The teachers in Sundarban struggling to keep students afloat

Amid large scale migration from the delta area, schools in Sagar Island are trying various ways of retaining children, from smart classrooms and activity corners to kitchen gardens and home visits. Preventing dropouts is a battle against changing weather conditions and its consequences: early marriage for women, trafficking, and the lure of opportunity im other States, finds Shiv Sahay Singh

February 02, 2024 07:20 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:27 pm IST

The Kitchen Garden at Radhakrishnapur High School, Sagar island, West Bengal, where students and teachers grow vegetables which are used for their mid-day meals.

The Kitchen Garden at Radhakrishnapur High School, Sagar island, West Bengal, where students and teachers grow vegetables which are used for their mid-day meals. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

The children who study in the government-run Radhakrishnapur High School, in the Sundarban area, love geography. They particularly enjoy it because the room the subject is conducted in has a projector, audio-visual tools, and a smart board. Located on West Bengal’s southernmost tip, on Sagar, the biggest island in the archipelago, the school in Radhakrishnapur village, in Dakshin Dinajpur district, has mostly first-generation learners. On the LED screen, students navigate their way through diagrams of low- and high-pressure over land and sea, ‘book’ knowledge only adding to geographical concepts they have seen play out in their lives.

All have stories to tell of extreme weather conditions, particularly cyclones. Amphan in May 2020 and Yash in May 2021 were both super cyclonic storms that battered the region, with the latter damaging 28% of the mangroves, as per a report by the United Nations University (UNU) - Institute for Environment and Human Security.

Jaydeb Das is the headmaster of Khansaheb Abad High School, about 7 kilometres away from Radhakrishnapur High School. He has 1,381 students in his school and says 20% drop out at the secondary level. “There are no employment opportunities here, so they are forced to leave,” he says. He is teaching children to farm in little plots of land. “With generations leaving, the old skills of farming are easily forgotten,” he adds. Teachers like him are taking a personal interest in their students’ lives.

In this low-lying area, where cyclones inundate the land and destroy the ecosystem and homes, the risk of marginalised, already vulnerable people plunging deeper into poverty is high. Twenty-six of the world’s 35 deadliest cyclones have originated in the Bay of Bengal, says Weather Undergound, an organisation specialising in weather data.

Agriculture is not bankable, with the threat of cyclones that could ruin crops and rising salinity in the soil. In a bid to secure economic stability, Bengalis from here migrate to other States for work, either leaving children behind with family, where care may not be optimal or taking them along for a short period and then dropping them back, disrupting education.

Many girls drop out because they are married early. A Lancet Global Health article this year observed that while child marriage declined across India between 1993 and 2021, seven States registered an increase. Of these, the “largest absolute increase in headcount was observed in West Bengal, representing an increase of 32.3%”. However, some girls dream of a better life outside Bengal and migrate for work or are deceived into being trafficked. Up to 40,725 women and 10,571 girls went missing from West Bengal in 2022, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the highest in the country.

Dhiman Acharya, the headmaster of Radhakrishnapur Bahirpur Plot Free Primary School, feels that the vision is now no longer just teaching and making sure children understand concepts; it is to keep children in school. “This requires considerable effort,” he says. “Since students come from the most marginalised homes, we need to support them with books, notebooks, and school uniforms, sometimes from our own pockets,” Acharya says.

School as protector

Deboshree Mondal stands out in a crowd of uniformed students at Radhakrishnapur High School. She has on her favourite red sweater because it’s her birthday. “After Amphan, I was in school with my parents for 45 days,” Deboshree, a Class IX student, says.

Every student spends the summer vacation in school when cyclones ravage the islands, threatening to destroy homes and livelihoods. They are islands of safety, doubling as cyclone shelters for thousands of people and their animals when the sea surges over the embankments and inundates landmass.

With a fresh coat of powder blue and cerulean paint, the newly renovated double-storeyed school building with neatly trimmed lawns stands out as the most stable structure among the huts and single-storeyed houses in south-west Sagar.

Radhakrishnapur High School on Sagar island, which is using innovative means such as a smart classroom and activity corners to reduce dropouts.

Radhakrishnapur High School on Sagar island, which is using innovative means such as a smart classroom and activity corners to reduce dropouts. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Kuheli Gayen, the headmistress, says the biggest challenge she faces is to retain her 352 students and ensure there are no dropouts. “Every weekend we take stock of children who are not coming to the school. We have dropouts each week. We follow up by making telephone calls or sending teachers to their homes,” Gayen says, noting an increase over the years.

She is concerned about students like Deboshree, whose father works as a migrant worker in Kerala. He returned home a week ago, and the headmistress fears the whole family may leave now. Almost half the number of students here have close relatives migrating to other States for work. There are many whose parents have left to work outside of Bengal.

Ashish Khanra is one such child, whose parents are in Tamil Nadu. The Class IX student has been staying at the school hostel. A wooden bed, a mattress, and a box for books are the only belongings Ashish has, in a room with unplastered walls. After school hours when other students go home, the 15-year-old, one of the few hostelites, feels lonely.

What keeps him going is the kitchen garden that the children maintain with their teachers, across about 7,000 square feet of land inside the school premises. A group of students, in most cases a boy and a girl, are assigned a small plot of land to grow vegetables on. “I like growing cauliflower, cabbage, and radish,” he says, adding that the produce from the kitchen garden goes to the school and is used in the midday meal programme. In return, students get some money to cultivate more vegetables.

Students front and centre

The idea of engaging students with smart classrooms and a kitchen garden came to the island four to five years ago. Sabuj Sangha, a non-governmental organisation started helping schools augment their infrastructure and include modules of digital learning.

Ansuman Das, the director of Sabuj Sangha, says that out of 32 government-run senior secondary schools on Sagar island, his organisation has supported the installation of smart classrooms in 15 schools. This will soon be extended to all schools over the next few years.

“Students dropping out early not only increases unsafe migration but also early marriage and trafficking,” says Das, whose organisation has been working in the area since the 50s, even before it was registered as an NGO. Under Parivartan, its “holistic rural development programme”, Sabuj Sangha has also introduced libraries, laboratories, and safe drinking in schools. For primary schools, they have set up an activity corner with toys, to make learning fun.

The smart classroom in Radhakrishnapur High School with an LED board that students can browse the internet on and teachers can use as a blackboard.

The smart classroom in Radhakrishnapur High School with an LED board that students can browse the internet on and teachers can use as a blackboard. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Studies have shown that coastal erosion triggered by the rising sea level poses a major challenge for Sagar island, home to about 2.12 lakh people, as per the 2011 census. The island lost a quarter of its total supratidal area within 144 years (from 284.55 sq km in 1851-55 to 219.26 sq km in 1997), as per a study in the Indian Journal of Earth Sciences.

Even though Sagar island is being eroded from the south, it is a confluence of one of the biggest religious pilgrimages of the country, called the Ganga Sagar Mela. Every year, lakhs — the claim was one crore in 2024 — descend on the island in the second week of January to celebrate Makar Sankranti, and to take a dip at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. The ghats in front of the Kapil Muni temple where devotees offer prayers, have been severely eroded. After spending ₹25 crore on dredging, the government said they were helpless before nature.

Prof. Tuhin Ghosh, a senior lecturer at the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, says that about 30 years ago the remnants of the earlier temples were visible. “There were dunes and vegetation, followed by a flat beach. Gradually, the vegetation and undulations were cleared and made flat for the extension of the Ganga Sagar Mela ground. Since these barriers were done away with, the attacks of waves have increased. This is mostly created by human interventions,” Prof. Ghosh says.

Risk and uncertainty

Away from the din of the religious gathering, Gaurango Mondal, 30, is busy stitching his fishing net beside a mangrove plantation in the Bahirplot area of Radhakrishnapur. Women under the banner of a self-help group have planted mangroves on sandy beaches to arrest erosion.

Mondal and his wife Sabita, 27, have two children and have returned from Tamil Nadu only about a year ago. “Together we earned ₹7,000 a week at a brick kiln there. But the ‘head sir’ [headmaster] kept calling over the telephone, urging us to return and get the children readmitted in school,” Sabita says. The children couldn’t attend school there because the medium of education was Tamil. “We sacrificed our earnings and came back so that the children could go to school in Sagar. But there is no work here and we are surviving on the fish in the sea,” says a worried Mondal, standing outside his hut.

The beach outside the Kapil Muni temple on Sagar island has faced severe erosion due to rising sea levels.

The beach outside the Kapil Muni temple on Sagar island has faced severe erosion due to rising sea levels. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

At the Ganga Sagar Mela, Acharya decides to do some shopping. He buys four sets of clothes. “These are for my students. Migration has posed serious challenges for families. Sometimes men who are out working year after year do not return to their families, leaving their wives and children helpless,” the school headmaster says. Sometimes men and women start new families in other States and the children are left without a strong support system.

As winter recedes, so does the catch of fish. Mondal is restless. “I cannot stay like this. I will return to Tamil Nadu in March,” he says, resolute that he will go alone. His family is unsure. Sabita is worried they will have to go too, leaving the school in Sagar behind.

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