THE COVID-INDUCED lockdowns of 2020 meant that 14-year-old Sheikh Selim, a resident of Ghoramara island in Sunderbans, lost touch with education. His hopes of rejoining school were again crushed in 2021 when the Yaas cyclone wreaked havoc. Both events were financially ruinous for his family and forced Selim and his parents to migrate to Kerala for work. In Thrissur, he would get paid Rs 800 a day for his work. Two years after dropping out, he is back in his village, glad as he can be to be sitting in a make-shift classroom – even though it has no fans – and back to studying.
But he is not alone and this is not a regular school. Many boys and girls of the village are now getting back to education in the “Panchayater Pathshala” — panchayat’s school). This school was set up last month by Ghoramara Gram panchayat, months after the West Bengal government ordered schools to be reopened.
However, there was one problem: the returning students had a tough time picking up where they left. “We returned early this year. My father got me re-admitted to school. But I felt clueless in the class because I had been away from my studies for so long. Although back in school, I struggled and was irregular. I did not understand what was being taught. Then one day the panchayat used loudspeakers to announce that it was opening a pathshala that will provide free tuition. I joined in and it has been helping me,” said Selim, whose father now works as a bookbinder.
The pathshala not only provides free tuition but also raises awareness about issues such as child marriage and child labour.
According to Sanjib Sagar, 50, pradhan of Ghoramara, the gram panchayat had seen a spike in school dropouts, migration and child marriages during the lockdown, as also after Yaas cyclone in May 2021.
“This island is already a victim of erosion. Migration for work was a common phenomenon here like in the rest of the Sunderbans. After the lockdown and cyclone, the situation turned from bad to worse. The cyclone destroyed most of the betel vines and agricultural land on the island,” Sagarsaid.
He said the idea for this initiative came from one of the panchayat officials and it was immediately embraced by everyone.
“The local secondary school (Ghoramara Milan Vidyapith) allowed us to use three of their classrooms in the morning before the formal start of school. Initially, the initiative was only for poor students, but now children from all backgrounds are coming to this pathshala,” said Sagar.
In one month, the student list has gone from 55 to more than a hundred. The teaching is done by panchayat officials as well as locals, all of whom work for free.
“When schools reopened we went to class 10 in the high school and found that out of 53 registered students, only 22 were present in class. The students told us that their classmates had decided to discontinue school; some students even left the island to work elsewhere,” said Shuvrakanti Jana, panchayat sahayak of Ghoramara GP. “Many students complained that they have lost touch with studies. It was then that the idea of the pathshala came to us.”
“We realised that only giving free tuition is not enough to stop dropouts. We needed to create a process by which children would again develop an interest in their studies. So we use storytelling and awareness campaigns,” said Jana.
But running this initiative is not easy for panchayat officials.
“My home is in Nadia district. It is far away. Therefore, like some of my colleagues, I stay in a room of the panchayat office itself. Early morning, we teach and then get started with panchayat’s work from 10 am. It is hectic but we are doing something for the children,” said Debashish Dhali, who works as panchayat secretary.
The pathshala currently has 10 teachers. Four of them are panchayat employees and others are locals. The panchayat employees teach during the week, while the locals take over in the weekends.
The gram panchayat has 956 families with a population of 4,366. Prashanta Jana, 42, of Ghoramara, who is among those who teach, said: “I have been working as a para-teacher in Ghoramara Milan Vidyapith for the last 16 years. When the panchayat pradhan asked me to join here, I agreed. Even though there is no pay, I like the concept.”