|The school receipts showing the fine paid by Rinku Sarkar on two occasions. Picture by Surajit Roy
Jaigaon, May 7: Ratan Lohar, a father of four and a worker at the closed Bharnobari Tea Estate, does not know what to do about his children’s education.
On one hand, there is almost no work at the estate and consequently no wages. On the other, local schools have increased their annual fees to more than three times the figure fixed by the government.
“My two elder children stopped going to school last year,” says Lohar. “The younger ones have been promoted to Class V this time, but I don’t think I will be able to pay the fees to let them continue with their education.”
Lohar’s children are not alone. Students from closed and abandoned tea gardens of north Bengal are increasingly dropping out of schools and colleges because they cannot meet the expenses.
In Bharnobari alone, there are over 100 such students. “We have two schools in the vicinity, Hasimara Uchha-Madhyamik School and Hasimara Hindi High School,” said Krishna Baraik, a member of the operations and maintenance committee currently running the estate. “The annual fees at the schools are more than Rs 200 per student. We have had no work for the past fortnight, where will the families get the money from'”
Sudarshan Bhagat, also from Bharnobari, is a second-year arts student at Jaigaon Nani Bhattacharjee College. “Last year, I had to shell out Rs 2,000,” he says. “This year, with the garden closed, my family cannot afford to let me continue with my studies.”
The district inspector of schools (higher secondary), Mohim Payra, said the annual fee fixed by the government was Rs 63. “Schools can charge extra money from students under different heads but they should not do so from children of closed and abandoned tea gardens. I will definitely look into this,” Payra said.
The secretary of the governing body of Hasimara Uchha-madhyamik School, Tarun Bose, said the additional Rs 137 covered the cost of programmes like freshers’ welcome, Saraswati Puja and prize distribution and the salary of the night guard. “We have not taken any decision regarding the children from closed gardens,” Bose said.
Alipurduar subdivisional officer P.D. Pradhan said he had heard about the schools overcharging the students. “I have decided to convene a meeting with the school authorities in this regard,” Pradhan said.
The general secretary of the National Union of Plantation Workers, Prabhat Mukherjee, said there were more than 10,000 students in the 14 closed gardens in the Dooars. “I will draw the attention of the Bengal government to this problem of dropouts,” he said.