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Dantewada (Chhattisgarh): ‘Phoolon se nit hasna seekho, bhawaron se nit gaana … Learn to smile from the flowers, and sing from the bees).’ The cheerful lines of a popular Hindi rhyme are seen on a bright wall poster inside the bleak confines of a village school in Dantewada. But the lines are wasted. There is not a soul in sight, except a thin wiry man who introduces himself as Roshan Kumar Kharashu, shikshakarmi, grade 2, the teacher in charge of Gufadi primary school.
“This is mahua season. The children are skipping school to help their parents pick flowers,” Kharushu says. But a look at the attendance register shows all of them are marked present.
Kharashu squirms, and moments later, like a child who has thought up an answer, says, “What can I do if people don’t send their children to school? If I stop marking them present, they will close down the school and I will lose my job.”
You want to believe the man. He is just 27, and must have been really desperate for a job in Dantewada, leaving behind the safety of his village, in the plains of Durg, close to Raipur.
But then facts do not support him. No school was closed down in Dantewada. Even when violence rocked the place, and the civil administration withdrew from many interior places, 264 village schools did not close but shifted, close to the highways.
The displacement has led to permanent upheaval in the lives of children, forcing them to travel long distances. But it has only made it easier for the education bureaucracy to make money.
Narayanaswamy, an activist with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, who has lived in Dantewada for five years, says the uprooting of schools from their original locations has made school wardens less accountable. “There’s a constant flux of children, who drop in and out of school, but the funds remain steady,” he says.
Every child is entitled to Rs 450 to Rs 950 as stipend, apart from books, uniforms, and three meals a day. No wonder there is an incentive to mark those absent as present.
Even imaginative rules meant to ease the school crisis have only aided corruption. For instance, officials at the block level were empowered to sanction new schools and appoint teachers if enough children lacked access to an existing one.
In Manjhipara, last October, six men gather 228 children from interior villages, that had no schools, or at least they claim they did. All six were immediately appointed as teachers, one was made warden, and the group was assigned a building to operate as a residential school.
In March, when this correspondent visited the school, not more 100 children were present. The warden, Man Singh Nayak, conceded not more than 140 children had attended classes that month.
“They simply run away in the middle of night,” he said. Why don’t they go looking for them? “It’s not safe to go to those villages,” says Roshan Yadav, a teacher. But what changed in just six months? Had they not gone to the same villages in October to bring the children to school? There was no answer for this, or the more basic question: why were all 228 children still on the rolls?
Ayoung teacher in Dornapal said he had paid Rs 25,000 to get appointed as a warden. “The warden controls the funds and supplies,” he said, adding, “but the big money is not made by them. It’s the block officer who makes a killing since he controls procurements and civil works.”
In the 2009-10 audit report of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the central scheme that funds elementary education in India, auditors noted that in Dantewada, procurement procedure for purchases could not be produced for verification.
This included everything from blackboards, almirahs, stationary, televisions and DVDs.
The report also noted, “In many blocks of Dantewada, cheques for civil works had been transferred to the personal accounts of the staff and payment incurred there from. Dantewada and Bijapur, both conflict affected districts, reported the maximum irregularities.’’
(The series is concluded)