Updated: March 16, 2021 10:18:17 am
Heeraram is reserved, but the way he stares at the ceiling does not betray the befuddled look on his face. “Pankhe se hawa aati hain…aur, aur ab pasina bhi nahi aayega (The fan will keep us cool, and we won’t sweat anymore),” the Class 8 student says after being prodded by his teacher twice.
Almost a given in most urban schools, the luxury of electricity had eluded almost half the total 2,167 rural primary and upper primary (up to Class 5 and 8) schools in Nagaur, a central district in Rajasthan, for several decades.
And Heeraram’s Rajkiya Ucchh Prathmik Vidhalaya at Kantiya dhani (a sparse cluster of rural households) in Khimsar tehsil in the Thar desert, had to wait 66 sweltering summers. Known for its limestone and for pioneering the Panchayati Raj system in 1958, Nagaur was also home to 989 rural elementary schools without power. Not anymore.
Under the Ujas (light) scheme launched by the district administration in June 2020, all but 13 schools have since been electrified, says a district education officer. With this, Nagaur is set to become the first district in the state to provide power supply to all rural schools.
In a letter written to district collectors on March 2, 2021, the Rajasthan Planning Department directed them to replicate the Nagaur model in a state where 11,154 schools are without electricity.
Nagaur, in fact, is distinct for another reason too. It tops the list of districts in India, ranking topmost in the National Achievement Survey Class 8 maths score. The NAS, conducted in 2017, tests children in Classes 3, 5 and 8 for language, science, mathematics and social studies. Rajasthan state scored the highest in Class 8 among all states — language (a state-wide average score of 67 per cent), mathematics (57 per cent), and science (62 per cent).
Over the last nine months, the district administration persuaded companies, individuals (called Bhama Shahs after the philanthropic general of Maharana Pratap) and political representatives to donate funds for the installation of electric poles and fans in schools. In addition, Ajmer Vidyut Vitran Nigam Limited, a state-run power distributor, was directed to provide connection under the “domestic” category.
Founded in 1954, Heeraram’s school was finally provided with electricity in September 2020. Jagmohan Meena, a teacher in the school with 69 students and two rooms, feels relieved. “In summer, we could not even take classes outside these rooms because of heatwave. Children used to sweat profusely and this hampered their concentration.”
Two km from the school, a rut road leads to the house of 79-year-old Kana Ram Saran, who taught at the school for five-six years and retired in 2000. He is surprised. “Really?” he breaks into a smile. “Nowadays, I don’t step out because of old age. Electricity will make students’ stay comfortable. During my time, we would break early for the day because the two rooms used to burn like furnaces.”
The Indian Express visited four other dhanis in Khimsar, populated mostly by farmers, and spoke to teachers from other areas to take stock of the Ujas scheme.
Surrounded by wilted mustard flowers due to saline groundwater and upturned fallow fields, another upper primary school at Peepli Nadi dhani benefitted from the scheme in January this year. Established in 2005, the school is yet to install four fans donated by individuals.
“By Monday, this will be done,” says teacher Rugha Ram as he shows the fans tucked away in a large metal box after a theft incident. With 105 students on its roll, the school had to pay Rs 4,300 to the discom as the power line was close to the school. The sarpanch, says Ram, has promised to buy a computer for the school.
Chief District Education Officer Sampatram explains that the greater the school distance from the nearest electric pole, the higher the cost of supplying electricity. For some schools, the cost ran into lakhs, he says. “At one such school in Mundwa block, the cost of installing electric poles and power lines was Rs 4 lakh. As the Composite School Grant (CSG, annual funds for schools) was unable to meet the expenditure, many cement and infrastructure companies came forward,” he says. Giving an example, an education official explains that a school with 100 students typically receives Rs 25,000 as CSG annually. But this is used to meet operational needs such as purchase of chalk and duster and other study material. So far, the cost of power supply has crossed Rs one crore, with individuals and companies paying 80 per cent of the total.
Around 270 km south-east of Peepli Nadi is Nolasiya village in Nawa tehsil where another upper primary school’s fans whirred to life in February since its establishment in 1978. The cost for a new power connection was Rs 54,264. “I convinced the villagers, sarpanch and others to donate. I also contributed,” says Jitendra Sen, who was recruited as the head teacher after his retirement from the Army.
But there are still other hurdles: lack of water connections, shortage of rooms and dilapidated infrastructure.
“Electricity (provided in November last year) will help us better organise school programmes, brave the heat and open up the option of computer education. But there are other issues too. Yaha paani khara hain (The water is saline),” laments Neetu Kanwar, a Class 8 student at another school in Jodho ki Dhani, dominated by current and retired Armymen, in Khimsar. The school maintains a list of significant contributors on a blackboard. A retired subedar has decided to donate a computer to the school. “Ab toh computer bhi chalega (Now, computers will work),” laughs Kamlesh Meena, the school headmaster.
When The Indian Express visited the school, two more toilets and a room were being constructed, the cost of which was born by the sarpanch and the village community. “We can’t wait till eternity for government funds to provide even the basic necessities,” says former Armyman Ganga Singh, whose niece studies in the school.
On the Ujas scheme’s success, Jitendra Kumar Soni, who was appointed the District Collector in July last year, says, weekly meetings were held with education officials to implement the project. “Schools could pay only small amounts, say Rs 4,000 or so. But for bigger amounts — Rs 20,000, Rs 30,000, or lakhs — we persuaded companies to release CSR funds. We told them it was for a better future. In some cases, I personally called company representatives,” recalls Soni, who during his earlier stint as a Collector of Jalore in 2015 ensured that all barefoot school children were provided with footwear under the Charan Paduka scheme.
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