Tura/ Williamnagar/ Shillong: It was not until the end of the first decade of this century that education became a right in India. Yet, if one were to visit Meghalaya, and especially Garo Hills, it would seem that even in 2022, education is a luxury that few can afford. Such is the pitiable state of affairs when it comes to education that even those in charge have finally accepted that all is not well with education in the state.
On Thursday, Meghalaya Education Minister Lahkmen Rymbui informed the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly that there are a total of 36 Lower Primary (LP) schools in the state ‘without teachers’.
However, a visit to Garo Hills lays bare the shocking truth: the blatant indifference on the part of authorities means the progress of education remains light years behind the rest of the country and the world in general.
And amid all this, the children went through two years of the pandemic.
And it seems Rymbui’s data did not take the condition of South Garo Hills into account.
EastMojo’s investigation made it clear that education in Garo Hills has taken a back seat with rotting school infrastructure and lack of teachers being the root of most problems. More damning is the fact that while students have been scourging for education, the education department has done nothing except show unrepentant apathy.
Take the example of Jalwagre Songgital village in the East Garo Hills district. It has at least four schools, all of which have been without a single teacher for close to 3 years. This speaks a lot about a department that is beleaguered with myriad issues.
Koknal Imong Government LP School, with more than 80 enrolled students in its ranks, has gone without a teacher for the past three years. Similarly, the Danal Bolgipok Government LP School with more than 32 students has been without a teacher for the past four years, while the Sokadam Balading Government LP School has been without a teacher since the beginning of this year.
Another school, Dobu Achakpek, has also been without a teacher for the past four years. Yet, the Sub-Divisional School Education Officer (SDSEO) said that a teacher was conducting classes there. Another school in another C&RD Block, Samanda, has also remained without a teacher for years.
Interestingly, all these schools are in the same block—Songsak—represented by the former CM of Meghalaya and the current leader of the opposition Mukul Sangma.
It is hard to overlook the fact that all these schools are run by the government, which implies that their upkeep and responsibility are the government’s responsibility and no one else.
Rymbui’s response to All India Trinamool Congress MLA Zenith Sangma’s question in the Assembly as to why the state was facing such a paucity of teachers was that this was “either due to retirement, transfers or resignation of incumbent teachers”.
When Sangma questioned the education minister on the alternative steps taken to ensure schooling and education of children were not interrupted, Rymbui replied that most villages had “alternative schools nearby” that were being attended by the students. He added that in cases where schools face a scarcity of teachers, they have approached rationalisation to post teachers so that students can attend classes.
“We see the interim management is made in some schools but not in all. We cannot deprive the fundamental right of a child to free and compulsory education,” said Sangma.
Questioned why teaching posts continue to lie vacant and appointments on a contractual basis were not carried out in these schools, Rymbui said that this problem occurred during the recruitment process, and due to the judgement of the High Court, the government had to prepare a roster system.
“That is almost complete and we will be able to carry out the recruitment process immediately. We are trying to look at the parameters within the legal framework to see if there is some scope of a temporary appointment of teachers without going through the roster system,” said the minister.
Mercifully, even MLAs doubted Rymbui’s number. MLA Winnerson Sangma added that there were two LP schools in his constituency without teachers, adding that the figures quoted by the education minister were not accurate.
Government apathy towards these schools fraught with a lack of funds and teachers reached a high point was best illustrated when the education minister admitted that he was not aware of the schools mentioned by Winnerson Sangma.
And once again, Garo Hills lays bare the government claims that there are “alternative schools nearby.”
Dainadubi village in North Garo Hills (NGH) has two schools, almost at a touching distance from each other, which have been left to rot with no funds being provided for their repair. Bangsi Apal Government LP School has two enrolled students with four teachers. This school is almost a century old, having been established in 1926. Looking at the current state of the school, you would be forgiven for assuming the school is medieval in its origin.
“The main building of the school was first destroyed in 2006, but we gathered funds amongst ourselves to get it repaired. This was done through donations and whatever little we could manage. In 2014, the school was almost completely blown away by cyclonic winds and has remained in this condition since,” said one of the teachers at the school who did not wish to be named.
He added that numerous complaints and appeals were made to the North Garo Hills Education department as well as NGOs to seek repairs for the school. However, even after a decade, not even one new brick has been laid. The school is now a hangout for many cattle and goats that frequent the place. It’s extremely difficult for us as teachers to work as we are now crammed into the single Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) school room where all four of us have to teach our students. Enrolment, which was earlier very good, has dropped as we cannot accommodate students in the space available,” lamented a teacher whose name we have withheld for his safety.
The Sub Divisional School Education Officer (SDSEO) paid a visit to the school and informed teachers that a sanction had been made for the school building. However, it was later withdrawn by the education department following “a discrepancy regarding the location of the school.” As to how there is an issue regarding the location of the school, we do not know.
“We have been in the same place for close to a century, but as to how the department can make such mistakes is beyond us. The result is that our children and their education has to continue to suffer,” he added.
The Togan Memorial UP School also has a disturbing story to tell. The school, built in 1999, had an impressive enrolment of students before its destruction due to cyclonic storms.
After its ruin, all four teachers approached the DI of schools in NGH to seek funds for the repair of the infrastructure. Bafflingly, they were informed that no funds could be provided as it happens to be a “government-aided school”.
“The number of students dwindled as almost the entire structure had rotted away. Finding no other option, we appealed to residents to help rebuild the school. We also sacrificed part of our salaries and built the entire thing brick by brick.”
As they could not afford to engage labour for the task, the teachers pitched in. “The result is in front of you,” said the headmaster of the school. They were also assisted by the local MLA of Mendipathar, Marthon J Sangma, who provided sheets for the roof.
There is still a long way to go as classrooms still do not have windows and some doors are damaged beyond repair. In the face of indifference by the department, the school has continued its fight to educate children only because the teachers love what they do.
It is clear that locals and activists who are watching students’ future being destroyed right in front of them do not share Rymbui’s statements.
“If this is how the government and the education department pay attention to education, they might as well shut shop and close all schools. It is unimaginable that in this day and age, schools are treated with such disdain, and that too, with the whole world watching. It is no wonder that we lag so far behind compared to other parts of the state in the sphere of education, and also why our state is so far behind,” said social activist Gilsrang D Shira after a visit to the two schools.
As per recent reports, there are at least 11 schools in just the Mendipathar constituency where the schools’ infrastructure is as pathetic, if not worse. The number of these neglected schools could easily be more, except for the fact that some schools have taken these problems in their stride and have stopped complaining. There has, as usual, been no response to their needs.
“What happened to the Right to Education (RTE)? Will the government be able to return the years that these children have missed their education? How will they be compensated for their loss? These children now have nowhere to study and nothing to learn as none seem to want to take education seriously in the region,” said social activist Maxbirth G Momim, stressing an immediate overhaul of the system.
“When you know that the current system is not working, it needs to be changed. What about the many MTET passed candidates that are waiting in the wings to get engaged in teaching? Why are they not being recruited for these posts? Also, why are those in charge of education in these districts not being made accountable for what is happening? There seems to be a total breakdown in the education sector and the government’s apathy towards it is condemnable,” he said.
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