While Rajasthan is experimenting with rural hostels to ensure children stay in school, teacher absenteeism is proving to be a spoke in the wheel

The undulating landscape strewn with hillocks makes Dungarpur in southern Rajasthan, a tribal dominated region, a difficult terrain to traverse. With more than 60 per cent of the population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (Meena and Bhil) most of them have historically lived in isolated houses atop each hillock overlooking the fields or where some livelihood is possible.

This district, also known as the town of hillocks, makes service delivery a big challenge. It also makes the setting up of schools at every kilometre or two a tricky proposition.

“There will be less than five children in each school if such a thing was to be done,” says Deepak Kalra, Chairperson, Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (RSCPCR).

At the same time, if a school is set up in a centralised location, then children will not be able to travel to it every day.

To overcome the twin problem, the Tribal Area Development Authority (TADA) is experimenting with the setting up of hostels, where children can be provided education, lodging and boarding for free till class 12.

One such hostel has already come up in Dungarpur, with a capacity of 250 children. There are 215 children enrolled there at the moment but 30 per cent of the staff is not present.

Staff quarters have been built for the teachers, but not a single one of them has been occupied, says Ms Kalra. The teachers instead prefer staying with their families in Udaipur and travel to the hostel daily. They fear a change in their lifestyle while living in far flung areas.

This hampers the quality of education imparted to the children.

The teachers sometimes also take turns to come to the school, which means all the subjects that have to be taught to the children on a daily basis, are not done. This further means that students become disinterested in the school and are most likely to drop out. Parents of such children too, would prefer them to go out and work instead of having to go to a school that does not teach you anything.

If properly run, these hostels can help solve the problem of both child labour and absentee parents, says Ms Kalra.

The tribals who used to depend on the forest to earn their livelihood, since the introduction of market economy, are barely able to survive. Some of them have taken to agriculture and many of them are migrant labourers. Their poverty does not give them an option to worry about the moral wrong involved in sending their children to earn some money from neighbouring states.

“A lot of these children are either employed in neighbouring states for work or are at home taking care of their younger siblings. Many a times, the mother engages them in household chores, which pushes education down the ladder of priorities in these impoverished households. But if they stay in hostels, they can be kept away from both child labour and other problems,” she says. The district is notorious for contractors who take children to Gujarat to work in the fields of Bt cotton, hotels, oil mills and construction work.

The department of Social Justice and Empowerment also runs hostels for needy children and especially children of migrant labour. A number of non-governmental organisations too manage hostels that are supported by the government in the district. When The Hindu visited one such hostel, it was filled with 100 children though there was space and facility for not more than 30.

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, for children who needs protection from families or outsiders or their parents, a care home is to be set up. In Rajasthan this has by and large been done through the Kishore grihas, Balika grihas and Shishu grihas. But these schemes are of no good if teachers remain absent from schools or impart knowledge only half-heartedly.