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Don’t let bullets destroy their blackboards

The security forces and Maoists must keep schools out of their conflict and respect children’s right to education, writes Sanjeev Rai.

ht view Updated: Mar 31, 2014 22:19 IST
Sanjeev Rai

Today is the Right to Education Day. As political leaders enter the final stages of their election campaigns, the 50-year-old question of the Maoist insurgency remains unanswered, and as a result the children of the affected regions remain desperately isolated. On March 11, a Maoist attack in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh left 15 policemen dead, and at least another 25 injured. This comes less than a year after an even more serious ambush in May 2013, which led to the death of 27 people, including several top state politicians. Among security concerns, children’s issues have been systematically neglected.

Nine districts in Odisha, 18 in Jharkhand, and nine in Chhattisgarh have been classified as ‘Maoist-affected districts’ by the government. It was only a few years ago that the police were caught running operations out of the schools they were supposed to be protecting. Eventually, three schools in Potali, Nahari, and Kakadi came under attack from Maoist forces in 2011. At the same time the Central Reserve Police Force moved into an ashramsala (a residential school) in Aranpur village of the same district. The government has repeatedly stressed that ensuring schools are protected is a priority, yet from 2009 to 2012 schools and education centres across the country suffered from more than 140 violent attacks, the majority of them taking place in Maoist-affected states. A recent report compiled by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack found that 120 schools had been taken over by security forces in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, in the last few years.

A substantial number of school children from Gumla, Lathar, and Chatra in Jharkhand, and Garhchiroli in Maharashtra have already fled to other towns and villages. The 2012 UN Secretary General’s annual report on children and armed conflicts said that Maoists recruit and indoctrinate children as part of their mass mobilisation strategy, particularly in Chhattisgarh. Several children have been detained in relation to their involvement.

A 2013 round-table consultation with local people from the Soseng Gram Panchayat village of Nuapada, Odisha, revealed that there had been no teachers in the district for several years. Dozens of schools under Sunabeda Sanctuary had not received the required number of teachers in accordance with the Right to Education (RTE) Act. West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand have not recruited enough trained teachers to meet their RTE quota. Only 56% of the nation’s government schools have two or three teachers; however, most of the schools in violence-affected zones are single-teacher schools. In many states, teachers are regularly engaged in non-academic work like election duty.

The state governments in Odisha and Chhattisgarh have begun initiatives to admit children in residential schools, but the existing system needs improvement to accommodate children in facilities of an acceptable standard.

Improving education standards, even in violence-prone areas, is not impossible. A large number of village schools could be declared as ‘zones of peace’ and be treated as such by security forces and Maoists. Under a firmer political hand these institutions could become bastions of goodwill in otherwise troubled areas.

(Sanjeev Rai is national manager (education), Save the Children. The views expressed by the author are personal.)