The gun and the book, the soldier and the schoolchildren, all in the same school.
So schoolgirls in East Singhbhum, Jharkhand, are being forced to choose between dropping out of school and sharing their classrooms with gun-wielding security forces.
It’s a spiralling law-and-order crisis that could affect the next generation in a state where all 22 districts have been declared Naxal-affected, with the Maoist militants having set up parallel governments in several places.
“I was not comfortable attending class under the shadow of the jawans’ (soldiers’) guns. And they stared at us indecently… so I dropped out,” says 14-year-old Maya Munda (name changed) of Karaduba village in Galudih, an impoverished, tribal region in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, 200 kilometres south-east of capital Ranchi.
Paramilitary forces have been deputed across the state to try and control the Naxalites’ activities. But in most of the villages, the schools are the only solid, concrete structures, so the jawans usually make them their base.
With only 1,097 government and government-aided schools for a population of 2.69 crore, Jharkhand has less than half the number of educational institutes it should have — the recommended ratio in India is one for every 10,000 people.
And, over the last six years, East Singhbhum alone has lost 12 schools to security forces.
At the sprawling Mahulia High School, 45 kilometres from steel city Jamshedpur, 800 students sit crammed in six classrooms. Central forces have occupied the rest of the school and the girls’ hostel.
“Several young girls dropped out when the armed forces arrived. Many never returned,” says teacher Nimmi Herenz.
Female literacy rate in East Singhbhum is at 57 per cent.
And the lack of schools has contributed to the massive dropout rate — 80 per cent of students enrolled in Class 1 never make it past Class 10.
“In some rural areas, girls have to cycle up to 30 kilometres to attend high school,” says Ravinder Prasad Singh, general secretary of the state teachers’ association. “Last year alone, a state Education Department survey found that over 1 lakh students dropped out of school. About 70 per cent of them were girls.”
Ahead of the national election, there is tremendous anger among first-time voters, especially the young women.
“Why should we vote when we are left to fend for ourselves,” says Mochra Singh (19), of Dumkakocha village.
There is no point, adds her neighbour and friend Arti Singh (19). “Election after election, we get no electricity, no healthcare, no new schools.”
Committees of at least four panchayats in Galudih, that’s about 50 villages, have announced that they will boycott the polls.
“For years, we have been begging leaders of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (which was heading the state government until a recent bypoll) to give our village a school,” says Dasmath Soren, head of Baghuria village. “We even offered some of our land to build the school on. But we have repeatedly been brushed off. It’s as if our children don’t exist.”