Bhubaneshwar- Odisha's public education system is facing a mounting crisis, with a cascade of issues ranging from a lack of essential amenities like clean drinking water and toilets to the closure of numerous government schools. Reports indicate that several schools in the state are without access to potable water, and the closure of thousands of schools is underway, purportedly aligned with the New Education Policy but raising concerns of privatization.
As the state grapples with these challenges, education activists and organizations are gearing up for a nationwide protest on February 3, 2024, highlighting the urgency of addressing the deteriorating quality of education in Odisha.
In a recent report presented in the Lok Sabha by Minister of State for Jal Shakti, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, concerning the availability of clean drinking water in schools, it was disclosed that approximately 30% of schools in Odisha, encompassing government, aided, and government-aided institutions, currently lack access to potable water. These findings were based on statistics extracted from the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) database, as stated by the minister in his response.
The Mooknayak spoke to Madhusudan, whose efforts led to the establishment of the Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh, operating in five districts of Odisha. Nimai Charan, an education activist associated with the All India Democratic Students Organization, was also part of the conversation. Additionally, Ashok Kumar Dalai, a retired headmaster from Ganjam district, shared insights. Together, they exposed the challenging state of public education in Odisha, emphasizing that the issues extend beyond just water access.
As of December 19th, out of a total of 53,997 schools in the state, regardless of their management (government, aided, or private), only 37,668 schools, which is approximately 69.7%, have access to tap water connections. According to sources, Odisha has the lowest percentage of schools with tap water supply among all states, with Meghalaya following closely at 64.3% of schools having tap water connections.
In comparison, eleven states, including Telangana, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, have successfully ensured that all of their schools have access to tap water. This highlights a notable disparity in the provision of basic amenities, such as clean water, across different states in India, with Odisha facing particular challenges in this regard. Efforts may be needed to address and improve the water infrastructure in schools, especially in states with lower percentages of tap water provision.
The challenges don't stop there. Numerous government schools are facing closure, according to Ashok Kumar, a retired headmaster. He stated, "Approximately 10,000 public schools have been shut down, all in alignment with the New Education Policy. They claim these schools lack students or teachers, but it's just an excuse; the real motive is privatization."
Kumar also pointed out that the Odisha government introduced a 5T vision, emphasizing Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time, and Transformation. However, he expressed disappointment, saying, "Despite this vision, the only visible changes are the colored walls; there's no substantial improvement in infrastructure."
"The condition of government schools is dismal. The state's new 5T vision seems to prioritize aesthetics over the quality of the education system," added the retired headmaster. He further explained, "The government is pushing for the implementation of the New Educational Policy, resulting in school closures. According to the policy, schools with fewer students or a lack of teachers are to be closed or merged. This isn't a positive move, especially considering that educational institutions are already inaccessible, particularly in remote villages. This will only widen the divide."
In November 2023, it was reported that the Odisha government took the decision to close down 7,478 schools due to extremely low student enrollment. The consolidation involved merging these educational institutions into nearby schools. The School and Mass Education Minister, Sudam Marndi, informed the Odisha Assembly about this measure.
The consolidation of schools with low enrolment occurred between the fiscal years 2012-13 and 2022-23. According to the policy of rationalization and consolidation, satellite schools with a student roll of 20 or fewer were merged with the nearby lead schools. The top five districts affected by this measure were Gajapati with 604 closed schools, Cuttack with 529, Ganjam with 493, Kandhamal with 460, and Koraput with 425.
Odisha, as a whole, has 48,865 government-run schools, accommodating a student population of 50,79,912, according to officials. The identification of these schools for closure was based on the criterion of having fewer than 20 students enrolled, particularly for upper primary to high schools. The low-enrollment-affected schools were merged with nearby government schools designated as lead schools, possessing better infrastructure and higher student enrollment.
It's important to note that all teachers and support staff, including mid-day meal cooks from the satellite schools, were transferred to the lead school without any change in their service conditions.
Nimai Charan further highlighted what the closure means for the tribal communities, who form a good chunk of the state’s population. The activist remarked, “this is the situation all over the state. One thing to keep in mind is that districts such as Mayurbhanj, Rayagada, Gajapati, Koraput, Malkangiri have a substantial Adivasi population. Here, schools are already less in number and are found to be far away from each other owing to the hilly terrain and scattered population. These places are facing more brunt of it. The highest number of schools are being closed in Mayurbhanj district surrounding the Simlipal forest. Around 1,100 schools are being shut down. Districts with more Adivasi population will see fewer protests as not everyone is aware of their rights, a fact of which the government takes advantage.”
Charan added, “If the population is increasing, the number of schools should increase too. If the opposite is happening, that means the quality of education has been taking such a dip that people are either not sending their children to public schools anymore or we are seeing a high dropout rate.”
“There are Adivasi villages in Odisha where only 30-40 families reside. How many children will come to study from these families? 10-15, not more than that? Now, if the Government has a compulsory limit of at least 20-30 kids to be in a school in order to keep it running, every household will have to give birth to 2 children each. What should be done then?,” Nimai asked.
A comprehensive study undertaken by three voluntary organizations in 2021 had brought to light a concerning situation in Odisha's schools. The findings reveal that a significant 30.77% of schools in the state lack functional toilets. As schools are reopening, these organizations are urging the state government to prioritize the construction and maintenance of school toilets.
Madhusudan stated, “It is not just about water supply, but there are no toilets as well. This has a direct link to enrolling female students and a high dropout rate. Lack of toilets not only means a loss of comfort but also can lead to more diseases. When we talk about post-pubescent teens, having no toilet would limit the female students from coming to schools, especially during their menstrual cycle, leading to them later dropping out and not completing the education.”
The absence of proper water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities in schools has a direct impact on students' interest and willingness to attend classes. This issue is particularly pronounced in rural areas, where many schools lack adequate washrooms and drinking water facilities.
The study, jointly conducted by Atmashakti Trust and its partners - Odisha Shramajeebee Mancha and Mahila Shramajeebee Mancha, Odisha - covered 10,043 government-run schools across 82 blocks in 18 districts. The extensive survey underscores the urgent need for attention and action to address the deficiencies in sanitation infrastructure in schools, as it directly affects the overall learning environment and well-being of students in the state.
Arun Kumar held a few suggestions for the government. He said, “The government should increase the budget of the education sector. Teachers should go through orientation programs and sensitivity training. Public schools might have computers, but there is no computer teacher in most schools.
Madhusudan emphasized the need to oppose the New Education Policy and the increasing trend of privatization. To express this dissent, a nationwide protest has been scheduled for February 3, 2024. The significance of this protest extends beyond regional boundaries, as it aims to garner national attention to address the deteriorating quality of education in their state.
Two significant organizations, the All India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE) and the Mulniwasi Samajsevak Sangh (MSS), have jointly called for an All India Convention on Education on the same date, February 3, 2024, in New Delhi. This convention serves as a platform for various stakeholders to come together, discuss, and strategize on issues related to education, emphasizing the urgency of addressing concerns arising from the New Education Policy and the growing influence of privatization.
The choice of New Delhi as the venue suggests an intention to draw national attention to these critical matters affecting the education sector. Through these initiatives, the organizers aim to make a collective stand against policies and practices that they believe are adversely impacting the quality of education in their state and, by extension, across the country.