National

Tracking Odisha’s missing schoolchildren

Making ends meet: Sixteen-year-old Koili Khuntia fills a bowl with handia, a local brew made of rice and intoxicants, at Ranipokhari village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district.

Making ends meet: Sixteen-year-old Koili Khuntia fills a bowl with handia, a local brew made of rice and intoxicants, at Ranipokhari village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Amid the rhythmic beating of drums on a hot afternoon in May, members of the Kolha tribe dance and enjoy a traditional drink to celebrate the spring festival of Manay Chuiti Parab at Ranipokhari, a tribal village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. Making her way through the festive crowd is 16-year-old Koili Khuntia, who eyes young girls trying to dance in sync as she serves bowls full of handia: a local brew made of rice and intoxicants.

Even as Koili goes about her job, over five lakh children her age in the State are busy preparing for the High School Certificate (Class X) examination, which began on April 29. A student of the Government Upgraded High School in Ranipokhari, Koili had filled up the form to sit for the exam, but decided to skip it.

Celebration time: Members of the Kolha tribe celebrate the spring festival of Manay Chuiti Parab at Ranipokhari, a tribal village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. 

Celebration time: Members of the Kolha tribe celebrate the spring festival of Manay Chuiti Parab at Ranipokhari, a tribal village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district.  | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

On May 7, the day the exams ended, Bishnupada Sethi, Secretary, School and Mass Education Department, said of the 5.71 lakh students who had filled up forms, 43,489 did not turn up. He then ordered an immediate inquiry.

Mr. Sethi said student absenteeism was more marked in the State’s districts such as Mayurbhanj, Ganjam and Balangir. Last year, only 4,412 students had skipped the exam. He said the large-scale absence of students could be attributed to dipping interest in online classes and families migrating for work.

However, reports on the ground reveal that the pandemic-induced prolonged closure of schools, shortage of teachers, poor quality of education, lack of high schools and inadequate hostel facilities have resulted in some students taking up jobs and others opting for early marriage.

Koili says she does not regret her decision to skip the important exam. Like the majority of students in Odia-medium schools, Koili has no access to a smartphone to attend online classes. She says she did not receive a single phone call from the teachers assigned to counsel pupils during the pandemic. Nevertheless, two years later, her teachers asked her to fill up the form to appear for the Class X examination.

“My mother is drunk all the time. My father spares little time or money for me. My brother has to fend for himself even after clearing the Class X exam. What option was I left with? I knew how to brew handia. I started making a living by selling the drink here and there,” she says.

Koili was one of the 1.04 lakh dropouts identified by the State government’s Household Survey 2021, which was conducted to study the impact of the pandemic on students aged between six and 18. According to the School and Mass Education Department, all 1.04 lakh students were brought back to school. However, Koili is an example of how the State government’s efforts to stem the dropout rate have gone awry.

Dearth of teachers

According to experts, shortage of teachers in government and aided schools is a major reason behind the deteriorating quality of education in tribal-dominated districts. The government, however, says it has maintained a healthy pupil to teacher ratio of 24, 20, 22 and 22 in primary, upper primary, elementary and secondary schools, respectively.

“Deployment of teachers is largely urban-centric. Teachers are reluctant to be posted in rural schools. Even if they take up such postings, they reside in urban areas and travel to rural schools. As a result, they often do not attend school,” says Pritish Chandra Acharya, a former associate professor at the National Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, who is now posted at the Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar.

A senior officer in the School and Mass Education Department says it is tough to bring reforms in the teachers’ deployment policy as it could assume political colour. “The powerful teachers’ associations will flex their muscle to ensure that the deployment policy remains irrational,” he says.

According to the Odisha Economic Survey (2021-22), the State’s high dropout rate at the secondary level (Classes IX and X) is a cause for concern.

According to the Odisha Economic Survey (2021-22), the State’s high dropout rate at the secondary level (Classes IX and X) is a cause for concern.

Mr. Acharya points out that recent studies by the State government have highlighted the poor learning outcomes of students in rural schools. According to a baseline assessment conducted by the Odisha School Education Programme Authority in October 2021, students performed poorly in Mathematics and English when schools reopened after the COVID-19 hiatus.

A total of 42.40% of students in Class VI secured less than 20% marks and 12.73% of students scored 40%–50% marks in Mathematics. In English, 40.53% of students could not obtain more than 20% marks, while only 14.20% secured 40%–50% marks.

In Class VII, 43% of students scored less than 20% marks and 12.60% of students secured 40%–50% marks in Mathematics. In English, 44% of students secured less than 20% marks and 10.98% of them secured 40%–50% marks.

In Classes I to IV, 25% of students scored less than 33% marks in Mathematics and 32% obtained less than 33% marks in English.

To compensate for the learning loss, the government decided to shorten the summer vacation and provide an additional month of teaching to students in government and aided schools.

“The National Achievement Survey 2021 shows a rural-urban divide in Odisha. Till Class V, the performance of rural students is on a par with their urban counterparts. In the higher classes, rural students start to lag behind. Till Class III, students from rural and urban areas score around 66% marks in English. In Class VIII, this figure becomes 50% for rural students and 63% for urban students,” Mr. Acharya says.

Out of school, into marriage

Following the closure of schools due to the pandemic, many girls studying in government hostels for Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) students returned to their villages, making them vulnerable to marriage. While traversing the dusty roads of Ranipokhari, one can spot many teenage mothers doing household chores with babies in a sling.

While traversing the dusty roads of Ranipokhari, one can spot many teenage girls doing household chores. A scene at the government distribution tank near Sarata village in Mayurbhanj district.

While traversing the dusty roads of Ranipokhari, one can spot many teenage girls doing household chores. A scene at the government distribution tank near Sarata village in Mayurbhanj district. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

While Koili took up vending the local brew to support herself, her classmate — 16-year-old Nandi Goipoi of Lambua Sahi hamlet — decided to get married. She wasn’t the only one to make this choice. Four girls and a boy from Classes VI to VIII in their school have tied the knot this year. Sutuni Singh, 14, a Class VI student whose parents are migrant workers, got married in May.

At Rajatnagar village, six km from Ranipokhari, Mani Singh, 14, lives with her husband, Mangata Singh Pingua, 19. When Mani was six years old, she was enrolled in Pallishree Sanskrit Vidyapitha Secondary School, Oupada, a government-run boarding school in neighbouring Balasore district. During the second wave of COVID-19, she was sent back home. With no classes to attend, Mani says, she loitered in the village and befriended Mangata. They soon got married.

Mani would have entered Class IX had she returned to school. She says four of her classmates also recently entered into wedlock. “My parents work as daily wagers in Bhubaneswar. When they return, they will take a call on whether I should resume studies. My husband has now moved to Tamil Nadu for work,” Mani says.

According to Sikshasandhan, an NGO working in the field of education, 122 child marriages have taken place in the past two years in just three villages in Ranipokhari panchayat: Rajatnagar, Dilisore and Ranipokhari.

However, the school management has little idea about the number of students who have dropped out and entered into marriage since 2020.

Bidyadhar Das, the headmaster of the school in Ranipokhari, says, “As long as these girls are attending classes, we don’t have to worry if they are married or not.”

However, villagers say, most girls are overwhelmed with child care and household chores soon after marriage and quit studies.

Children use a hand pump on their school campus at Dumuhani village in Mayurbhanj district.

Children use a hand pump on their school campus at Dumuhani village in Mayurbhanj district. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Off to work, away from home

In Dumuhani, a village in Ranipokhari panchayat, 15-year-old Singara Singh, whose parents are farm labourers, is still enrolled in Class IX at a school in Kaptipada.

Last year, when COVID-19 cases started declining, Singara, along with his friends Sagar Tirira and Bir Singh, boarded a train and set out in search of work. The police detained them at Bhadrak railway station and sent them back. Singara says given the limited employment opportunities in his village, he decided to drop out of school during the pandemic and look for work. His two friends are also dropouts and now herd cows in their village, he says.

Mohanty Singh, 16, a Class X student in Ranipokhari, says five of his friends quit school this year to take up work as labourers. Similarly, three students in Class IX also chose to take up jobs, he says. “There were 53 students in Class VIII in our school last year, but the batch is now left with only 20 students, and not a single one of them is a girl,” Mohanty says.

According to Sikshasandhan, 232 students have dropped out of the school in Ranipokhari since 2020 and 118 of them have migrated for work. Villagers say when a minor migrant worker returns home nattily dressed and donning sunglasses, other children aspire to lead a similar lifestyle.

In Malkangiri district’s Bonda Ghati, inhabited by the Bondas, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, some students migrated to States in south India in search of work last year. According to the villagers, there was little pressure from parents, mostly illiterate, to stay back and study. In many cases, young hands in school mean loss of earning opportunity for poor families. Migration becomes an easy decision for parents when their children join them, they say.

The villagers say parents received a helping hand in farming, cow herding and gardening when students were confined to their homes during the pandemic. When schools reopened, some parents were reluctant to send their children back, they say.

Girls on their way to school at Ranipokhari village in Mayurbhanj district.

Girls on their way to school at Ranipokhari village in Mayurbhanj district. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

High school: a dream too far

Residents of Dumuhani say their village has been producing semi-literates for generations as they only have a primary school.

“The lucky ones who gain admission in boarding schools are able to continue their studies. The rest study only up to Class V,” says Jharana Singh, a volunteer who maintains information on schoolchildren in the village.

Jambi Singh, 11, says she was determined to pursue her eduction after completing Class V at the village’s primary school. She and her friend would cross a five-km road through a forest to reach a high school in Rajatnagar.

However, Jambi had to abandon her dream when her friend secured admission in a boarding school. “It is not safe for a girl to walk five km through the forest alone every day,” she says.

Her elder sister, Pangila, too had to give up her academic ambitions as she failed to secure admission in a residential school. Pangila now spends her time doing household chores, Jambi says.

“The nearest high schools are situated five km away. It is difficult for children to continue their studies after Class V,” says Mr. Singh.

The nearby Noto panchayat also does not have a high school. After Class VII, students cycle or walk 10 km to continue their studies in high schools in Bhandar and Sarat villages. Year after year, students are discontinuing their studies, says Dumbi Singh, the sarpanch of the panchayat.

“About 90% of households are tribal families and mostly live below the poverty line. Despite repeated pleas, the government has not opened a high school, leading to a rise in dropouts,” he says.

At the school in Ranipokhari, students are finding it difficult to secure admission to Class IX. Villagers say since the State government provides students with bicycles and stipends in the secondary level (Classes IX and X), school authorities require parents to produce caste certificates, income certificates, bank passbooks and Aadhaar cards.

“Without these documents, school authorities do not grant admission. Parents seeking quick issuance of certificates are being asked to pay all outstanding dues to revenue inspectors. Most parents are daily wagers and give up the pursuit of securing admission for their children,” says Laxman Singh, a resident of Ranipokhari.

‘Misfiring schemes’

Last October, the State government had started the School Sanjog Programme, an initiative to run mobile schools to bridge the learning gap among students of Classes I to V from particularly vulnerable tribal groups. However, Manoj Kumar Singh, a resident of Sarat, says not a single mobile school has visited their village.

About ₹65 lakh was spent on beautifying the Government Upgraded High School in Ranipokhari as part of the 5T High School Transformation Programme.

About ₹65 lakh was spent on beautifying the Government Upgraded High School in Ranipokhari as part of the 5T High School Transformation Programme. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

On November 11, 2021, the government launched the 5T High School Transformation Programme, a project to build smart classrooms in 4,536 government-run schools in two phases. Teachers at the Government Upgraded High School in Ranipokhari say as part of the programme, ₹65 lakh was spent on beautifying the school. “But the contractor added only one more classroom and turned two existing classrooms into a science laboratory and a library. It forced us to take lessons for students of Classes I to III on the school porch,” a teacher said.

According to the residents of Ranipokhari, the physical transformation of the school has not had an effect on its day-to-day functioning. Though school hours have been fixed from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. to provide students relief from the harsh summer, villagers say teachers do not come to school on time. “Classes are barely held for an hour before the school bell rings. This is the state of affairs in most rural schools,” says a resident of the village.

A teacher checks the temperature of a Class X student as she returns to school after a prolonged pandemic-induced closure in Bhubaneswar.

A teacher checks the temperature of a Class X student as she returns to school after a prolonged pandemic-induced closure in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Festering problems

Anil Kumar Pradhan, a prominent education activist, says the implementation of the Right to Education Act, 2009, has gone for a toss in the State. “The education policy is planned by the State headquarters and it is uniform. However, our experience shows that problems are region-specific. The government must acknowledge this and provide flexibility to District Collectors to take steps to stem the dropout rate,” he says.

Mr. Pradhan says the government must revoke its decision to shut schools on the pretext of low enrolment numbers. “Since schools are located in far-off places, students from the tribal areas of the State are unable to continue their studies,” he says.

He also highlights that the hostel facilities provided to ST and SC students to pursue education are “grossly inadequate”. According to the government, in 2020-21, around 6,700 State-run hostels provided accommodation to 4.50 lakh ST and SC students, of which 2.75 lakh were girls.

“Opening of hostels indiscriminately is not going to solve the problem. It has to be rational. While hostel accommodation should be for students of higher classes, the government must ensure that children from all backgrounds receive primary school education,” the activist says.

Mr. Pradhan points out that the School Management Committees (SMCs) have little interest in taking up issues concerning students. “It is alleged that SMC members are treated as mere signatories. Unless the SMCs are made vibrant, the accountability of teachers cannot be fixed at the school level,” he says.

Children at Dumuhani village in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha.

Children at Dumuhani village in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Dismay over absenteeism

On May 9 this year, two days after the large-scale absence of students in the Class X examination came to light, Bishnupada Sethi, Secretary, School and Mass Education Department, wrote to all district education officers (DEOs) in the State, asking them to initiate a probe into the matter. The DEOs were directed to conduct a school-wise analysis and submit a report within 10 days.

School and Mass Education Minister Samir Ranjan Dash pointed out that this year the State government had even waived the exam fee for Class X students in view of the pandemic. “Students were severely affected owing to the pandemic. They may have skipped the exam due to lack of preparation,” Mr. Dash said.

Students outside an examination centre in Bhubaneswar.

Students outside an examination centre in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights took suo motu cognisance of the matter and asked the Board of Secondary Education to furnish a report within a week. “We have asked our junior teachers to conduct house-to-house surveys. A child tracking mechanism has been made operational to trace children dropping out of school,” said Anupam Saha, project director of the Odisha State Education Programme Authority.

Though the DEOs submitted their school-wise reports to the State authorities, their findings are yet to be made public.

Mr. Sethi also flagged a problem that was noticed when schools reopened after the loss of two academic sessions due to COVID-19. About 30% of students were found not attending primary, secondary and higher secondary classes in the State, he said.

“On analysing the daily attendance figures provided by the DEOs, it is seen that 70% of students are attending the classes. Attendance from Classes I to VIII in districts like Malkangiri, Boudh, Sambalpur and Nuapada is less than the State average,” he said.

Mr. Sethi urged junior teachers to explain to parents the benefits of sending children to school and the steps taken by the government to provide free books, uniforms, bicycles, mid-day meals and scholarships to students.

“If required, help from the school management committees, representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions and women self-help groups should be taken to bring students back to school,” he said.

‘Time to fix responsibility’

However, experts say while the government is focusing on short-term plans to raise the school enrolment rate, it should not take its eye off the big picture. There has been no shortage of guidelines issued to check the rising dropout rate, but the government must ensure that they are implemented in letter and spirit and responsibility is fixed at all levels, they say.


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Printable version | Jun 17, 2022 10:22:32 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tracking-odishas-missing-schoolchildren/article65534716.ece