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Out of brick kilns and into classrooms

Bolangir, May 16: The sun has been mercilessly baking the rocky Bolangir earth since morning. But Kaikeyi Nag is hardly bothered as she darts around her hostel in the dusty tracts of Turlamal village with her friends.

The seven-year-old student of a primary school in the deep interiors of Bolangir was a few days ago promoted to Class III like her classmates. But it could have been different had her migrating parents taken her away to Hyderabad to knead earth in a brick kiln along with her two siblings. She would then have missed her annual exam and dropped out like several others.

But luck smiled on Kaikeyi and 5,000 other primary school students in the district notorious for its backbreaking poverty, starvation deaths and child sale.

In the 136 school-cum-hostels opened in eight blocks, the children now study, play, eat and live instead of toiling with their parents.

Every year tens of thousands of people migrate from this western Orissa district to Raipur, Hyderabad and even Ganjam during October and November to escape poverty. They hunt for work at construction sites or in brick kilns, pull rickshaws or do odd jobs so that they can pay back debts, retrieve a piece of mortgaged land or save up enough money for a family ceremony.

In the process, it was the children’s education that was suffering. As parents migrated with their children in tow, the school dropout rate in Bolangir became one of the highest in the state. In 1999-2000, over 16,000 primary school students had dropped out. The district has a literacy rate of 54.2 per cent.

Things would have been worse had it not been for the intervention of two young IAS officers posted as district collectors. In October 2001, then Bolangir collector Santosh Sarangi went to Hyderabad along with Harsh Mander, former IAS officer and now country director of Action Aid India. The NGO wanted to do something for migrant labourers and Mander supplied the idea.

After convincing the Andhra Pradesh government to open 15 temporary primary schools for children of migrant labourers in Hyderabad, Sarangi started 28 schools in Bolangir under the District Primary Education Project funded by the World Bank in 2001-02.

Last year, Bolangir’s new collector Sushil Kumar Lohani opened 108 more schools in the district’s eight migration-prone blocks. “We didn’t want to have an army of illiterates in Bolangir who would become small-time goons and criminals,” explained Lohani, who has been instrumental in the success of the residential school-cum-hostels project.

The trend of rising school dropouts now seems to have been checked. At Balipeta, a small hamlet located about 12 km away from the Patnagarh block headquarters, Chaitanya Bariha, 7, seems to be enjoying his stay in the residential school with 40 other students. “The effort is surely novel. We wish more students would join,” said Siba Prasad Hota of Balipeta primary school.

Chaitanya had missed his annual exam last year when he accompanied his parents to Berhampur to work in brick kilns. This year, the primary education project officials coaxed his parents to let him stay. His younger brother, however, had to accompany his parents. Bariha is now happy that he will be studying in Class II with his other friends. “I like reading books than making bricks,’’ Bariha said.

His friend, Lakhon Dhuduka, also suffered a similar fate last year when his farmer parents migrated to Alupur in Ganjam district to work in brick kilns. Lakhon had then missed his annual exam. This year, he was promoted after he stayed back.

“I am happy that my children will not have to drop out (from school) like me,” said Sataru Majhi, who had migrated to Hyderabad last October leaving behind his younger son at the Balipeta primary school.

But life at these schools is hard. Each of them admits 40 students. The children sleep on a dhurrie and have to subsist on a lunch of rice and dal doled out under the government’s mid-day meal programme. Dinner is provided by the education project officials. In between, the children get two biscuits or halwa. Lack of funds has meant that the government spends as little as Rs 150 on each child every month.

Books and other stationery are given free. There is no electricity, so the children have to sweat in the harsh summer and grope in the dark. But despite the problems, the effort by the district administration seems to be working.

In the 500-odd migration-prone villages of Bolangir, 113 villages now have one school in their backyard.

Plans are afoot to open more such schools in other villages.

“If we continue at this rate, then Bolangir would arrest its school dropout rate in next few years,’’ boasts Chudamani Seth, district project coordinator of the education project. It would surely be good news to the migrant parents in this underdeveloped district.

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