condition of primary schools in Bodoland, the official stated that education there was being looked after by BTC officials. Indeed, an executive member does look after education in the BTC, but officials said the council could not recognise new schools as there were insufficient funds.

Chandrakanta Basumatary (50), an adviser to Manas Maozigendri Eco-tourism Society, a local NGO in Silbari, Baksa district, says: “This part of the state is very backward, and education remains neglected. Even as children across the country receive the benefit of the midday meal scheme, which is aimed at fighting malnourishment and improving primary school attendance, thousands of kids here are still to be covered under the ambitious government scheme.”

Many Assamese- and Bengali-medium non-provincialised primary schools catering to the non-Bodo population in the BTC area too do not offer midday meals. Take the case of Thokthokipara Lower Primary School in Kokrajhar district. Set up in 1984, the Assamese-medium school with 59 students is plagued by declining attendance because it does not provide midday meals. Niranjan Roy, a teacher at the school, says: “Every day, about half the kids remain absent as we cannot provide them with food as in government schools. This has affected our children’s education. The government school is situated about 5 km away, and the road to the school is very bad, particularly during the rainy season.”

Ahmed Ali, the school’s headmaster, adds: “There are more than 60 such schools in Bhumuka block alone, in Kokrajhar district, where kids are not provided the midday meal. An average of about 60 children study in these schools. If they are covered under the scheme, we are sure school attendance will go up.”

Teachers, student bodies and community leaders want an action plan to identify non-provincialised schools, provide them with basic facilities like a proper building, timely supply of textbooks and inclusion of children in the midday meal scheme.

(Sumir Karmakar is a Guwahati-based journalist working as a stringer for an English daily newspaper. He writes on development issues in the northeast)  

Infochange News & Features, March 2010