No arrangements for drinking water, nor toilets – Schools in Jhargram, West Bengal, raise a stink
After remaining shut for almost two years, primary schools in Jhargram district reopened on February 16. However, the situation of 69 rural schools in Belpahari circle is pitiable as many have neither piped drinking water nor functional toilets. To cook mid-day meals, water has to be fetched from far away, and teachers say that all complaints have fallen on deaf ears. A ground report.
Gurvinder Singh 3 March 2022 8:16 AM GMT
Jhargram, West Bengal
The setting is idyllic. Against the backdrop of tree-covered hills and ancient 5,000-year-old caves sits the primary school at Tulsiboni village in Jhargram district, West Bengal. The scenic Jhargram, located about 200 kilometers west of Kolkata, the state capital, is a popular destination for tourists too.
However, something doesn't smell right at the Tulsiboni Primary School that has just opened after almost two years to welcome children back into the classrooms after the long and difficult COVID years when they were forced to stay home. There are 41 students enrolled and two teachers for all of them.
The school recently grabbed headlines when a video showing children washing their mid-day meal utensils in a nearby dirty stream went viral on social media. Many reports about the unhygienic conditions at the school were published in the vernacular newspapers. But, according to the teachers in the school, not a single government official has bothered to find out what all the commotion was about.
On February 23, Gaon Connection visited this primary school and found that the school has no running water – neither for drinking, nor for washing up. Even the midday meal is cooked with unclean water.
Every day the water is carried all the way from a tank that is nearly half a kilometre from the school. "We have to make at least four trips to bring the water to cook the mid-day meal. That water is not filtered," complained Purnima Singh, the school mid-day meal cook, to Gaon Connection. "Even the room where we cook is dingy with no ventilation. It is impossible to stand there for more than a few minutes," she added.
But Tulsiboni is just the tip of an iceberg. The Belpahari circle, a predominantly tribal area, has around 69 primary schools and most of them have a similar story to tell.
Two kilometres away from Tulsiboni is the Gohalberia Primary School. Here the midday meal for the students is cooked with dirty and smelly water from a tubewell in the school compound. The same water is pumped and taken to the toilets.
"The children have to draw the water themselves if they have to go to the toilet," Dwijadas Porya, the teacher-in-charge of the school, told Gaon Connection. The water for drinking comes from a tubewell that is located about 100 metres away from the school, he said.
At the Odalchua Primary School located in the same circle, there is a toilet for the boys, but with no doors. The girls have no toilets at all as what is there is broken and filled with debris. Teachers fare no better as their toilets are used to store construction materials and are therefore kept locked. And, just as well, as the overhead tank holds no water.
Tap water supply in schools in West Bengal
As per the data of the Indian government's Jal Jeevan Mission, 82.58 per cent of the schools in the country have tap water supply. In West Bengal, 72 per cent schools have tap water supply. Schools in three districts – Pashchim Medinipur, Nadia and Murshidabad – have 100 per cent tap water connections. Jharghram district, which has 2,393 schools, has tap water supply coverage of 65.36 per cent only.
Meanwhile, only 40 per cent anganwadis in West Bengal have tap water supply. In Jhargram, only 5.92 per cent anganwadi centres have tap water connections, shows the official data.
'All complaints have fallen on deaf ears'
While students of the Tulsiboni Primary School carry drinking water from their homes, the vessels their midday meal is cooked in are cleaned in water brought from a filthy pond nearby used by the villagers for their morning ablutions.
The toilets are unusable with no water connection. The school teachers prefer to send students home for defecation.
"Classes have resumed from February 16 after a gap of two years, and the situation is pathetic," complained Kalhan Mondal, teacher-in-charge, Tulsiboni Primary School. He has worked at the school for 12 years.
"I have informed the concerned government officials several times about the water problem, but nothing other than hollow promises have come our way," Mondal told Gaon Connection. In the summers, the problem is aggravated, he added.
"If I feel the need to, I rush to the bushes behind the school to relieve myself," Hrishika Debnath, a class one student of Tulsiboni Primary School, told Gaon Connection. It is either the bushes or a long trek back home to use a bathroom for many children. If they have to wash their hands, they have to pump some water out of a tubewell.
Bemoaning the condition of the school, Anil Kumar Hasda, a teacher at Odalchua primary school said, "We are facing acute water issues here. Those who make mid-day meals bring water from a distance of around 200 metres. Even children have to go there to drink water and wash utensils after their meal."
The water tanks were in shambles and even the teachers had to use the kindness of the villagers if they needed to use the toilet, Hasda told Gaon Connection. "How can we teach in this condition," he asked.
Six-year-old Hrishika's father, Bidhan Debnath who runs a restaurant called Kaacha Lanka, has played a major role in highlighting the plight of the school on social media.
"The reason I wanted Hrishika to study in a village school was to help her learn more about rural life and encourage her to connect with nature. She enjoys the journey to school with all the trees on the way, but the minute she steps in the school, a nightmare awaits her," Debnath told Gaon Connection.
"I have written to the chief minister, the home secretary, the district magistrate and all the senior officials of the education department, but have received no response so far. They have not even acknowledged my letter," he said angrily. "Is it possible for a working man like me to rush to school every time she has an urge to attend nature's call," he demanded to know.
Govt officials try to downplay the matter
Government officials dismissed the toilet problem as only temporary, because the schools have only just reopened after a long closure.
"This is a dry area and water level falls in the extreme summers. That is why the tubewells pump out dirty water as the levels are down," said Ajay Kumar Mahata, Shiksha Bandhu, from the department of education, in Belpahari. "Whenever the teachers have complained to the government officials, the problems are sorted out. Things will improve in a few days," he assured Gaon Connection.
He however had no answer to why the schools had not been repaired when they were closed for so long during the lockdown.
Meanwhile, Swati Dutta, secretary of Suchetana, a non-profit working for rural women and livelihood in Jhargram, demanded to know why the education department had not taken advantage of the closure of the schools to carry out the repairs. "It is true that things were slower during the COVID but the education department should have made all the arrangements before resuming classes. Authorities cannot evade their responsibility of providing a clean and hygienic environment to students," she told Gaon Connection.
"The department should act swiftly and complete the work of providing water and toilets in all schools," she added.