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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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To school, with firewood for food

Darjeeling, Sept. 17: A neatly dressed Sabita Gurung trudges uphill to attend her classes at Singamari Girls' Primary School. Besides the customary school bag, she also carries a bundle of firewood.

Hundreds of children have started carrying firewood to school like Sabita, thanks to a fuel shortage faced by many educational institutions in the hills that are providing midday meals to students since yesterday.

In order to tide over the crisis, the schools have asked students to bring in firewood so that food can be cooked.

'Providing firewood is not a problem in rural areas, but supplying wood daily in a semi-urban area like this is difficult. I had no option but to ask my students to bring in whatever wood they could lay their hands on to cook the meal,' said Denis Simon Tamang, the headmaster of Singmari Girls' Primary School.

The directive has put parents in a fix. 'Where can we get firewood in Singamari' We use either kerosene or gas to cook our meals. I am constructing a house and so I can send the unused wood to school. But for how long am I supposed to do this' asked Suraj Sharma, a resident of Singmari, whose ward studies in a primary school in the area.

The school authorities express helplessness at the state of affairs. Moreover, drinking water is also scarce in the region.

'In Darjeeling, we don't get enough drinking water. I don't know how we will obtain enough water for cooking, especially during the dry season,' said Tamang.

The process of cooking meals and washing up later is also taking up a lot of time. 'When we first tried it yesterday, we started cooking at 10.30 am and finished two hours later. However, it was 2 pm when the students finished eating and washing the dishes,' said Norden Tshering Syangden, a teacher of the school, which has 75 students.

The DGHC primary school department has provided the schools with cooking utensils, but students have to bring their own plate. The department also pays the schools Re 1 per student every day to cover the cooking costs.

'I had heard that we would be given Rs 400 to refill cylinders, but we have to buy gas stoves and the cylinders initially. That will take up a lot of money,' said Tamang.

K.B. Hingmang, the secretary of the Primary Teachers' Organisation, said: 'We will discuss the matter with the higher authorities. It is hard for any person or organisation to provide vegetables, lentils and other food items on a day-to-day basis.'

Most schools have formed a Mother-Teachers Association and decided that parents should come forward to help with the cooking so teachers are not burdened. However, not all guardians are game for this.

A senior official of the primary school department said: 'We are aware of the shortcomings and that is why we have not started the scheme in all urban schools. However, the people in rural areas are happy with the idea. Social groups and organisations like Sai Samitis have offered help with the cooking. We will approach the higher authorities for funds for the urban areas.'

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