SITTING ON his dusty bench under a tree, Anil is soaking his fingers in a plate of hot curry rice as he prepares to eat his school mid-day meal.
For months now, the ‘classroom’ for this Class V student at Government Primary School, Gyaspura is under a tree, the verandah of his school or just the barren school ground.
Anil seemed unfazed on his perch even though the mercury crossed 42 degrees in Ludhiana on a recent school day. The son of a rickshaw puller father and daily wager mother, he enjoys coming to school.
Due to an acute shortage of classrooms in the school, it is the girls in his class who get to sit inside a classroom. But even for them, the classroom is no luxury but a prison of sorts for six hours.
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There is barely elbow room in the classroom. The 100 girls packed inside use their notebooks as ‘fans’. The teacher gets little attention. The government primary school at Gyaspura – one of the most backward areas of Ludhiana — has 1,206 students from Classes I to V — almost all of them coming from the poorest migrant families living hand to mouth. With only six classrooms, the Student Classroom Ratio (SCR) of this school stands at 200.
This is nearly six times the SCR of 30 laid down under the Right to Education Act (RTE). The school has even taken a room from a neighboring patwarkhaana (government land revenue records office) to adjust Class II students, after they started showing signs of dehydration and breathing problems sitting out in the open.
As per the latest DISE report (District Information System for Education) released by the HRD ministry, a survey of all schools across India, Punjab has one of the poorest averages of just four classrooms per school at primary level in government schools.
And just 19.33 per cent of government primary schools in Punjab have SCR greater than 30.
The latest Annual Status of Education Report by PRATHAM that surveyed 561 government schools with primary sections in Punjab found only 40 per cent of grade III children able to read grade II text. Only 65 per cent of grade V children and 80 per cent of grade VII children were able to read the text. In basic arithmetic, 44 per cent of Class III children were unable to do Class II subtraction. Almost 30 per cent of Class IV and 22 per cent of Class V kids could not do Grade II subtractions.
Ginni Duggal, deputy director, State Council of Education and Research (SCERT) which works on content on PSEB books and is conducting Class V and VII exams now, however said that it is more due to RTE and the practice of no detention that Punjab’s primary education standards were hit.
“Without any check, students were being promoted till Class VII and then they performed poorly in Class X boards. The external exams restarted for Class V and VIII this year by SCERT have shown good results. At least, now we can apply remedial measures on those failing in Class V and 8. We still cannot fail them though.” But Harpreet Dua, fellow and dean, Panjab University, Chandigarh, said the absence of basic facilities in school had a role to play.
“Students drop out due to lack of basic facilities and even if they do not drop out, the focus is more on whiling away time during school hours when there is no fan or water or even proper place to sit. Attendance is also hit. This ultimately affects learning process,” said Dua.
1,200 students, six classrooms
Prakash Singh, the head teacher posted at Government Primary School Gyaspura explains what it means to arrange something as basic as drinking water for 1,200 kids.
“There are 152 children in class I, 350 kids in class II, 284 kids in class III, 235 kids in Class IV and 141 in Class V. For 1,200 students, there are only six classrooms. When power goes off, it is only students or teachers who know what it means to stand here for a minute, forget studying. We cannot breathe and ultimately students carry their benches out and sit under trees. Even benches are short and they use tattered gunny bags to sit on ground.”
With only three regular teachers, school is running on services of 12 volunteers and five contractual teachers. “These kids are from poor families that their parents never complain. They never ask why their children are made to sit outside on the ground. I spend Rs 500 from my own pocket and arrange a tanker to get drinking water. Most of them come just to get stomach full lunch meal once a day. Their mothers too work as labourers and they come hungry in the morning, without having breakfast,” said the teacher.
Between 80-90 are accommodated in each room, three students to a bench. In one room without the benches, 100 students are packed on the floor. The teacher has a kerchief on her nose to keep out the overpowering smell of sweat inside
“Five of our classrooms were declared unsafe in 2014. Since then grants under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA) came only for two rooms. Mid-day meal kitchen was made from a donation of Rs 35,000. This is how 1,200 students are studying in six rooms, verandahs and under trees,” said the headmaster.
‘Kid faint in summers’
In Dhandhari Khurd, another pocket occupied by several migrant labourers in the industrial area of Ludhiana, the government primary school is a second home for 1,019 students coming from extremely poor families, which earn Rs 100-200 daily.
The school has just eight classrooms accommodating over 1,000 students. “We cannot deny admission to any student. It is a government school but we have no space for kids where they can sit and study comfortably. Only the teachers working here know how we adjust 150 students in one classroom of Class V and other 150 sit outside in verandah. They keep sticking to each other to avoid the blazing sun but even the porch falls short,” says Jinder Pal Kaur, head teacher.
Teacher Manjit Singh divides his time between two classrooms, Class IV with 80 students in one room and 84 in another room, teaching similar lessons.
“If RTE norms are anything to go by, then there should be at least 30 classrooms with 30-40 students in each and equal number of teachers for separate sections. But we have only two regular teachers and nine contractual ones who are transferred off and on. Our Class II students sit in open ‘classroom’ and two sections go there simultaneously. Half of 206 students of class 3 also sit outside and similarly 134 class I students are adjusted in one room,” says Sukhjinder Kaur, who saw the school growing from 264 students in 2006 to 1,091 now.
“There are many private schools nearby but their parents cannot afford the fee. Also, the mid-day meal is primarily what they come here for. We try completing as much syllabus as possible but it is a struggle each day with no space to sit for children. Kids even start fainting in summers and we call a doctor,” she said.
Punjab’s education budget for 2016-17 is Rs 8,732 crore, an increase of less than five per cent over last year. Within this, it has cut back spending on the SSA, a 60:40 arrangement with the Centre, and the mid-day meal scheme. Infrastructure development in existing schools and for new schools gets just Rs 100 crore.
Primary government schools are short of over 1,700 classrooms. Last year, the government sent a proposal to SSA for funding of 1,065 new classrooms. The money has been received but the the work is yet to begin. This year, a fresh proposal for 709 classrooms was sent of which only 363 have been approved. “The aim is to construct 1,428 classrooms this year,” said Hapreet Singh, from civil works department, SSA Punjab.