At a time when it is mulling the reopening of schools amid the pandemic, the Odisha government has issued a notice to 15 districts to complete the merger of 8,000 schools with low enrolment.
This is a follow-up to a notice issued in March by the department of School and Mass Education — the process was stalled due to the pandemic and the lockdown, officials said.
In March, the state government had initiated a merger of 11,517 schools with low enrolment. These schools included 6,350 primary, upper primary and higher schools which have less than 20 students and 5,177 schools which have less than 40 students.
The recent notice, however, directs to expedite the merger for only those schools which have less than 20 students. Apart from the 6,350 schools earlier listed, the department of School and Mass Education has identified 2,000 more schools with less than 20 students for the merger.
What the NITI project entails
In 2017, Odisha was among three states, along with Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, to be selected by NITI Aayog to offer assistance for improving their health and education sectors under SATH-E. The initiative aims to transform elementary and secondary school education through goal driven exercise and create role model states for education. The initiative culminates at the end of the 2020 academic year. Merger of schools is one of the measures undertaken to achieve goals as the process is advocated to help “consolidate” resources such as teachers, libraries, laboratories and play equipment.
The merger is being carried out under the NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital in Education (SATH-E) project, and has been termed Consolidation and Rationalisation of schools.
School and Mass Education Minister Samir Ranjan Dash told The Indian Express, “The merger is final. We have identified around 8,000 schools in 15 districts which will be merged with other schools due to low enrollment.”
According to officials from the department, students who will have to travel to a distant school will be provided with a daily allowance of Rs 20 and students from schools facing closure will also be provided a one-time facilitation allowance of Rs 3,000. If the distance to school is more than 1 km, students will be provided travel allowance as per Right To Education (RTE) norms, said officials.
Parents and activists from across the state have opposed the move. Activists have argued that closure or merger of schools is in violation of section 3 and 8 of the RTE Act. Converner of Odisha RTE forum Anil Pradhan said, “Majority of these schools are from tribal belts on hilly terrains. Closure of schools in a village will only increase the dropout rate as it won’t be feasible for students to travel far to attend school. Geographical constraints should also be considered before closing down schools.”
In Pudapada village in Deogarh district, villagers submitted a memorandum to the Block Education Officer and gheraoed his office after it was decided to merge the only primary school in the village with another school. Similar protests were witnessed in Ganjam where 433 primary and upper primary schools are to be merged. At Chasa Kanamana village in Chatrapur block, villagers staged a dharna over the decision. A parent said, “Most of us here migrate for work leaving our children with their grandparents. A school within the village ensures they attend classes regularly. If it is far, it will not be possible for students to travel by themselves.”
Parents are also concerned that if their children fail to attend school, they will also be deprived of the midday meals.
Asked about such concerns, Dash said, “The district collectors have been authorised to cancel the merger if genuine concerns arise. I will also personally oversee them. We understand if there are geographical constraints like crossing a water body or National Highway, it will be difficult for students. All these concerns will be taken into consideration.”
The government is yet to decide a date for reopening of schools, the minister added.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines