In January 2019, when a question posed in the Lok Sabha about the dropout rates in primary schools across the country, brought Arunachal Pradesh’s plight to limelight (highest in the country at 23.25 % in 2016-17), Ajitso Ama of Lohit District’s Thowang village wasn’t surprised. For five years, his school, a three-roomed building “in the middle of the jungle with nothing else in and around” would remain almost empty. “No staff quarter, no toilet, no drinking water, no electricity, no phone, no public transport and no road to connect it,” he says, “I lived 35 km away, and even had to accommodate myself in one of the rooms.”
Ama was so demotivated he almost applied for a transfer when he saw that his students — most of whom were kept home to babysit or work in fields — barely turned up at school. “But there were some who did and their innocent faces made me call the idea off,” he says.
Since then, Ama has been working to change the school: personal interventions with families, movies and shows on his mobile phone for the kids who had never even seen a TV or stepped out of their village, art classes and games, and even crowdfunding a ‘make-over’ for a classroom. “Last year, a student of mine got admitted into a Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) in Mahadevpur. That was the first time someone from this remote village made it to a JNV,” says Ama.
After that many parents, even from nearby villages, came to him for admissions. “But I had to turn most down because there were no clas rooms,” he says.
So when Prince Dhawan, the Deputy Commissioner of Lohit District where Thowang is located, had the idea of converting school buses to classrooms, the administration made a beeline to Ama’s school in Thowang.
“My colleague, Sunny K Singh, the Assistant Commissioner, and I were visiting the District Medical Office where we saw many buses lying around in a state of disuse,” says Dhawan, “They were just taking up yard space and eventually had to be disposed.”
On earlier occasions, when they had met teachers of various government-run schools, the complaint was uniform: lack of classrooms often leading to children of different age groups and classes being clubbed together.
So in what Dhawan calls a “happy marriage of sorts”, the School on a Bus project was initiated. “The project aims to convert defunct buses into ‘classrooms’,” says Dhawan, adding that it is a temporary measure to deal with the classroom shortage crisis.
A month back, the pilot project took off in Ama’s school in Thowang. “The school itself is an island of excellence that stands out from the rest of the schools, all thanks to the efforts of Ajitso Ama,” says Dhawan, “For a pilot to work, you need dedicated, passionate people like him.”
In September, Ama along with Assistant Commissioner Singh and a group of volunteers from the IGG College, Tezu as well as the villagers, began the process of converting the bus into a classroom. The ‘renovation’ mostly included cleaning the bus, and painting pictures on the exterior.
“We thought of some themes that would be the most useful for the kids (a map to the district headquarters from the village, parts of the human body) and also fun (pictures of birds and animals),” says Singh. The entire process took 4 hours. Next week, they are getting curtains and seat covers for the classroom bus.
The Government Primary School, Thowang has classes from I to V, taught between two teachers, who are now using the bus on a rotational basis. “While one is teaching in the classroom, the other teaches in the bus, and vice versa,” says Singh.
The initiative has led students to spending extra time in school, when earlier they would not attend school at all. “The attendance has improved up to an extent that even children from nearby villages are coming to this school rather than their own neighbourhood school” says a note from the Lohit district administration.
“It has created a kind of ecosystem where students enjoy the process of learning,” says Singh, who visited the school four times since the initiative began last month.
The administration is targeting 11 schools in its second phase, and three primary schools have already been shortlisted.
For now, the kids at Government Primary School, Thowang stay back after school, where Ama gives tuitions to those applying to study in JNVs. They follow a cleaning roster to maintain the bus — an idea they came up with themselves. “Many of these children have never even seen a bus. They are loving it,” says Ama.