Students of Pakhihaga No. 1 Aided Primary School in a potato field at Pakhihaga, Dinhata, in
Cooch Behar on Monday
Cooch Behar, March 20: When headmaster Dhritiman Sarkar visited the homes of a few truant pupils to find out why attendance at his primary school had halved over the past couple of weeks, he was in for a shock.
"Most of these children were harvesting potatoes - the farmers had hired them instead of adult labourers to save on wages," Sarkar, headmaster of Pakhihaga No. 1 Aided Primary School in Matlahat panchayat, Dinhata, said.
The trend has caught on across Dinhata and Mathabhanga subdivisions of Cooch Behar this potato harvesting season (late January till late March), with a rise in absenteeism across primary schools, which teach up to Class V.
Engaging children below 14 in labour is illegal and can invite a fine or even a jail term up to three years for repeat offenders. Children are allowed to "help out" their parents but not during school hours.
A brief survey suggested that virtually all the children were working on other people's farms - at Rs 20-30 a day - not least because their parents seemed largely unhappy at their skipping school.
"I want my son to go to school every day but he is working in the fields with his friends. I was unable to force him - he wants to buy something with his own earning," said Salil Burman, father of a Class III student in Matlahat.
Several of the children told The Telegraph they wanted to earn some quick cash. "It's easy to harvest potato, and we're getting some money. After the harvesting is over, we'll go to school again," a boy said.
Asked why older children from upper primary or secondary schools were not being engaged, villagers said that children who went to these schools usually belonged to better-off families and would not work for such low wages.
Sources in the state agriculture department admitted to being aware of the trend but claimed it was up to the district authorities to act. They said the farmers were trying to save on labour costs following a crash in potato prices owing to multiple reasons, including a bumper crop.
An official explained the economics: "Usually, a farmer needs to pay a labourer around Re 1 per kilo of the harvest. Given the glut, the wages would rise while the prices fell."
Under the prevailing rate in Cooch Behar, an adult labourer needs to be paid Rs 250 a day. But four children can do the same work and are happy with Rs 30 each.
A senior Nabanna official rued that "even if this is taking place in just one district, it means the steps the state government has taken to ease the potato farmers' woes have not reached the grassroots".
Farmers have been selling their potatoes to traders at Rs 2.50 a kg, against an expected Rs 4 to Rs 4.50. They had spent at least Rs 3.50 to produce a kilo of the crop this year, officials said.
Soon after the crash, the state government decided to buy potatoes directly from the farmers --- at camps set up across the districts --- for school midday meals and ICDS centres at Rs 4.60 a kg. It also announced a transport subsidy for traders who ferry the surplus crop to other states and foreign countries.
The Nabanna official said that 8,330 quintals of potato were to be bought from farmers in Cooch Behar district alone to provide midday meals to 443,112 children in 3,223 primary schools.
"It seems the farmers are yet to know about the initiatives. District authorities should tell them that hiring children for labour is a punishable offence," the official said.
Sarkar said his school has 129 students but over the past two or three weeks, about half have not been coming to their classes. "Only 65 came today."
Mrityunjoy Sarkar, headmaster of Gadopota Special Cadre Primary School in Sitalkuchi at Mathabhanga, said just 45 of his 189 pupils had turned up on Monday. "I have learnt that most of the rest are working in potato fields."
Saukat Ali, a former professor at Dinhata College, said: "The education department and, most importantly, the teachers at these schools should meet these children's parents and insist that they send their children to school."
Representatives of the district primary school council had no inkling of the trend. "I'll look into the matter and take necessary steps," Kalyani Poddar, chairperson of the council in Cooch Behar, said.
Krishnava Ghosh, subdivisional officer of Dinhata, said he would take steps to stop the practice.