The agitating villagers on the primary school campus. Picture by Mithun Roy
Balurghat, Nov. 22: Nearly 70 guardians today stormed a primary school, locked up classrooms and demanded an explanation from the headmaster for the poor attendance of teachers who allegedly took turns bunking.
The protest, at the sight of which the headmaster took to his heels, comes at a time when the tribal pocket in South Dinajpur is determined to make the best use of the only primary school in the locality that caters for the 1,500-strong population in three villages.
The residents of Mathurapur, 14km from here, alleged that there was not a single day when all three teachers of the school were present.
Even today, around 11.30am, when the simmering discontent of guardians at students of Mathurapur Santhal Primary Vidyalaya boiled over, headmaster Ramrik Rabidas was absent. He arrived when one of the teachers called him up but fled on seeing the mob.
The protesters forced teachers Manas Banerjee and Anubha Basak out of the classrooms, and while the doors were being locked, a parent said: “Such a school is better shut off.”
They shouted slogans demanding that the headmaster be punished for defalcating funds meant for the construction of new classrooms. Currently, Classes III and IV are held in two rooms, while students of I and II are taught on the verandah.
“The government has provisions for free education. We want the children to get the most out of it. They may not be able to add many degrees but at least they will become aware of what is going on around them. They will come to know about the rural schemes available and how to utilise them,” said Dulal Rajputh, one of the two graduates in the three villages.
Dulal said he took private tuition besides working in the field. “I have an extra avenue of income. That is what education gives.” The other graduate, Ujjwal Pahan, said he even travelled to Balurghat to coach students.
Sudhir Pahan, a former student of the school and a one of the guardians, said he had got the job as a peon in the state farm because of his education. “I didn’t clear the board exams. But I had studied till Class VIII and I have a government job. I want my daughter, too, to be educated.”
The government spends Rs 15,000 crore a year on elementary education. But one of the reasons for its poor quality is teacher absenteeism, as Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari had pointed out in an apparent criticism of the system 10 days ago.
“Our main complaint is against the headmaster who has no interest in running the school. This institution is the only school for the three villages — Mathurapur, Majhiyan and Faridpur. He is himself very irregular in coming to school. When we asked the other teachers to call him, he came. When we demanded an explanation, he managed to give us the slip,” said Amal Pahan, one of the guardians.
“There is hardly any day when you find all three teachers in school. Somebody or the other is absent. If the headmaster himself is irregular, how will he ensure the attendance of his teachers,” added Pahan, a farmer.
Subrata Munda, another guardian, said the food served at mid-day meals — a central scheme to check dropouts among students — was sub-standard. “In other schools, the children are given eggs, fish and meat regularly. Our children get only dal. Above all, the meals are not cooked regularly. We suspect that the head teacher is stealing the midday meal funds,” said Munda.
Villagers said funds for the new classrooms had been sanctioned in 2007 under the Sarva Shiksha Mission but the work was yet to be completed. “As the new classrooms are not yet ready, the children have to sit on the verandah often in the sun or rain, depending on the season. The way the school is being run has also resulted in the decrease in the number of students. A few years ago, there were over 300 children. Now the number has come down to 112,” said Atanu Pahan. He said most guardians after sometime felt that it was better their children helped in the fields. “If the teachers don’t come, parents feel it is a waste of time sending children to school.”
The villagers also said the aloofness of the administration had spurred their agitation. “Since no one is bothered, we decided to deal with the truancy ourselves. We decided that such a school was better off shut down,” said Atanu Pahan.
Later in the evening, school inspector Taraknath Mullick visited the campus and convinced villagers to reopen the institution tomorrow.
Mullick had been sent by the chairperson of the South Dinajpur Primary School Council, Apurba Sen, who ordered a probe into the villagers’ allegations. “If the allegations are proved true we will take exemplary steps against those guilty. If need be I will personally go and hear the grievances of the guardians,” Sen said.
The headmaster, who lives in Pagliganj, 8km from the school, said he was at a loss to understand why the villagers were suddenly against him. “The matter of the construction of the classrooms is the responsibility of the Village Education Committee and its secretary. I have nothing to do with it. Also, we try and provide mid-day meals with the funds available to us. As far as irregular attendance is concerned, the allegation is baseless,” Rabidas said.