|An overturned truck on the road to Bhubaneswar on Sunday. (Sanjoy Ghosh)
New Delhi, Oct. 15: As the monster storm neared, the people went to school.
Children, parents and grandparents trooped to the concrete safety of schools built under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the universal education scheme that has emerged as the unsung saviour of more than half of the seven lakh people evacuated hours before cyclone Phailin hit the Odisha coast.
By the time the storm made landfall, they had all been guided to the safety of some 2,000 of these schools constructed under the central-sponsored SSA scheme over the past 13 years.
Under the SSA, aimed at universalising elementary education, all school buildings are concrete structures with toilets, drinking water facilities and kitchen sheds.
Rajesh Mohanty, a teacher in a rural primary school in Ganjam district and president of the Zilla Parishad Teachers’ Association, said the SSA schools had turned out to be the real saviour after the state government directed all teachers to make sure that the affected people could use the buildings as shelter from the storm.
“In our school, more than a hundred people from Polrajpur village took shelter. We have five big rooms, a kitchen and sanitation facilities. Had the school building not been pucca, the poor people could not have got shelter.”
Mohanty said most villagers in Polrajpur don’t live in pucca houses. So the school was their last hope.
After the supercyclone in 1999, the Odisha government had built cyclone shelters. State government sources said there were about 250 such shelters in the coastal districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapada, Balasore, Bhadrak, Puri, Khurda and Ganjam. But they can, at the most, accommodate 2.5 lakh people.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched in 2000 with the focus on setting up schools with pucca buildings with toilets and access to drinking water.
Some 3.7 lakh schools have come up since across the states. Today, nearly 98 per cent of habitations in the country have a school within a radius of one kilometre, a senior official in the human resource development ministry said.
Dasarathi Satapathy, additional secretary in the school and mass education department of the Odisha government, said around 70 per cent of those evacuated on Saturday were given shelter in primary and upper primary schools.
“The schools constructed under the SSA were used in all the coastal districts for sheltering people. These schools have all the facilities as cyclone shelters,” Satapathy said.
Community health expert T. Sundararaman, who is also executive director, National Health Systems Resource Centre, New Delhi, said schools with kitchen and other amenities were assets at times of natural calamities.
“Odisha has set an example of how schools can be used to help people. You cannot afford to create cyclone shelters which would be used only during cyclones and remain unused till the next cyclone,” he said.