Two classrooms, 60 students and 10 toilets for girls — none of which is functional. This is Sahari Primary School at Binpur, an assembly segment in Jangalmahal reserved for tribals. Like clockwork, politicians have turned up here before elections, inaugurated new toilets, but never bothered to provide them with water.
Obviously, none of the toilets in the school, comprising mostly adivasi students, is usable. A chronic shortage of water has led to Sahari village being nicknamed ‘Jangalmahal’s Sahara’. A street protest by villagers last month forced the government to hurriedly install two plastic water tanks near the school on Monday — but that just wasn’t enough.
“The two tanks were almost like a taunt. There is no water in this village. The water was over even before school began at 11am. A villager here will give you food, but you won’t get any water to drink. When the children need to use the toilet, they have to go back home,” said Tapan Murmu, the school’s headmaster.
Mousidigir Hasda, 8, said that after the mid-day meal, she usually went back home to use the toilet. “But on some days I just go to the open field nearby. Others do the same,” she said.
The school itself is old, dating back to 1933. A broken wall next to the unused toilets is the only remnant of the original building. The two classrooms, which too are beginning to disintegrate, are in a building that was built in the early nineties. Another, newer, building, partly built, has been lying abandoned next door for two decades. The unused toilets are choked up with waste — the white porcelain can barely be seen under the mounds of plastic bottles, paper and dried excrement. “We never go to that corner of the school. It’s very dirty, with swarms of flies,” said Salma Tudu, another student.
At Sahari village, tales of water scarcity are showed off like battle scars. “Men in my family couldn’t get married for years because no one wanted to come here and live,” said Deepak Soren, a farmer in his thirties. Abhijeet Rane, who works in the school, said, “Here in the school, people lining up at the tank and the tubewell stretch out for metres and spill out on to the road.”
The rough forest terrain of West Midnapore, marked by scanty rainfall, was given the name Jungle Mahals or Jungle Estates by the British. The sal forests near the school have harboured the CPI (Maoist) since 2004. But residents said that even in the worst days, it wasn’t the fear of Maoists that prevented children from coming to school — it was the scarcity of water and the unavailability of a toilet.
The 10 toilets were built in three spurts — four toilets each were inaugurated before the 1999 and 2005 Assembly elections, when the Left Front was in power. Two more toilets, with a sign that says ‘Girl’s Toilet’, were built after the Trinamool Congress government took over in 2011.
The solitary tubewell was never upgraded until late last month, when the tanks were set up. Headmaster Tapan Murmu painted a grim picture.
“Without pipelines, there is no possibility of water here. It is as simple as that. The tank is connected to the tubewell, but the problem is that the water table has completely disappeared here. The school will die out soon without water,” he said.
Earlier in February, while inaugurating a piped drinking water project at adjacent Belpahari in West Midnapore, the state minister for Public Health Engineering & Panchayat and Rural Development, Subrata Mukherjee, had said that the government would “supply filtered water to every family by 2020”.
At an election rally in Silda recently, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spoke of the project, and vowed to “bring water to Binpur”. But a contractor at the still under-construction site said, “The project was supposed to be operational by the time it was inaugurated. But problems arose since there was no water in the canal that was to feed the reservoir here. We honestly don’t know when this project will be functional.”
Meanwhile the school, like every other school in Jangalmahal, is preparing for an extended holiday due to the elections. Binpur votes on April 4. The old building — which will be a polling booth — has been given a fresh lick of paint in places. The name and phone number of the headmaster, who is also the booth officer, has been painted on the school wall near the entrance. Conversations inevitably centre around elections.
“The children inside are learning from their books. We didn’t have classrooms, we learnt from our lives. They will, too,” said 62-year-old Bibhash Soren, a resident.