Government elementary schools in two different villages in Derabassi may be shut because of lack of students. In a snapshot of Punjab’s education crisis, villagers say the schools must not close, but will not send their children to study in them.

Ramneet Kaur, a Class 4 student who studies at Government Elementary School, Janetpur near Derabassi, is the only girl in her school. She is one of just five students in the school. The other four, including her elder brother, are studying in Class 5. All the five students belong to Janetpur village. The school has just one teacher. Rupinder Kaur joined two and a half years ago and teaches the Class 5 students as well as Ramneet.

“All students sit in the same classroom. We have arrangements for mid-day meals as well. I have to do my duty whether there is one student or a hundred,” Rupinder says. From Kharar, Rupinder now lives in Janetpur, having taken a room on rent in the village.

In 2017, when the Punjab Education department embarked on a rationalisation policy and decided to merge primary schools with fewer than 20 students with schools that had more students and were located within 1 km radius, the fate of the Janetpur school was kept in abeyance despite its single digit number of students. The nearest bigger school is in Baroli village which is around two kilometers from Janetpur.

Perhaps because it has just five students, the infrastructure and facilities at the school are in a state of neglect. It is located at the entrance to Janetpur village. It has a basketball court constructed by the village panchayat where the young men of the village play in the evenings. That is the best-maintained part of the school.

The single-storeyed school building has four rooms — one is classroom, one a library, one serves as a storeroom; and one is meant for the anganwadi, where there are no children at the moment. That is where the five students now have their lunch. There is also a kitchen, a small courtyard, a hand pump and a washroom that is not functioning properly.
The verandah is in dilapidated state, and there are weeds growing through the cracks that have appeared on the building. Last month, during the bout of heavy rain, the entire school was flooded.

“It took three days for us to enter the school as water had entered all the rooms. The entire ground was filled with water. The building was leaking from many places. The rooms had been stinking for many days and the students had to sit there,” said a woman working in the school as a midday meal cook.

All the books, including editions of Pankhariyan, a monthly children’s magazine published by the Punjab School Education Board, had got wet, and when CNL visited, the school staff had laid the books out to dry on a big table in the room. “There are around 800 books in the library. Many books were damaged in the water. There is a problem as it is an old building and needs repair. Even after the rain was stopped, the rooms were stinking,” said school teacher Rupinder Kaur.

CNL also learnt that the water from the handpump is not fit for drinking. The five children bring water from their homes. The taps from the washroom have been stolen, so no one can use it now. Rupinder said she had informed the department about the condition of the building asking for immediate repairs, in two reports to the education department.

“We have to submit DICE forms annually. In the letter, we mention the problems and the requirements of the building. I submitted the form twice but the school building has not been repaired even once,” she said. The Rs 18,000 electricity bill of the school was paid by the village panchayat two months ago. It had been pending for around one year. The department says a merger of this school with another nearby is still not ruled out.

Meanwhile, the thought that she may be the only student in the school next year after the four others pass Class 5 and leave for high school is worrying little Ramneet. “Since my brother is studying in the school so it is easy for me to come with him, but after completing his fifth class, my brother would go to higher class in other school. My parents would not send me alone in this school. I have to go where my brother would be studying,” she told Chandigarh Newsline.

“There are four students in class five and one in class four. All the students sit in the same classroom. We have arrangements for the mid-day meal as well. The lesser number of students is a concern but I have to do my duty whether there is one student or hundred,” Rupinder Kaur, the teacher of the school, said.

Janetpur village has a population of around 1,000 people, but most families are landowners and can afford to send their children to private schools. The parents of the children in Government Elementary School cannot afford private school education. They are daily wagers, and were unavailable on the day CNL visited the village. Dharam Singh, 61, a village resident, said that the elementary school was started after efforts by the village many years ago but over time, the number of students has come down dramatically because of the lure of private education.

“Our children used to study in this school, but now it has become a trend to send children to private schools,” Dharam Singh said, adding that if the government decided to shut down the school, it would be a setback for the village. “In future if anyone decides to send their children to a government school, there won’t be one here if this is shut down. That will hit girl children the most, because parents do not like to send little girls to schools outside the village as it is not safe,” he said.

Around two kilometers from Janetpur village, another elementary school is facing closure. This one is in Bakarpur Bir village. Until August, there was one teacher in the school but he was shifted to another school in Dappar village.
“There was no student this year, the teacher was coming to the school to mark attendance, and he used to sit without anything to do. What was he to do?” said Davinder Singh, a village resident.

Davinder Singh said that there was no admission for this session in the school. He added that in 2016-2017 session there were students in the school but they all were from migrant workers’ families. “There used to be a brick kiln near our village. The parents of the students were working there. The brick kiln was closed in 2017, following which the families migrated to some other place and the students also went along with their families. There was no admission in the school for 2017-2018 educational session, so the school was lying empty,” Davinder Singh said.

The school building consists of three rooms and is located on the main road at the entry of the village. But like the Janetpur school, it is in bad shape. The building has been locked up after the teacher was shifted to other school.
CNL contacted the teacher, but he declined to speak.  Harjeet Singh, another resident of the village, said most of the families in the village — it has a population of 1,800 — were landowners, who could afford to send their children to private schools.

The villagers do not want the school to close down but they are also not ready to send their children to the government schools. “Now there is a better quality education in the private schools. The government schools are not providing that kind of education. There are a lot of problems. The base of the students should be strong so parents usually go for private schools. There are teachers, not good infrastructure and other problems,” said a woman resident of the village who wished not to be named. She is also a teacher in a private school.

She, however, added that the girl students whose parents cannot afford private schools would be the worst sufferers, if the village school was shut down. “There are security reasons. The parents may not send their girl children to government schools outside the village,” she added.

Residents of both villages will not send their children to government schools but baulk at the idea of a village without a school, and want the government to “find a solution”. Dharam Singh in Janetpur said that the education department should send its officials to the village to convince the people and demonstrate to them that the education in government schools is no less than what private schools provide.

“Government schools provide affordable education and people are spending thousands of rupees monthly in fees at private schools. There is a mad race in the village between parents to see who can send their children to the most expensive school,” he said.

Davinder Singh in Bakarpur Bir said until the education standards of government schools did not improve, parents would not send their children to these schools. His own children go to the nearby Mount Carmel school. The District Education Officer (Elementary), Gurpreet Kaur Dhaliwal, said that they regularly send reports of all the schools to the education department. She added that they could not close any school in haste so they have to wait and watch before closing any school.

“It is easy to close a school but it is always tough to reopen the schools. Suppose if some children from these villages want to take admission in these schools from next session, what would we do then? It is not easy to close the schools. We have appointed one teacher in Janetpur school for five students. The teacher from the other school in Bakarpur Bir was shifted as there was no student,” Dhaliwal added.

When asked about the poor condition of the school buildings, Dhaliwal said that they made a list of the schools which need repair of the buildings and soon the funds shall be allocated for these schools. When asked about the delay in the merger of the schools having a lesser number of students, Dhaliwal said that it is a policy matter and their duty is to send the reports of the schools. She added that when the government shall order, they shall shift the students.

She also said that they have sent the report to their higher authorities for taking further action on these two schools. Now the department shall find a solution to this problem.

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