It is 7:30 am, and amidst rolling thunder and an overcast sky, Anshika, 10, dressed in a blue track-suit and rubber chappals, hurriedly enters the Jyeshthwadi Government Primary School at Jestari village in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district. She runs towards Sabu Lal, 45, the lone teacher in the school, touches his feet, takes a set of keys from him, and unlocks a classroom, finding it filled with mud, dust and pine needles, soaked in water from the previous night’s rains.
It’s the first day of school after a month-long summer vacation. Anshika, a Class 5 student, who had to walk around a kilometre to get to the school, says, “I don’t want Guruji to do all the cleaning, so I came early to help him.”
On government records, the primary school is a ‘durgam’, or inaccessible school. It is the same school whose principal, Uttara Bahuguna, 57, was put in day-long police custody and is facing suspension after appearing at Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat’s Janata Durbar on June 28 and confronting him.
Teary-eyed, Bahuguna had pleaded that after spending 17 of her 25 years in service in remote areas, she be transferred to Dehradun so that she could stay with her children, who were alone after her husband’s death.
As per the Uttarkashi Education Department, the district has 463 durgam and 308 ‘sugam’ or accessible schools.
A white building on a hill top, the Jyeshthwadi Government Primary School has no sweeper to clean it, no water, no proper classroom for the 11 students on its rolls, no electricity, no tables or chairs, and no motorable road up to a kilometre from the school. There are toilets, for boys and girls, but these are locked due to lack of water.
Between the nearest motorable road and the school are vast fields of tomatoes and maize, and cement and kuchcha houses. Behind the school are chir pine forests.
With the students still to arrive for classes that begin at 8 am, Lal fills the ration for the midday meal in separate containers kept in the school’s small kitchen. The ration, mainly rice and daal, is brought to the school from a market in Gadoli, 2.5 km away, on a mule. Today, Lal brought along the spices and salt.
Over at the classroom, Anshika places her school bag on a trunk and fetches a broom from a corner. The room is dark. “Light hamesha kharab hee rehti hai yahan (Power is always out),” she explains, navigating her way with the help of light filtering through cracks in the tin roof. The cracks also let in rainwater, dust and leaves, which now cover the floor.
As the eldest of the school’s 11 children, says Anshika, she feels it her “responsibility” to help Lal keep the premises clean.
A grateful Lal lives around 2.5 km away, in a rented two-room house — the daily trek over a kuchcha trail made more difficult by the rain. He has been at the school for almost six years now, and is paid Rs 38,000 per month, of which Rs 2,200 goes towards house rent. He hasn’t brought his family with him, and they live about 70 km away.
Lal says he’s not sure exactly what is Bahuguna’s complaint. “Madam often told me her family situation isn’t allowing her to rejoin work. But she didn’t tell me anything beyond that.” He won’t say more, only admitting that with Bahuguna absent, “the entire responsibility has come on me”.
Since the school has less than 60 students, it is entitled to only two teachers — Bahuguna and him. There is a cook for mid-day meals, but no peon. Amit Chauhan, Deputy Education Officer, Naugaon, says, “There are no peons across the state’s primary schools.”
Besides Anshika, who recalls Bahuguna taking some classes two-three years back, no other student at the school remembers having any other teacher besides Lal.
A B.Ed. and BTC (Basic Training Certificate)-qualified assistant teacher, Lal is meant to teach primary-level children all the subjects, including Mathematics, English, Hindi, Sanskrit and Environment. Says Lal, “Madam (Bahuguna) preferred teaching Hindi and Sanskrit, while I taught Mathematics, English and Environment.”
Anshika and Lal are not yet done cleaning the premises when five other students come. On the first day after the vacation, the remaining five of the school’s 11 students remain absent. Of those who come, there is a Class 1 student, four of Class 3, and one of Class 5, Ankita. They are all from Jestari and Pauri villages, all-Dalit settlements.
Two classrooms of the three-room school are unlocked, a mat is taken out from a trunk, and laid out in the verandah for the students to sit on.
Around 9 am, Lal starts a Mathematics class seated on a chair in the verandah. Today he is teaching Classes 3 and 5 students “jod (addition)”, and they stand around him as he writes the basic rules of addition in a notebook. Meanwhile, five-year-old Diya, a Class 1 student, wearing a yellow striped top and multi-coloured pyjamas, sits idle. An hour later, Lal proceeds to a Hindi lesson for Class 3 students, and Diya still looks on clueless.
Lal admits, “It’s difficult to teach all together. Especially since I’m the only teacher.”
Bahuguna’s husband died in August 2015, and the school register shows her absent since that month to May 11, 2017. After that she came for a brief while, and then again stopped coming in August 18, 2017. She has not been getting her salary of Rs 60,000 per month.
As per the Uttarakhand Transfer Act, 2017, which was brought in by the current government for the want of a transparent transfer policy for government officials, leaving this open to bargaining, Bahuguna is eligible for transfer to an easily accessible location within her cadre district, Uttarkashi. But, says Uttarakhand School Education Secretary Bhupinder Kaur Aulakh, there are only 12 vacancies in accessible locations within Uttarkashi, and in the list of people to be transferred out of remote locations, Bahuguna’s number is 59th.
Nikhil, 7, a Class 3 student, lives a stone’s throw away. Says his grandfather Om Prakash, “Who wouldn’t wish for a good education for their child? But we do farming or daily-wage labour, while Nikhil’s father works in a factory in Gujarat for Rs 8,000 a month. We can’t afford private education. That is why we send him to the Jyeshthwadi school.”
The other nearest government school, at Gadoli village, is also a durgam school — with two teachers and 11 students again.
An option is Suman Grammar School, a private Hindi-medium school 1.5 km away, which has Classes from 1 to 8, nine teachers, and over 100 students. It charges Rs 200 per student per month for Classes 1-2, Rs 250 for Classes 3-5, and Rs 300 for Classes 6-8.
But at least some parents are migrating to such schools. The 2011 Census put Jestari village’s population at 90, including 13 children, and Pauri’s at 69, including 18 children. Still, in the past six years, the student strength at the Jyeshthwadi primary school has been falling consistently, from 24 in 2012-2013.
It is close of day at 1.30 pm and as Lal packs up the school books and locks away the mat, Ritik Sharma, 12, who studies in Class 8 at a nearby private school, walks up and touches Lal’s feet.
Each day after school, Ritik says, he spends a few minutes with his “Guruji”. “I studied in this school from Classes 1 to 4. I left in 2015 as my family wanted better education.” About his new school, Ritik says, “Jitne bachche is school mein hain, utne toh akele meri class mein hain (My class alone has as many children as this entire school).”
If this twinges Lal, he doesn’t let it show. The 45-year-old has more pressing matters on his mind. In a few days the road to the school will be waterlogged due to the monsoon. There will be days when his 11 students and Lal will reach the school wading through water — students till their chests, Lal till his knees.