A helpline in Odisha is empowering students to act as watchdogs to monitor implementation of the RTE Act, which completes three years in April

“My teacher does not come to school,” speaks a little voice on one end of the phone line. At the other end, a woman responds reassuringly, asking for the child’s details — name of the school, the district. Within a matter of days, the ‘teacher’ is back in class, having been pulled up for irregularity by higher officials.

A unique initiative by the Odisha government to monitor implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act norms, as well as address students’ concerns, the School Students’ Helpline is bringing about a positive change in the education scenario of the State.

The first of its kind in the country, the helpline — which operates through a toll free number (1800 345 6722) — will complete three years this year, just like the RTE Act itself which will complete its third anniversary on April 1. Started soon after the Act came into being, the helpline has, until now, received nearly 11,000 calls.

According to Sanatan Panda, deputy director of Mass Education and the officer-in-charge of the helpline, the idea of such an initiative was conceived as a means to address the “frequent cases of corporal punishment and child sexual abuse in schools that cropped up in the media”.

For instance, had a Class VIII student of the Kiran Kishore High School, Sundergarh not complained to the helpline about two of her school staff sexually harassing the girls of her school, the matter would have remained unresolved. According to the student, the two school peons regularly passed lewd remarks at the girls and misbehaved with them, going to the extent of encouraging the male students to join them!

What more, despite complaining to the headmaster, no action was taken. A call to the helpline, however, brought the matter to the limelight and an immediate enquiry was ordered. Stern measures were taken against the culprits, and the headmaster, too, was pulled up for his insensitivity towards his students. Child sexual abuse is a major reason for drop-out amongst girl students.

“The helpline acts as a watchdog to monitor the implementation of the RTE Act norms, and address students’ concerns. While the RTE Act covers children from age six to fourteen that is up to Class VIII, the helpline covers all school students up to class X,” Mr. Panda said.

He added that most children or their parents do not report violations either because of fear or inhibition. The helpline, which keeps the caller’s identity anonymous, takes care of that.

Apart from child sexual abuse, teacher irregularity, corporal punishment, entitlements, school infrastructure, and mid day meal are some of the other nature of complaints received. According to Balwant Singh, Collector of Keonjhar district, teachers’ attendance and punctuality have taken a positive swing after the helpline — which works with the technical support of UNICEF — has come into force.

In one case, a concerned individuals’ call to the helpline helped a young girl of class IX from being married off by her parents; in another, a school headmaster was suspended after it was found that the school premises were used to accommodate a theatre troupe, affecting the normal functioning of the school.

“We, however, don’t initiate any action before an enquiry. At times, some cases are found to be false,” Mr. Panda said, adding that the helpline number adorns the walls of all schools in 30 districts of the State, and works 12 hours a day — from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

While the staff in the helpline office are mostly school teachers (eight out of 13), Usha Padhee, commissioner cum secretary of the Department of School and Mass Education, said that plans are now on to bring in trained manpower and counsellors to assess students’ problems better.