Sunday, 23 October 2011

Saraswati still resides in Chaita...

A brick road runs through the center of the village. It had rained heavily the previous evening; we are greeted with the warm smell of fresh earth and cowdung. Chaitasangma is one of numerous villages that dot the landscape of north Bihar, situated around 100 kms to the north of the capital city of Patna. I am there as part of a recce for a forthcoming project for Edulever.

The people aren't sure what we are doing here. They look at us with a mixture of suspicion and anticipation. The people are largely the women and the children - the men of Chaita are in far-off Delhi and Punjab, some working as construction labor, others as rickshaw-pullers. The women lament that their children have no option but to grow up without their fathers - who are here only for the festival season. Since Chhath, the largest festival of Bihar, is round the corner, the menfolk's arrival is eagerly awaited in Chaita.

It's not 10 am as yet, so the children are not in school. Not yet. Some of them are in uniform, and would presently leave for school. They crowd around us as we move through the village, till an elder comes and shoos them away. It's time for school...get going...he shouts at them.

A villager approaches me seeking help for his son, who had appeared for the State Level National Merit-cum-Means Scholarship examination in 2009. Of the 125 children in all of Samastipur district who had cleared this exam, his son - Aman - was one. He had been promised a monthly sum of Rs. 400 by the state so that Aman could pursue higher education. He was asked to open a bank account and provide the details at the Block Education Office, which he duly did. Two years have passed, there's no sign of the money yet. Not sure what to say, I tell him of the Right to Information Act, asking him to file an application at the block office.

It's time to go to the school. The "Upgraded Middle School" of Chaitasangma, with classes from Grades 1 to 8, has 630 children enrolled in it, all from the village. The school is a single-storey structure, built along three sides, with a small courtyard in the center. A total of six rooms, a corridor running along them, the Indian flag painted on the columns.

Apparently, the state has sanctioned the construction of more rooms to accommodate the children, but the village has not been able to find the land for this construction. Because of the lack of space, all children of Class 1 are seated in the corridor, a sight not uncommon in government schools in India. Children of classes 2, 3, and 4 have a room for themselves, but those in Classes 5 and 6 share a room, as do those in Classes 7 and 8.

I decide to spend some time observing the classroom proceedings, starting with the senior-most group. The teacher is a young man in his early thirties, and the session in progress has to do with the mathematics of stocks and shares. I'm slightly surprised at the complexity of the topic, but then remind myself that these are eighth graders. The students are all attentive, and it's obvious that their grasp of the topic is not just a cursory one.

The classroom which has Grades 5 and 6 is bursting at its seams. There are about 60 students in this room, with those of Class 5 seated on the left and those of Class 6 on the right. The girls are in front, boys at the back. The teacher is not in the class - she is being interviewed by one of our team members as part of the project preliminaries. Despite the absence of the teacher, and the large numbers, the class is surprisingly disciplined. I find that the students are engaged in self-study, reading the textbook of their choice. I decide to ask them a few questions, and they seem responsive to the idea. I start with a 2-digit multiplication (32 x 7), and am given the answer within seconds. A few more questions - on science as well as English - are received with the same fervor: the answers are quick to come in most cases. The few minutes of my interaction with the group are enough to ascertain that there are a number of bright sparks in this class. I end the session by asking them as to what they wish to be when they grow up, and again the enthusiastic answers - teacher, doctor, engineer... A shy little girl sitting in front of me wants to be a doctor, and when I ask her if she will be willing to go to a city such as Patna to study to become a doctor, she takes her time to respond, "अगर डॉक्टर बनना है तो जाना ही पड़ेगा!" (If I have to become a doctor, I will have to go...). Will her parents allow her to go? This time she is not so sure...

Soon, it's time for the mid-day meal. One of the rooms has been converted into the kitchen, where the meal (Khichdi - a watery mixture of rice and lentils) is ready to be served to the children. The corridors are converted into a dining hall, the children are on the floor with their steel plates (which they bring from home) in front of them, and the serving begins. The younger children eat first. The whole process takes about an hour.

I find some time to talk to the teachers. There are six of them, plus the Head Master (HM). All of them are contractual staff; they had been inducted as para-teachers in 2003-04 as part of a mass recruitment drive by the government of Bihar to overcome the paucity of teachers in schools. To my utter surprise, I'm told that the teachers have not been paid their salaries for the last six months (since April 2011), and yet they're continuing to fulfill their duties with dedication. These teachers of Chaita are true heroes - most others would have given up long ago.

The driving force behind all of this is the HM, Mr. Naresh Pandey, a resident of the village. He is in his fifties, is quiet and unassuming, and the only time I can see a sparkle in his eyes is when he talks about the children in his school. He knows these are bright young minds, truly feels for them, but the sparkle dissolves into frustration when we talk about their future. He laments the fact that the community has not been able to provide land for the expansion of the school, and that the powers-that-be that run the education system in Bihar seem to have forgotten who they are really working for. Mr. Pandey is a gifted teacher himself, and teaches the children whenever he has a chance.

One of the walls of the school has been adorned by a large portrait of Saraswati - the Goddess of Learning. Saraswati Puja - a day dedicated to her when prayers are offered by everyone in the community - is celebrated with fervor in this part of India each year in February. The countenance of the Goddess on the wall seems to suggest that she herself is dismayed at what she sees around her, while trying to ensure that the little minds continue to get from the school what they come here for, each day.        


  1. A moving account, and very well written. Thanks for sharing. NPO

  2. EXCELLENT - The matter,presentation,language,pictures as well as feelings............Ma

  3. It really touches the heart to see young children so enthusiastic to learn while in school. Really wish that the Govt. had enough money and will to provide good education to the young kids in villages. The Govt. cannot make a better investment for the future of the country. Wish our politicians realise this and make sincere efforts of carry this out and not indulge in various scams. The account is very well written with plenty of feelings.