EVERY morning, Ranjit Singh and Marfa Kousar of Lodhra village, both Class XII Science students, trek nearly 6 km through hilly terrain to reach Government Higher Secondary School here. On the way, they cross an area prone to falling stones and a fast-flowing Ujh river using a wooden log put across by villagers.
When they reach two hours later, the only class that is held is English, taught by Principal V K Koul. The school doesn’t have a teacher for any of the science subjects or for math.
It doesn’t have a laboratory or a library either, so the previous batch of Class XII science students walked nearly 30 km up and down to Government Higher Secondary School, Basantgarh, all of September for practical classes, before their annual exams in November (the school shuts down for winter). Only one of the 102 Class XII students from the school who took the exams in 2015 passed, while the pass percentage in Class X was 67 per cent.
Marfa and Ranjit say Class XI students such as them had just one practical class, in Basantgarh, all of last year. Ever since Class XII started in March, Marfa adds, “there has been no class of Physics, Chemistry or Botany”.
On May 14 and 15, the students of Khaned Government Higher Secondary School were among 500 from schools in Panara and nearby half a dozen villages who, along with their parents, held a dharna at the tehsil headquarters in Basantgarh.
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Used to official apathy, they were stunned by how the Education Department reacted. Officials called the protest “politically motivated”, saying the students and parents had the support of politicians, Public Health Engineering workers out to settle scores with superiors over water supply to the school, panchayat members, and even teachers “facilitating” mass copying.
Based on their report, Udhampur Deputy Commissioner Dr Shahid Iqbal Choudhary ordered an inquiry “to fix responsibility for the students’ unrest”.
Set up in 1935, the Khaned Government Higher Secondary School is one of the oldest schools in Jammu and Kashmir, and one of the two higher secondary schools in Basantgarh. The eight-room school has 313 students, including 49 in Class X, 110 in XI and 68 in XII.
In remote areas such as Khaned, government schools are often the only option. Khaned is located 120 km from district headquarters Udhampur, and the 15-km distance to Khaned from Basantgarh, where the motorable road ends, has to be covered on foot.
The nearest college, the Government Degree College, is located in Ramnagar, 90 km away. Both Ranjit and Marfa’s siblings didn’t pursue studies after Class XII because of the distance.
Even officials don’t make the long haul to Khaned. The seniormost Education Department officer to ever visit the school, the chief education officer, came way back in 1984. Basantgarh Sub Divisional Magistrate Kewal Krishnan came at the time of the November exams.
The school has a sanctioned staff strength of 41, including a principal, 15 lecturers for Classes XI and XII, two master-grade teachers (a position above senior teacher) for Classes IX and X, and four ‘general line’ teachers for V to VII.
But until last week, when the protest stirred the government into action, the school only had three lecturers, teaching Economics, Commerce and English, and only one master-grade teacher and three general line teachers.
After the protest, the Udhampur Deputy Commissioner issued final notices to three lecturers who had failed to join their new postings at the Khaned school. Two of them (for English and Political Science) joined, while the Physics lecturer has promised to join in a day or two.
Besides, two lecturers have been engaged on contractual basis to take Botany and EVS for Classes XI and XII. Koul assures he can take Zoology himself, being qualified in that subject.
That still means no teachers for Chemistry and Math in Class XII.
This academic session, the school didn’t take in any new students in Class V. Says the principal, “We do not even enough room… Last year, I advised students entering Class XI to opt for Commerce as we had all the subject teachers for it. However, they did not listen.”
The May 14 march began from Khaned, Marfa recalls. As they passed villages, other students facing similar problems joined them.
Among them were students of Government Middle School, Mang, which has 75 students from Classes I to VIII with a sanctioned strength of eight teachers. It has only four, says a teacher, with others taking a transfer to their native places. Of the four, one teacher is out on Census duty, and another will go soon on a month-long programme. The school hasn’t had a headmaster since 2013.
“We have clubbed lower classes together so as to have time for VII and VIIIth,” says Satya Devi, who has been posted here for 12 years.
The Basantgarh SDM attributes the shortage of teachers to absence of roads. It takes five hours even by a bus to cover the 65 km from Ramnagar to Basantgarh.
The SDM also claims that the Khaned students are actually unhappy over the administration’s crackdown on unfair means in exams, attributing the mass failure in last year’s Class XII batch to that. He says they had also fined Principal Koul and three teachers for remaining absent, which also provoked them.
“Strict vigilance during exams coupled with the fine might have made them join hands to settle scores,” Krishnan says.
A senior official claims the Khaned school is “notorious” for mass copying, with students from far-off districts like Rajouri and Poonch taking admission here “in connivance” with schoolteachers and education officials to clear Class XII.
Chief Education Officer, Udhampur, Bishan Singh Jaral admits they are facing a shortage of teachers, especially of science, everywhere. In Udhampur district, of the 411 sanctioned posts of lecturers, 137 are vacant. Similarly, there are 267 vacancies out of 2,204 sanctioned posts of general line teachers and 285 of the 2,540 Rehbar-e-Taleem teachers in the district.
The district has 32 higher secondary schools, 112 high schools, 456 middle and 892 primary schools.
A senior official blames the government’s expansion in the education sector without improving infrastructure. In 2010-11, he says, the government upgraded two high schools and six middle schools in Udhampur without providing more teachers.
But schools are just one aspect of what life means to remote Khaned, with its over 10,000 people. There is no allopathic doctor within a 10-km radius, while the sole Ayurvedic dispensary has only one pharmacist.
The medical officer was shifted nearly 30 years ago.