A complete lack of infrastructure and official apathy has forced two schools in north Kashmir to transform commercial shops into classrooms. While the students are looking at an uncertain future, the crippled status of these schools is a symbolic reflection of the medievalist attitude that seems to have afflicted our policy makers, Sameer Yasir reports.
Muneeb Ahmad, a thirteen year old boy, travels two kilometers on foot every day to reach his school. It is a difficult and treacherous journey. But reaching school on time is a priority for him. A resident of Singhpora in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, Muneeb, who topped his class for three consecutive years, says learning and reading is the only thing he likes doing.
On April 2, he sought the company of his teacher to a roadside toilet because there is none in the school. While they stepped out of the ‘school’, a speeding Tata sumo almost ran over them. Muneeb, a Class 5 student at Government Primary School, Bhat Mohala, Dardpora in Singpora Kalan is now scared of moving out of the school without the help of his teachers. He is not the only one who feels this way.
A half opened, rusty shutter and a small board nailed on a broken staircase announce the name of this school in north Kashmir to its visitors. From outside, two teachers are seen teaching small children. The school is run from the two shops which have been rented by the state’s education department from their owners. From the last seven years since the school was set up inside the two shops, nothing has changed, save the rust that has gradually corroded the iron shutter which opens into the school ‘premises’.
Young children in dirty white shirts and grey pants sit on the floor covered with a single thin piece of cloth. The walls of the shop are cemented. There is no proper ceiling. Tin sheets are placed haphazardly on top of shops to act as a cover in case of rain or snow. There is no playground or toilet for the children who have to cross the busy road to answer the nature’s call. Half of the children studying at the school are girls.
“We just can’t manage forty students. We have to accompany them to toilets. We have to be with them to fetch drinking water. We have to make sure that no one steps out of the shop. But no one listens to us. I think the department is waiting for a tragedy to occur.” Manzoor Ahmad, a teacher posted at the school told Kashmir Life.
Most students at the school say that it was difficult for them to concentrate on studies as four classes are held in one shop with blackboards stuck on opposite walls. Their teachers nod in agreement. “We are teaching four classes in one shop. Two teachers teach us at the same time in one class. We can’t concentrate on our studies but no one bothers to provide us with a school,” Muneeb Ahmad, a student, told Kashmir Life.
With the number of vehicles passing on the road outside increasing with every passing day, the teachers say there is always a risk of accidents. “Two accidents have already happened here. We had informed the authorities about it but no one cares. To serve in this primary school is so difficult; one doesn’t have to only teach but be a caretaker also,” another teacher told Kashmir Life.
“There is no toilet for us. We freeze in winters and in summer, the heat beats down on us. The walls have not been painted and the shutter remains open throughout the day. It is not a school but a shop. The only difference is shopkeepers keep their products outside the shop while our teachers have kept a sign board announcing the name of the school,” says Razia, a Class 5 student.
The teachers say they had approached the Zonal Education Officer (ZDO) of the area a number of times and made their apprehensions clear but it was all in vain. “Last year he had promised that the school would be shifted to the other building but it didn’t materialize,” the teacher said.
Even the Chief Education Officer of Baramulla, Rouf Ahmad Shahmiri, expressed his helplessness due to the lack of land availability in the area. “The department pays less for the land and no one is ready to give us their land. This is why the school remains in these two shops. Up to the time we don’t get land, the school will remain in these shops,” he told Kashmir Life. He admitted that there was a possibility of accidents but pleaded helplessness to tackle the issue.
A cursory fact-finding mission by Kashmir Life revealed that most of the government land in the area has been encroached. Even houses have been constructed on the government land in the village where the education department claims helplessness to get the minimum possible land for making a small school. “When people can construct houses on government land, why can’t government make a school on its own land,”Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a resident of Darpora, wonders.
Behind the rise in the number of private schools operating in the Kashmir Valley, many educationists ascribe the failure of government to the falling teaching and infrastructural standards in the government run schools. The mushrooming of private schools over the last decade is directly attributed to crumbling infrastructure, a lack of learned tutors and the willingness to impart basic education to the children in the government-run schools.
The working of the state’s education department is also dubious. The department keeps the influential teachers in the school where there is no need and doesn’t send people to work at the school in far-flung areas. For example, there are many schools in Baramulla town where the student:teacher ratio is 3:1. The story gets only repeated in many parts of the valley.
In Srinagar’s Raj Bagh area, one of the foremost educationists in the valley, Aga Ashraf Ali says there is a school in the area where thirty seven teachers have been posted at the school for two students, “The only thing the teachers do is to stitch sweaters,” he said mockingly. One of them was the wife of the former education minister, Peerzada Mohammad Syed.
“The highly influential teachers connected with bureaucracy and politicians who live in Srinagar prefer to be posted in the city schools where there is no need because of their unwillingness to serve in the villages or towns,” a senior official at the state’s lower education department said.
This is the reason why one of the most reputed government-run schools in the entire Sopore town which once attracted the children from many private schools operating in Sopore town is suffering. From the last many years, the school had earned a name for itself. Then October 2005 earthquake happened and the school building was destroyed. It was never rebuilt. Run from a single room now, there is presently only one teacher who has to teach seven classes. Four blackboards are hung on the walls for different classes.
Imtiyaz Ahmad, a Class 7 student from Shivpora, Sopore, left his private school and got admitted at this school. “It was one of the reputed schools in the entire Sopore town. The standard set by the school was high. But everything has changed now after the building the damaged and teachers were transferred. There is no place to sit even for students,” he says.
Like Imtiyaz, there are many students who got admitted at the school thinking of a bright future and good education. “Many students like me left private schools to come to this school for good education. We preferred this school because of the quality of education it offered. Now there is only a teacher and we have to study inside a single shop,” says Imtiyaz.
The two shops from where the school operates have been constructed by the local Auqaf committee and later rented out to the school. Presently, the school had more than 60 students and one teacher. The class work is done in one room and other has been converted into a makeshift office where files lie scattered all around.
Instead of brightening the prospects of students full of aspirations and dreams, schools like these are bringing a bad name not only to the institution of teaching but to the state government as well. Despite repeated attempts by Kashmir Life, the state’s education minster Tara Chand could not be reached for his comments. His secretary told Kashmir Life over phone from Jammu in the middle of the day that his ‘Sahib Soye Huwe Hai’. Boss is sleeping!