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Education Gets a New Lease of Life
" UNICEF offers support through programmes like school libraries to promote reading and age appropriate sports and physical education activities in an attempt to make schooling attractive for children. "

Dataram Kanwar attempts to cross a stream on route to his primary school at Kandulnaar in Chinnakawali village. The school at Kandulnaar is one among the eighty schools that Bijapur district administration attempted to reopen after period of civil strife.

BIJAPUR, India, 11 October 2012 -  For school teacher Dataram Kanwar, heavy bouts of overnight rains during monsoons mean that the only way to reach his school in Kandulnaar village of Bijapur block is by braving a rain-swollen stream that cuts off villages till the water recedes.

Kandulnaar lies south-west of the headquarters of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh; one of the districts worst affected by the ongoing civil strife. Though strong currents pose a major challenge, Kanwar knows the terrain well enough to recognize the shallower parts of the stream to get across to the bank, with his bicycle held aloft.

Though there are no concrete roads connecting his village Chinnakawali to Kandulnaar, he ensures that even raging monsoons don’t keep him away from the fifteen children who turn up for class regularly since it was reopened last July.

The primary school at Kandulnaar is one among the eighty schools that the Bijapur district administration attempted to reopen after a prolonged period of closure due to the civil strife in the region. Today, seventy out of the total eighty on the list are back to operating as schools.

The Kandulnaar school was shut in August 2009 after violence in the region intensified. Frequent clashes between Naxalites and security forces isolated several villages in the area, forcing families to abandon their homes and migrate to safer areas. As the fear spread, parents began sending their children to residential schooling facilities of the government, popularly known as Porta cabins and Ashram Shalas, in villages ahead of Chinnakawali.

While the Kandulnaar school was shut for just one academic year, several other schools in the district, like those in the Bhopalpatnam region have not been functioning since 2005. In the strife that ensued since then , schools were razed to the ground, completely destroyed or abandoned as the mass migration of villagers gathered momentum.

Though several  villages have witnessed the return of displaced families in the last couple years, efforts to reopen schools in these far flung areas began during the academic year of 2010-11.

Dataram recounts how he realized during the recce of the school premises that though the school was still standing, the structure was unsafe. “Parts of the roof have sometimes fallen on the kids and on me while the class was in progress.

However, we are determined to hold the classes. Building materials can only be brought to rebuild this school and add additional rooms once the rains are over and the stream subsides“, says Dataram.

Reopening Schools, Restoring Normalcy

The Bijapur district administration has been exploring the possibility of restarting schools over the last couple of years in the different blocks of the district. As the civil strife gathered momentum, most children from remote villages, where schools had become defunct were enrolled at residential schools.

For some time, this was seen as the only strategy for providing educational access in areas affected by civil strife. Bijapur District Collector Rajat Kumar says his administration realised that there was no point in adopting a ‘wait and watch’ mode for the situation to improve. “It was important to ensure children from these villages also got educated or we faced a graver problem of losing thousands of children to Naxal recruiters”, says Rajat Kumar.

There was however, concern that separating young children from their families and local surroundings was untenable and could lead to emotional deprivation over long periods of time. Many parents, however, preferred this approach as they believed that it was a safer and secure environment for their children. However, in various informal interactions between the district administration and the local communities, there was consensus for schools to recommence in their villages.

The district administration first mapped potential locations and villages where schools that had been closed down or damaged, could be reopened. Teachers mainly undertook the task of visiting villages and speaking with community members, leading to the drawing up of a list of 80 schools.

The process also included opening channels of communication with the Naxals about such an intervention to obtain a ‘buy in’ from the other side as well. The buy in was essential to ensure teachers would not feel insecure about working in such sensitive areas.

With active UNICEF support, the team of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan undertook the uphill task of restarting schools in the community itself. “The decision to restart schools in 80 locations was an important landmark in the efforts to guarantee access to primary and elementary education in areas affected by civil strife – after all, a functioning school is a sign of stability and routine”, says UNICEF Education Officer, Sheshagiri Madhusudhan.

Children gather for class at the newly constructed school building at Potampara in Bijapur, which is yet to be completed.

Braving the Strife, Winning Trust

It is not just monsoons, inclement weather or geographical inaccessibility that were major hurdles in the campaign to reopen schools in Bijapur. Teachers relate incidents during the course of the civil strife that vitiated the atmosphere and led to the closure of schools.

Tulsi Ram Patel, a school teacher who has been teaching at the Potampara primary school says, “In 2004, a blast happened in the Ponjer village in which over 23 jawans were killed. The atmosphere of distrust became so intense that people did not dare to even cross the road, forget sending children to school”.

The school building at Ponjer that had been completely destroyed then is now being rebuilt, with thirty five students from the village currently attending school at the new structure that is already functioning in neighbouring Pamalvaya.

“Schools as zones of peace have immense potential to draw people together and serve as a space for fostering peace-building. The role of teacher community and ordinary people in this journey is very inspiring as they overcome difficulties and disparities almost on daily basis. UNICEF remains committed to scale up efforts to strengthen schools as zones of peace’’, states Shaheen Nilofer, State Representative, UNICEF.

The old school building of Pamalvaya too was taken over by the forces and is currently part of the CRPF base in the area. The Block Education Officer of Bhopalpatnam SS Taram says that the trend of forces occupying school buildings to shelter their men has happened across many areas.

“This is one of the reasons why Naxals have been targeting schools and forcing their closure. When I tried convincing them about the need for reopening schools, they said they never wanted schools closed but were against the erection of permanent structures as they felt the forces might continue to use them as vantage stops during combing operations”.

Several local contractors are also reported to be refusing to undertake rebuilding and repairs to schools due to security concerns. Thus, despite the allocation of funds for building additional rooms, several schools are forced to operate out of temporary shelters or private premises.

School teachers say there is a need to rebuild confidence among the people of remote villages that have been cut off from essential services like education and healthcare for years. SS Taram is worried that people are scared to even trust each other or talk about key issues of concern openly.

“They are always worried about being labeled informers – by both the security forces and naxals. Since teachers are amongst the few ‘outsiders’ who manage to reach even restricted villages, they are often subjected to suspicion. Few teachers have given up on this initiative of reopening schools”, he adds. 

Ensuring a Brighter Future for Children

The district administration says the campaign to reopen schools needs to be supported by speedy completion of unfinished school structures, especially roofing and flooring to create safe buildings. There are plans to use tents in locations where building materials cannot be made available.

Teachers say that maintenance and repair of these schools could help attract children back to schools in their community. The newly built schools of Bijapur paint a happy picture these days. There is improved attendance and several new admissions to schools that have reopened.

At the recently reopened school at Cherkanti, there are 54 students, while at the newly opened school at Pamalvaya, there are over fifty children, including those from Ponjer. Ensuring educational opportunities to young children in areas of intense civil strife could prove to be a key turning point in moulding their future.

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