The writer (centre) with girls from Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas. Picture by Ruchira Gupta
As I travel through Bihar, to small bustees, little villages, remote hamlets, I see pink schools everywhere, behind clusters of bamboo groves, down a mud road, near a pond.
There are more than 1,000 schools in Araria district alone, and the number of children enrolled is 4,16,511.
In 2006, the Indian government had named Araria one of the country's 250 most backward districts. One of the socio-economic indicators that make a district backward is its literacy rate. The 2011 census revealed that the rural literacy rate is 33.2 per cent, much below the state and national averages. The worst was the female literacy rate, i.e. 20.4 per cent. In other words, only one out of five women was literate.
As many as 93 per cent of the total population of Araria lives in 713 villages, a reason for the high female illiteracy at that time. Schools were inaccessible to girls who were not allowed to or could not afford to go far from home.
Now, even the smallest of panchayats has a motor-cyclable road that leads to a school. The schools are active, functioning, staffed with teachers, and equipped with desks, blackboards, books. A pucca building exists in between mud and bamboo huts. And school-going girls have been gifted with bicycles.
Matched with boarding schools for underprivileged girls, called the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the schools are propelling the engine of change in Bihar. A report by Alakh Sharma and Ashok Pankaj of the Institute for Human Development, "A Baseline Survey Of Minority Concentration Districts Of India", highlights the improvement in female literacy rates in Araria due to SSA and the midday meal schemes.
Educated youth have well paid jobs as teachers. Children have teachers. Families don't have to pay exorbitant fees to private schools to instruct their child.
I stop at the one in Simrah in Renugram close to the birthplace of socialist writer Phanishwarnath Renu.
In an earlier decade, the principal of the school had absconded with the money allotted to him to build the hostel. There used to be a chabutra where the hostel should have existed and the smattering of girls enrolled was asked to sleep in a classroom of the half-finished school building.
The NGO designated with the management of the girls' hostel had nowhere to house the girls it had enrolled. I remember taking a photo of the tree with the chabutra and writing a letter to the chief minister, Nitish Kumar. Within weeks, the chief minister sent the local administration a date when he would visit the school and its connected hostel.
The principal was forced to build the school, the chief minister came, inspected the school and met the girls.
These girls were from Scheduled Caste and backward class communities, daughters of daily wage-earners, share cropping farmers and prostituted women. All were first generation learners. They were in Class VIII and had petitioned the chief minister asking that their hostel be upgraded from Class VIII to Class XII or at least till Class X, so they could study safely. The shared their dreams of becoming engineers, lawyers, police officers, doctors and teachers with their chief minister.
Today, six years later, the girls that the CM met are college students. One, the daughter of a prostituted mother, has been admitted to St Xavier's College, Calcutta, thanks to the support of the St Xavier's college alumnae, another is on her way to an engineering college in Rajasthan, a farmer's daughter has a law seat reserved for her in an American college. The dreams they articulated in the KGBV hostel and formed in the pink school in Renugram, Simrah, are on their way to being realised.
The hostel has been discussed at the United Nations as a best practice on how education has prevented sex-trafficking. It was featured last month by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Barbara Davidson, in a double-spread in the Los Angeles Times, the paper of record in California, in an article called "This school in India saves girls as young as 12 from the family business: prostitution".
The girls, the hostel and the schools are part of a long legacy of a commitment to education for the downtrodden started by socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, and continued by Nitish Kumar in the last decade.
When he was deputy chief minister and education minister of Bihar in 1967, Karpooriji removed English as the compulsory subject for the matriculation curriculum, allowed students to "pass without English", including for the Bihar Public Service. This made it easier for young people who grew up with no English at home to learn in their own language, understand the subjects taught in classes, communicate with teachers and those who in administration, and even opened the possibility of participating in the affairs of the state.
Nitish Kumar in turn has ensured that the school system functions and is accessible to all.
Unfortunately, the entire picture is not rosy. The KGBV hostel was not upgraded till Class XII or even Class X as the girls had petitioned. When they finish Class VIII, girls have to go back to extremely dangerous situations. To my own knowledge, two girls were pulled into prostitution by traffickers who prey on starving, ignorant families and one was pushed into child marriage.
The reason could be that the state could simply not afford it. The central government slashed the budgets for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the 2015-16 budget from Rs 27,758 crore to Rs 22,000 crore, and for the mid-day meal scheme from Rs 13,215 crore to Rs 9,236 crore.
In many states like Jharkhand, the KGBV hostels funded under this policy were simply shut down. Scroll.in has reported the resultant increase in trafficking of tribal girls.
The parliamentary standing committee on human resource development, tabled on April 22 a report to Parliament, noting that "in the year 2015-16, the plan allocation has been reduced by a whopping 24.68 per cent" and calling into question the commitment of governments to the "universalisation of quality elementary education for all".
The Bihar government is probably struggling with competing priorities but anytime the question is of poverty, the answer is children.
♦ Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.
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