As she occupied a window seat in the Punjab Roadways bus preparing to leave the industrial city of Ludhiana for her father’s native place Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, four-year old Jasmine looked excited about soaking in every bit of her ride, a journey of some 450 km. While seated in the bus with her parents and two-year-old brother, she also seemed aware that the onward journey might pause her schooling for an entire year. “School aur doston ki yaad aayegi par ab gaanv jaana hai,” said Jasmine, waving from her window seat.
Her mother, Girija Devi, added: “At least this year, we are not sending her to school. We are not coming back to Ludhiana and even in Aligarh, I am not sure if she will go to school now as we have no money to pay her fee and then there is the coronavirus risk.”
Earlier, Jasmine’s father Tejvir Singh, a daily wager, somehow managed to pay fee of a private kindergarten school in Ludhiana, but now her parents say they don’t have means to pay for school.
Most of the children in the bus occupied window seats and waved with broad smiles, unaware of the possibility that they might not return to their schools in the city at least this session.
On Tuesday, three buses of Punjab Roadways started their journey for Uttar Pradesh (one for Muzaffarnagar/Meerut and two others for Aligarh).
Most parents in the buses said that they had still not decided if they would get them admitted in schools at their native villages, but one thing was sure that they will not return to Ludhiana in time for the current session.
Eight-year old Deepika and her brother Sharad (5), studied at a private school in Ludhiana, and now their parents are thinking of admitting her in a government school at Aligarh.
Their mother Simla Devi said: “My husband is now staying back in Ludhiana as factory where he works has reopened but I and both children are going back. It all depends on situation if kids will go back to school or not… Private nahi to sarkaari mein daal denge ab par padhaai chalu rakhne ki koshish karenge.”
She added. “Here teachers were in touch online and sending study material on my husband’s phone. That too won’t be possible in Aligarh now as I do not have a smartphone.”
Hari Singh, a labourer who is returning to Aligarh with his wife and two children — Sachin (10) and Pooja (10) — said that both his children have dropped out from government school in Ludhiana where they were studying.
“Shayad gaanv jaake laga denge wahaan sarkaari school mein (Maybe we will get them admitted to village school). Par abhi to 2,500 kiraya dena mushkil tha (But currently it wasn’t possible to stay in Ludhiana and give Rs 2,500 rent to the landlord). So we are going back,” he said.
Mukesh and Sapna said they can no longer afford sending their three children — Shivam (10), Shiva (7) and Satyam (5) – to a private school.
“School teachers are even sending study material on phone but we have no option but to return. There is no work here. I have no idea if children will go to school again or not. We don’t know if we will return to Ludhiana or not.”
10-year-old Shivam added: “Jahaan bhi rahu, Ludhiana ya Aligarh, main school waapis jaana chahta hun. Yahaan wala school aur dost bahut yaad aayenge.”
Government school principals in Ludhiana, especially in migrant dominant colonies, which are seeing mass exodus, said that they were trying to remain in touch with each child via phone but the picture looked gloomy.
Davinder Gupta, principal, Government High School, Salem Tabri, where almost all 400 children are from migrant families where breadwinners are mostly industrial labour, said, “We are regularly putting study material on WhatsApp groups but response has declined. Now at least 20 per cent of our 400 children are not responding to online content as they were doing initially when lockdown had just started. If families, who are leaving from here, do not return, children will suffer. We will continue to guide them on phone or via WhatsApp even if they are in touch with us from their native places. But problem arises when phone connection is also lost. Many have changed their numbers, moved out of their rented rooms and are losing touch. Exact picture will be clear only when schools open.”
Ujjwalveer Singh, principal, Government Senior Secondary School, Dhandari Khurd, another migrant dominant cluster, said that he is hopeful of families returning after June. “Children are in touch with us on phone and many families are saying they will be back after June but it is all a speculation. Soon we will start distributing books and then it will be clear how many come to take them.”
Inderjit Singh, Punjab Director Education (Elementary), said his department has been making best efforts to remain in touch with each child but it cannot be denied that mass migration is happening. “We are making our best efforts not to lose touch with each child but it is natural that if parents will move, children will have to accompany them. But hopefully their parents will return for work to Punjab. It all depends on coronavirus situation. Also, right now schools are not open. So children sitting here or in native villages, it is same thing. We are teaching them online.”
Over the past three days, 29 buses left from Ludhiana for different cities in UP such as Aligarh, Saharanpur, Hapur, Muzaffarngar, Meerut, Mathura, Bulandshahr.
“Eleven buses went on Sunday and 13 on Monday. Three buses left today. We are allowing 30 persons in each bus with social distancing. They will not stop anywhere on the way. Destinations, which are within 500 km radius and not on railways list, are being covered by buses. We need at least 30 persons with same destination to run a bus,” said Sukhjit Singh Grewal, traffic manager, Punjab Roadways, Ludhiana.
He added: “Around a thousand including children have been sent home in three days in our buses…Food is also provided on the way.” While the authorities said that social distancing was being maintained in each bus, as families with as many as 4-5 children boarded each bus almost all seats were occupied. Children were not counted among passengers and they had to be seated with their parents.
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