Action Aid in association with Odisha Right to Education Forum organised a webinar on the Impact of School Closure/Merger in Odisha

Bhubaneswar: Odisha Government has recently asked the administration of 14 districts to complete merger of schools with poor enrolment before reopening educational institutions for 2020-21 academic session. The districts are Angul, Bargarh, Bhadrak, Cuttack, Ganjam, Jajpur, Jharsuguda, Kandhamal, Khurda, Koraput, Nuapada, Sambalpur, Sonepur and Sundargarh.
The notification issued on dated 7th March 2020 by the School and Mass Education Department, Odisha on consolidation and rationalization of schools there are 14,339 schools identified for merger/closure. There are three categories of schools selected under this schools with student strength less than and equal to 20, Primary schools with less than 40 students and within 1 kilometer range and Upper primary schools (class 6-8) with less than 20 students.
The merger is being carried out under the NITI Aayog’s Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital in Education (SATH-E) project, and has been termed Consolidation and Rationalisation of schools.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, RTE Act, guarantees free and compulsory education for all children in a neighborhood school between 6-14 years of age (Section 3). Primary schools should be within a walking distance of 1 kilometre from the children’s residence whereas for upper Primary school (Class 6-8) it should be within a walking distance of 3 kilometre.
Unfortunately, the merger order does not take this distance requirement into consideration, prima facie violating these provisions.
The objective of the webinar was to deliberate into the issues and listen to community voices. The webinar held on 21st of Decemeber, 2020.
Ms. Sudatta Khuntia, National Lead, Public Education and Child Rights, ActionAid Association welcomed all the speakers and participants. She shared about the present context of Odisha and initiated the discussion requesting panel members to share the various aspects with regard to the policy and impact of such closure of schools especially in the context of the children of the most marginalised. (Odisha’s Adivasi, Girls and Children with disability)

Impact stories were presented by Mr. Sameet Panda who had carried out a study supported by Action Aid to understand the community impact.

Anil Pradhan, Convenor, Odisha RTE Forum shared about the how Odisha RTE forum has been regularly engaging on this issue. He said that the closure of schools are going to have a very negative impact on the access to education of the children especially from the tribal pockets of the state. This is a hasty decision taken without consulting the people who are affected the most the parents. It is essential that we gather evidence on how it has started affecting the children. We also need to build a narrative on the schools closure especially the big schools are good and small schools can not impart quality education. We need to organize more such discussions, organise meeting of parents affected by closure of schools in different districts. It is essential that the decisions wherever required need to be reversed. We need to engage with the community and also with the elected representatives. Quality education should not be made an excuse for merger and closure of schools.

Kailash Chandra Dandapat, Secretary, Jagruti presented that there are more than 400 schools closed in the Kandhamal district which is one of the highest in the state. This was done without any consultation with the parents. None of the people who have taken this decision their children are going to these schools. Now the parents are confused about the state of their children’s education, which schools they need to get their children admitted to. We have to explore all possible options to ensure no school is closed wrongfully.

Ghasiram Panda, Programme Manager, Action Aid shared that escort allowances is not a solution to the closure of schools. Right to education in neighbourhood is a fundamental rights need to be ensured.

Debabrat Patra, Associate Director, ActionAid Association in his speech highlighted that education is the right of every child and the State needs to ensure this and not feel that it is a burden which it seems like with the present decisions taken by the Govt. Schools are very essential from various perspectives – safety and security, nutrition and definitely quality education. Also that in Odisha, school premises has always been the first place of shelter during any emergency. Schools are very resourceful and should be there in all villages.

Bhairab Patra from Ramkhol village, Bungapali Panchayat, Ambabona Block of Baragarh district who was instrumental in organising a special gramsabha opposing closure of primary school in their village shared his experience from the ground. He mentioned that our school had more than 10 children but it got closed by government decision in which community was never consulted. The schools with which t got merged is more than 2 kilometers from our village and the road in between is forested and there is always a fear of wild animals. We now wonder whether to send our children to the lead schools or get our children home educated through a tutor. The school was built by the community in 1972 with our own resources. It was later on taken over the by the government. It has no right to close it down unilaterally. The schools has produced two gold medalist when it has only one teacher, who says a small can produce brilliant students. Also school is a matter of pride, now with school gone we may not get a bride for our sons. We have already organized a Gram sabha against the school closure, we have met the MLA to stop it. We not going to stop still we get our school reopened.

Other Speakers of this occasion were Aswini Pradhan, Kandhamal and Gajendra Jakesika, Rayagada who shared similar experience.

Ms. Sudatta concluded saying that the school closures just on the basis of numbers, risks dropout among Odisha’s Adivasi, Girls and Children with disability as Tribal habitations tend to have generally small hamlets spread across the village separated by natural barriers. Also that children, some as young as 6 years will be left with no resort but to be admitted in residential schools at considerable distance from their homes. This will also lead to risks of accelerating move from government into low quality private schools. These processes are also very undemocratic