Over the last year, 1,710 government-run primary schools have been shut down across 20 districts in Assam, government data shows. State ministers and education officials, however, prefer to say these schools were “merged” with other nearby schools.

The apparent closing of government schools in Assam became the subject of an online spat between Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in August. Kejriwal insisted closing schools was misguided at a time when the country needed new schools.

Other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Assam government jumped into the fray. They claimed schools were not being closed, merely “amalgamated” under a scheme called Siksha Kshetra to improve “the overall educational environment”. Assam Education Minister Ranoj Pegu pointed out the government had opened new schools in tea garden areas, among other places.

The merger of schools in Assam dates back to 2017 at least. According to data provided by the state education department in the Assam Assembly, 5,953 schools – lower primary, upper primary and high schools and higher secondary schools – were merged between 2017 and 2021.

But the process appears to have been accelerated over the past year.

In June, Assam recorded a 56% pass rate in the Class 10 results, the third lowest in a decade. The state secondary education department had issued show-cause notices to 102 schools, of which 25 recorded zero pass percentage while in 70 schools, less than 10% of the students had passed. The poor Class 10 results had prompted the state to shut down 34 government schools where none of the students passed.

On August 25, the Assam government closed and merged 195 high schools with neighbouring schools in 21 districts.

Despite the government’s reasoning in favour of merging schools, educationists and civil society groups in the state are sceptical. Many feel the merger of schools could affect the quality of education offered by government schools.

Merger rules

The Assam Secondary Education website states that the amalgamation of schools in the same campus is aimed at optimising resources and saving money on the administrative and logistical costs of running educational institutes. The state has an estimated 45,000 elementary government schools that provide education from kindergarten up to Class 8.

An office memorandum from the Secondary Education Department, dated September 22, 2016, lays out the criteria to be followed while merging schools under Siksha Khetra scheme.

All schools situated in the same campus shall be merged with the highest school – if there is a higher secondary school on a campus then that is the first option. If not, then any other high school or middle elementary school or lower primary school or all of these schools situated on the same campus.

Two or more high schools located within a radius of two kilometres can be merged as long as there are no more than 40 students in each class. If a middle elementary school has poor enrolment – less than 15 students per class – then it can be merged with a nearby school.

In a series of notifications issued since April this year on the merger of elementary schools, many of these criteria are mentioned again. For example, “excess teaching staff” would be “posted elsewhere with posts or against vacant posts with the protection of their seniority in the earlier school”.

The notifications also state that the movable and immovable property, documents and records of the merged schools will be transferred to the new school. The new schools with which the abolished schools are merged are called “base schools”.

The elementary schools that have been “merged” are struggling to cope with the changed circumstances. Some schools actively opposed the merger decision. Teachers and activists have also alleged that norms are not being followed while merging schools.

Students during morning assembly at a high school. Credit: Nayan j Nath, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flawed implementation?

The half-a-century-old Natun Fatasil Town Lower Primary School in Guwahati is among the many schools that opposed the merger process. With a strength of 327 students, the elementary school was merged with the Natun Fatasil Town High School towards the end of July.

The primary school management committee, teachers and parents had been opposing the decision since the merger order was issued on March 19. A teacher from the Natun Fatasil Town Lower Primary School, who did not wish to be identified, told Scroll.in that the Natun Fatasil Town High School already had more than 800 students.

“How can [a] school with such a huge number of students function and provide an education friendly environment?” asked the teacher, who alleged that the merger was “illegal and forceful”. “With the amalgamation, the school lost its identity as it does not exist anymore.”

The school management committee, in a memorandum to the education minister, said the institute was established in 1954. It was meant for poor children; land and funds were donated by local residents. “Both the SMC [school management committee] and parents were also not willing to merge, as they have struggled a lot to bring their school to today’s position,” the memorandum said.

The committee, too, said that since the lower primary school does not meet the required criteria its merger order should have been withdrawn. The letter points out that the lower primary school has a separate campus and that the entry gates of both schools are far apart. One of the norms for merger is that the schools must be located on the same campus.

Lutuma lower primary school, established in 1951, was merged with the nearby Dakhin Guwahati High School in April, even though the primary school had 531 students – far above the numbers prescribed for a merger.

A teacher alleged it was done without the consent of the school management committee or teachers. “One day a senior education department official came to the school and made us sign the merger order and documents,” said the teacher, adding that the official threatened to halt the staff’s salary if they did not comply.

The Dakhin Guwahati High School now has about 1,000 students and 31 teachers. “One principal has to look after 1,000 students,” said the teacher. “I don’t know how this will help in improving the quality of education.”

In July, the Assam State Primary Teachers’ Association had asked the government to review the scheme, citing several mergers that were not done according to proper procedure.

Ratul Chandra Goswami, the association’s general secretary, said many district-level committees, appointed by the education department, had prepared a list of schools to be merged or amalgamated without physically visiting the institutes. “That’s why we have asked to review the process,” Goswami told Scroll.in. “The wrongful merger should be identified.”

But an education department official, who did not wish to be identified, told Scroll.in on September 9 that schools were being merged to provide “quality education” and facilitate the “proper use of teachers”.

“We have many schools with dwindling enrollment but the number of teachers is higher and many schools with deficit teachers need more teaching staff,” said the official. “So, the amalgamation is done in order to address these issues.” According to the official, more schools are being reviewed for merger.

State Education Minister Ranoj Pegu has sought objections to the amalgamation of schools. On September 21, Pegu said the department of school education and literacy has constituted a committee to review all petitions for amalgamation or merger.

Government to blame

While the state has been maintaining that schools have been merged due to “unsustainable” enrolment and poor performance, educationists say the government neglect is to blame for the condition of the schools.

The influential All Assam Students’ Union has also opposed the merger of elementary schools. Union president Dipanka Nath said there was a public attachment to many of the schools as they were built on land and funds donated by local residents and subsequently brought under government administration. “Instead of shutting down schools, they should find out the reason behind the bad results and poor enrolment,” said Nath.

Indranee Dutta, a former member of the governing board of the state’s Board of Secondary Education, asked why the state government had not analysed the reasons for the poor performance and low enrolment at such schools. “The government can’t just blame the teachers, students or parents. It is the government which is responsible.”

Dutta said the merger of schools would lead to an increase in Assam’s dropout rate, which is already the highest in the country in Classes 1-5 and 9-10.

Dinesh Baishya, former principal of B Borooah College, said well-performing government schools were a hindrance for the flourishing of private schools. The government has said the schools are being merged but Baishya said they are as good as closed since students have fewer schools to choose from.

Baishya alleged that the schools were functioning well but were forced to close without proper consultations with other stakeholders. “That’s why the amalgamation is wrong,” he said.