Schools in Karnataka’s Western Ghats region experience a sharp drop in student enrolment in government schools

Balni village is not far from the coastal town of Karwar in north Karnataka, known for the heavily fortified naval base called Seabird and its little known beach named after Rabindranath Tagore. Drawing inspiration from the beauty and serenity of the beach, Gurudev had initiated his work on his Nobel Prize winning work Gitanjali here. Vinod Gurav takes pride in the rich legacy of the place but regrets its consistent decline of values. 

Retired as a school teacher over a decade ago, he says that enrolment has uniformly declined across all classes, from I to VII, in the Government Higher Primary School at Balni. “As against 153 students a decade ago, there are only 10 students in the school today,” regrets Mr. Gurav. Given its close proximity to various towns on the outskirts of Goa, including Karwar, parents prefer sending their children to English-medium private schools.                      

Balni is located in Joida taluk in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, the most densely forested area in the Uttara Kannada district. Joida is located in the Kali river valley, the most-dammed river in the country. Not only are there six hydro-electric projects along its 184-km length and one dam every 30 km, the controversial Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant is located along its banks too. Despite such developments, the valley is inhabited by traditional forest dwelling communities.

Further upstream into the valley, at Henkol, is located another Higher Primary School. Mid-day meal is under preparation for its 76 students and four teachers. “Sustaining enrolment and retaining children is tough,” admits headmaster E. Revappa. He is joined by in by other colleagues in asserting that despite adequate financial resources and facilities at their disposal, enrolment of students in higher primary schools has been on the decline in the region.     

The trend is prevalent across the district. In many schools, there are classes without a single enrolment. Does declining strength of students in the schools concern the teachers? The biggest worry the teachers harbour is the probability of the schools being closed down with the likelihood of them being transferred to schools at far-off places. To ward off such fears, some teachers coax their relatives and friends to enrol their children.    

In contrast to overall improvement in school enrolment across the country, enrolment as well as retention continues to be a serious issue in this district. However, one look at any school gives a distinct reflection of region’s rich culture. Not only are the school premises clean and green, the classrooms are neat and engaging too. The teachers also appear competent and committed.   

While migration of families to urban centres remains the prime reason behind poor enrolment, small families and declining fertility in the region could be another plausible reason. In the absence of any demographic study, many hypotheses persist to justify the prevailing trend. All said, the teachers in the government schools remain circumspect about their future and the future of government schools in the region. 

(The writer is with Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)