The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pandal tour, carrying alphabets in bag

Over 200 schoolchildren were busy pandal-hopping this Sashthi and Saptami. But the aim was not to check out what each para had created.

Generating awareness about the need for universal education was the only objective this battalion of kids set out with. The boys and girls from diverse backgrounds travelled to 28 municipalities of North 24-Parganas, spreading the word about the need to send kids to school.

The puja parikrama with a difference was called Sarva Shiksha Sharod Abhiyan, organised by Prayasam, as an extension of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (a central government scheme aiming to fulfil the goal of universal elementary education by 2010), for which it is the nodal NGO in the district. From Barasat to Baduria, Khardah to Kanchrapara, the kids from Rishi Aurobindo Colony and the children of Salt Lake rickshaw-pullers spent October 1 and 2 touring the main pandals of the area.

The kids designed and distributed pamphlets with information on the educational options available. Posters and banners dotted the sites they visited and puja committees had also put up stalls disseminating information.

This initiative to reach elementary education to all children between the ages of six and 14 has been underway for some time. While it has spread through some districts of Bengal with success, North 24-Parganas had been left out of its scope till now.

But since March, Prayasam and partner NGOs Bikash Bharti Welfare Society and Parivartan Social Welfare Society, which have formed town resource groups, conducted a survey in North 24-Parganas, starting with the five municipalities of Kamarhati, Baranagar, Titagarh, Panihati and Halishahar. Though the final collation is not complete, roughly around 7,000 children have been identified as being out of school, leaving aside domestic labourers, who were not included in the scope of the survey.

“We were pleasantly surprised to find far fewer children out of school than expected,” says Amlan Ganguly of Prayasam. Most families had been approached by the authorities about admission of children before and had chosen not to send their wards to school mainly due to financial problems.

“The opportunity cost of sending these children to school was just too high according to their parents,” adds Ganguly. Many of the children were employed in factories or shops, with others living in slums or on railway platforms.

While the aim is to put these deprived urban children into formal schools, in some areas there are not enough seats to accommodate all. The next phase of the project is strategic planning, which will be “need-based”. This could include building new schools in areas where there are inadequate seats, creating mobile education units or starting a bridge course for older children. Hurdles will first have to be overcome to gain the children’s participation.

“A lot of employers were clear that even if their child labourers have some time off, they would rather make them work longer hours than send them to school,” says Ganguly.

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