In recent years, there has been a growing awareness among people working in different fields about the lopsided social and economic growth not only between different states in India, but also within a state. There are reports aplenty ? from government, non-government and international agencies ? that tell of the great divide that exists between city and village, between one region and another, despite all the grand policies of equitable growth. These come with detailed maps of the country and states, are pockmarked with bar and pie charts, and shaded with the colours of illiteracy and malnutrition. But such graphics often leave a haze in the mind that cannot be dispelled until one has a first-hand idea of the tangled web of issues related to development and deprivation.
Such an opportunity offered itself in the form of a project to study the state of primary education in some of the remote areas of the Sunderbans. The study hinged on a now well-known concept, succinctly expressed in the West Bengal Human Development Report 2004: ?Education interacts with other human development variables in crucial ways.? The aim was to approach this from the other side ? to see what impact the absence of some of these variables has on education. Case studies were made in a few North 24 Parganas villages that lie at the edge of the Bangladesh border and in the heart of the mangrove country.
One of the problems of negotiating the Sunderbans is that one is never sure where the human settlements end and the forests begin. A sizeable part of its roughly 4,000 square kms is a chequerboard of interconnected rivers where men, mangroves and animals jostle for space.
It is a three-hour bus ride from Calcutta to Dhamakhali, from where a four-and-a-half hour motor-boat journey along the Raimangal takes one to a thin strip of land, the last inhabited part of the district. Samshernagar is a cluster of four hamlets of about 200 homes which has two primary schools. It has no electricity, no drinking water facility and no roads. The nearest health centre is about 5 kms away; the nearest hospital, at Hasnabad, is five to six hours by boat. Of the two schools, one is named after Birsa Munda, to gratify the sentiments of a local tribal community. It is a 10-feet-by-20-feet brick hut with an enrolment of 84 boys and girls from local scheduled caste and tribe communities. On a hot March morning, less than half of them were present. The four classes sat huddled on the floor, amid books and steel plates that they had brought from home for the free mid-day meal. We were told that an outbreak of measles in the area was the cause for the low turn-out.
But there never is full attendance. The better-off among the villagers arrange private tuition for their children during school hours. ?How can we discourage the practice?? said the teacher, who occupied the only piece of furniture in the room ? a rickety chair. ?If there is full attendance, we wouldn?t have space for them all.?
The school has three teachers, but the villagers have never seen more than one of them present on a normal day. The rest always have ?important appointments? at the offices of the school inspectors or the block development officer. With only one small room for all the four classes, it does not matter much though. In fact there are days when no teacher turns up, and the self-help group women who cook mid-day meals manage the classes. This is the picture in most of the schools in the area.
It is often claimed that the teacher-student ratio in West Bengal is better than the national average; so is the percentage of budgetary allocation for primary education. But these schools offer the grim face of a reality where there are no funds for buildings and facilities, while more than 90 per cent of the education budget is spent on teachers? salaries.
At the other school in the village, there is the ghost of a facility that exists only in government records: piped drinking water. The pipes were laid by the panchayat before an election and then forgotten. The children use the water of a scummy pond for drinking and also for cleaning their plates after the mid-day meal. Nearly half of the 104 enrolled students were absent on the day we visited it, many of them down with measles. In a nearby BSF camp, the jawans get their supply of potable water from a solar-powered pump. It is one of the many ironies of this area that the future citizens of the land they guard do not have access to safe drinking water.
?If the children are absent even for a couple of days, they forget everything,? said the only teacher managing the classes. Neither do they have proper facilities, like adequate light at night, nor are there any educated family member to teach them at home. Consequently, there are large waves of drop-out from schools following every epidemic of hepatitis or measles.
But they drop out for other reasons as well. A major source of subsistence for the people in the area is the catching of small prawns (locally known as ?meen?) from the river and then selling them to bheri owners. Young boys are engaged in the work and this explains the dwindling number of boys in the higher classes. This also explains an odd finding in the WBHDR 2004: ?In the village schools in one of the backward islands of the Sunderbans, girls now outnumber boys in the middle and senior classes by a ratio of 2:1. The teachers believe this is because they are more serious and consistent as students.?
Interestingly, most schools in the tribal regions of Purulia and Bankura present a contrasting scenario; that is, boys outnumber girls there by a ratio of 2:1. Clearly, the reasons there are different, but the root cause is the same: poverty and deprivation. One has to take diverse ways, untangling the web of issues in different socio-economic settings, to arrive at the same truth.