Virtually calling an end to the evacuation of Punjab’s border villages, the state government on Tuesday announced the reopening of schools in these areas from Wednesday.
Education minister Daljit Singh Cheema issued orders for government schools in six border districts of Punjab to reopen and function as normal from Wednesday.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Cheema said ‘’the decision has been taken only after consulting CM who further spoke to the Home Ministry”.
The schools were shut down when the Punjab government, acting on advise from the Union Home ministry on September 29, asked people living in a 10-km radius from the India-Pakistan border to leave their villages and move into specially set up camps.
The evacuation orders came hours after India announced it had carried out ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
People living in Punjab’s border villages were told Pakistan might target them in retaliation. But after the initial panic that saw waves of people fleeing their villages, the evacuation order got a lukewarm response.
Many families stayed behind and among those who left, the men returned in the daytime to tend to their fields.
Even those families had been trickling back home over the weekend, after the Border Security Force (BSF) allowed farmers to harvest their crop in fields across India-Pakistan fencing from last Saturday.
Sources from the education department confirmed to The Indian Express that the decision to reopen the schools came after Cheema headed a meeting of officials Tuesday afternoon, following which he asked Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to consider the proposal.
Earlier, the Education Department had announced that children in relief camps could attend the school nearest to the camp.
Cheema was told by the officials that a majority of the families in villages have not evacuated their homes.Thus, there seemed no point in keeping village schools closed.
“The fact is that most of the families had not left their homes at all. They are home and so are children. I discussed this with CM and he further spoke to Home Ministry officials. The ministry has given their nod and only then we have decided to open the schools. It is not a decision that has been taken in haste but only after assuring that it is safe for the children to come school,” said Cheema.
“There seemed no point in letting the studies of the children suffer as otherwise also they were sitting home,” said Cheema.
Asked if it was now safe for people to return home, Cheema said: “Right now I can just say about my department and as far as schools are concerned, they will function as normal from Wednesday. It is absolutely safe for children to come to school.”
The official press release of the education department said that “all government schools (primary, middle, secondary and higher secondary) falling within 10 km of India-Pakistan border will reopen from Wednesday. The decision has been taken keeping in mind the welfare of students so that their students do not suffer”.
Teachers hailed the decision as’practical’
“The earlier decision to order evacuation was taken in haste,” said Lovejeet Grewal, head teacher, Government Primary School, Dona Nanka of Fazilka, 800 meters from the border.
A total of 267 government schools within 10-km distance from border were ordered closure including two in Amritsar, 69 in Fazilka, 132 in Ferozepur, 13 in Gurdaspur, 25 in Pathankot and 26 in Tarn Taran.
Deputy commissioner, Fazilka, Isha Kalia said, “We have received the orders that schools will open from Wednesday. It is an extremely good step for the benefit of children. However, we have received no communication on relief camps till now and they would continue.”
In another sign that the evacuation is for all practical purposes off, six senior IAS officers deputed by Punjab government to coordinate and oversee the operations are back to their places of posting, one of the six officers said.
Punjab government had deployed R Venkatratnam at Ferozepur, A Venuprasad at Fazilka, S R Ladhar at Pathankot, Vivek Pratap Singh at Gurdaspur, K S Pannu at Amritsar and H S Nanda at Tarn Taran. “Everybody (All six officials) is already back. If schools are being reopened, it indirectly means that evacuation exercise has been called off,” said the officer.