Since 2014, Class 4 student Anita Gujjar has been taking twice as long to get to school. That year, her government-run primary school in the heart of Pipla village, in Rajasthan’s Jaipur district, was merged with a senior secondary school on the outskirts. This has forced Gujjar and her classmates to walk an hour to get to their new building, negotiating a road on which trucks and petroleum tankers trundle by. At least, Gujjar has the security of walking with her older sister. But second-grader Sajjan Singh makes his way from another village, Bawadi Ki Dhani, all alone.

When it rains, the area around the school gets flooded, sometimes leaving the children marooned for hours. During the brutal summers, some faint on their way home. The attention they get in school has also become less intense: their teachers now teach higher classes too, so focus less on them.

On the upside, the children have classrooms with fans.

Anita Gujjar (centre) leaves home at 7 am to get to school by 8 am every day. Most of her classmates do the same and they are not accompanied by adults.

In 2014, the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party government merged 17,000 of the over 80,000 government schools in the state into the other schools, ostensibly to increase efficiency and rationalise the utilisation of resources, especially teachers. Many schools, considered unviable because of low enrolment or the presence of other schools nearby, were shut and their staff and students moved. Activists argued that this reduced access to education for the poor and marginalised. In the wake of protests against the government’s decision, around 4,000 schools were de-merged later that year.

But every year since, there has been a fresh round of mergers. In June, orders were issued for around 3,500 schools to be absorbed into others. More are set to go. “Over March-April 2017, the education department decided to merge schools that are situated close to each other and have low enrolment with other schools within 1 km to 2 km,” confirmed Sunil Kumar Sharma, joint secretary, elementary education, Rajasthan. “This has been done as per the norms of the Right to Education Act, 2009. Primary schools with fewer than 15 students and upper-primary schools with less than 30 students will be merged.” Activists fear the number of schools facing the axe may cross 3,700.

Sajjan Singh (left), in Class 2, has no one to walk with on the hour-long commute to school.

The merger of the Government Primary School and Government Balika (Girls’) Primary School in Pipla with the Government Adarsh Senior Secondary School, and dozens of other such cases across Jaipur illustrate how the government’s policy has permanently disrupted the routines of communities and their access to education. Families have been forced to pay for private schooling. Many children who lived with relatives to attend school have simply vanished, with no one tracking their whereabouts.

Girls walk home from the Adarsh school in Pipla after their exams. Some hitch a ride in the mid-day meal delivery van.

Dropping numbers?

At Pipla’s Adarsh school, enrolment in Classes 1-5 has dropped from 82 at the time of the merger to about 65, as a consequence of the greater distance children now have to travel. “We tried to make the school as attractive as possible but very few of the 210 new admissions last year were in primary,” said principal Babita Rajawat.

Ramswarup Jahangir, a teacher in the primary section who was transferred to the senior school along with his students, said that just four students joined Class 1 last year. “When we were in the village, we got at least 10 every year,” he said. “But families are opting for the Sanskrit primary school [a regular government school that teaches Sanskrit as an additional subject] running in the community hall or, worse, private schools.”

Vishnu Punya, a teacher at Adarsh senior school in Pipla, points to the remains of a bridge over a channel that diverted rainwater from the school premises and into a nearby pond. Now the area floods during the rains.

According to data collected by the District Information System for Education, Rajasthan’s government schools lost 1.4 lakh students between 2014 and 2016. In the same period, enrolment in private schools went up by 1.9 lakh. Total enrolment rose too, but by a little over 55,000.

Activists do not trust these statistics. “Our own ground-level surveys have shown that children have dropped out,” said Komal Srivastava of Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, Jaipur. “This data is gathered from schools. There is duplication because children drop out without formally withdrawing and schools do not strike off their names.”

But the government denies the mergers have resulted in children dropping out. “As per the ASER [Annual Status of Education Report] report, the dropout rate in Rajasthan reduced over 2016-2017,” said Sunil Kumar Sharma. “There is no increase in the rate due to mergers. Over the past two years, enrolment in Rajasthan’s government schools has increased by over 10 lakh.”

Pooling resources

The state government insists it has merely merged schools, not closed them. But for Pipla resident Renu Kanwar, their primary school is as good as closed – its gate is locked, shrubs have taken over the yard. “I would have sent my two grandchildren here if it was open,” she said. They attend a private school.

Teacher Ramswarup Jahangir walks to the now abandoned primary school in Pipla.

According to the education department’s statistics, by December 2013, there were 47,647 primary (Classes 1-5) and 21,880 upper-primary (Classes 6-8) schools in the state. “This is much higher than the requirement as per RTE [Right to Education] norms of one [primary school] within every 1-km radius and [an upper-primary school] within a 2-km radius,” reads an education department note on the mergers. One hundred and forty-two schools had zero enrolment, 8,164 had under 15 and 28,013 under 30. The note explains that different levels of schools were under different administrative divisions, leading to “poor supervision of primary schools” while “multiple school changes [resulted] in increased dropout at transition points”.

In July 2015, Rajasthan’s Education Minister Vasudev Devnani told the Business Standard, “The idea… was to pool in resources at one place to ensure availability of teachers and bring education to the same level.”

But CP Sharma, a member of a primary teachers’ association, said that the Right to Education Act requires the state to provide a school even if there is one eligible student. He pointed out that many schools with healthy roll-strengths have been merged.

However, seen as a pragmatic move encouraging judicious use of resources, the Central government endorsed the school mergers while a committee formed in 2016 to draft a national education policy recommended that the model be replicated elsewhere.

The staffing system was rationalised next. Some teachers were moved along with their schools – like Jahangir – and the rest transferred to other parts, leading to resentment all around. One lakh, twenty thousand teachers have been transferred because of this, said Anil Sharma of the Rajasthan Shikshak Sangh (Rashtriya), a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated teachers’ body that is opposed to the mergers.

With a section of elementary education now under senior school principals, the administrative apparatus for them was trimmed. Block elementary education offices lost power over primary school teachers, who started drawing their salaries from and reporting to senior schools instead.

Not a uniform process

But the merger process has not been uniform.

In Jaipur city, the Primary School, Durgapura, merged with the Government Senior Secondary School, Durgapura, in 2014 but continues to function out of its own premises. However, when the Primary School Durgapura, Raiger Basti, also merged with the senior school in 2016, it had to abandon its building and move into the same space as the other primary school.

The primary wing of the merged Durgapura school occupies the gateway of a heritage structure.

When the co-educational primary school at Malpura Gate merged into an all-girls senior secondary school in Sanganer, Jaipur city, in 2014, it caused great inconvenience to the 1,500 older students.

The same year, 2014, Primary School, Pahadganj, also in the city, merged with a senior secondary school it shared a building with, leading to a single administrative unit with one principal. But it continues to run in the evening shift because space is limited.

In Haji Colony, the primary school merged with the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Nahari Ka Naka, 3 km away, but classes are still held at its old venue – a single room at the local Dargah Imli Wale Baba.

All these schools had more than 30 children enrolled at the time of their merger.

Keeping children away

Mergers have been reversed in cases where large numbers of children stopped attending school for a variety of reasons – streams or railway crossings that made their commute difficult, or cultural or social barriers.

A 2014 survey of 102 merged schools, by the non-governmental organisations Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, found that children had dropped out because of language, caste, religion, gender and even diet.

However, longer distances and busy roads were the biggest deterrents. When Primary School 2 in Phagi merged with an all-girls senior secondary school, its students – many of them from nomadic communities – had to navigate the Jaipur-Bhilwara highway to reach their new school. “Most of them have stopped coming,” said a staff member, who did not wish to be identified. “Their parents pleaded with us to reconsider but what could we do?”

Some communities succeeded in resisting the mergers. When the Haji Colony school moved to Nahari Ka Naka in 2014, all of its students dropped out. “We went to Nahari Ka Naka for some days but no student did,” recalled a teacher. Explaining the reason for this, community worker Ikram Qureshi said, “There is a very busy road on the way with frequent accidents.” The fathers of most Haji Colony children are autorickshaw drivers. “I ferry private school children every morning,” said Islam, explaining why he could not drop his boys, Adil and Faran, to their school.

Ultimately, classes resumed at the old dargah, though there was no official de-merger.

Other problems

Despite having averted the merger, Haji Colony’s schooling struggle continues. The dargah school’s roll-strength crossed 100 several years ago and at the time of the merger in 2014, the room was already a tight fit and enrolment was dropping. Residents had petitioned the government to replace a dilapidated structure in nearby Mali Colony that housed another primary school with a facility that could accommodate both schools. Qureshi said the education department had sanctioned over Rs 4 lakhs for it but a dispute with Mali Colony residents stalled the move.

After 2014, Haji Colony residents demanded a permanent solution to their problem with renewed vigour. But all hope for the move to Mali Colony was dashed in 2016 when the government merged the school in that neighbourhood with another.

Rayan Qureshi, a student of Class 4 at the Mali Colony school, moved to the dargah in Haji Colony, but many others, mostly from poor Hindu families, did not. “I doubt if even two of those children – there were about a dozen – attend classes now,” said Bansilal, who runs a general store in Mali Colony. “Their parents did odd jobs or begged at temples. I think they go with them now.”

Rayan Qureshi moved to the already crowded dargah school at Haji Colony after his own school merged with another.

Anganwadis suffer

The mergers have caused collateral damage too. When the primary school in Pipla moved to the senior school in the outskirts, enrolment at the anganwadi centre next door dropped from about 25 to 15. “There is no one to bring them [the children],” lamented Meera Devi Meena, who runs the government centre for mother and child care. “The little ones came with their elder siblings who now go to the Adarsh school.”

She also misses the support she received from the school teachers and students. “Very often, there is just one person at the centre,” she said.

Meera Devi Meena, who runs the anganwadi centre in Pipla, says she gets fewer children now after the merger of the primary school.

Quality affected

For all the upheavals they have caused, the mergers may not have delivered on their promise of quality education. Shambhu Dayal Bairwa and Vishnu Punya, senior teachers at Pipla’s Adarsh school, feel the mergers should have been preceded by a general improvement in facilities at senior schools.

“Yeh hai Adarsh school [this is a model school],” said Bairwa sarcastically, pointing to an uneven lot dotted with animal carcasses that is supposed to be the school’s playground.

Shambhu Dayal Bairwa, a teacher at the Adarsh senior school in Pipla, points to land that belongs to the school but is now used as a dumping ground for cattle carcasses.

Punya added, “We have no support staff. During exams, teachers take turns spending nights on campus to guard papers.”

The primary teachers say their situation is worse. “Earlier, we spent time on the children, now we write bills,” said Jahangir, the primary school teacher from Pipla who moved to the Adarsh senior school. A commerce graduate, he has had to teach the subject to Class 12 students and also stand in as an invigilator during exams for senior classes even though there are only two teachers in the primary section. “The focus is on older students,” Jahangir said. “During examinations, primary schoolers are neglected.”

Echoing the view of Jahangir and every other primary teacher spoke with, Durgapura teacher Sandhya Mathur said, “We were used to working independently, taking decisions that were best for small children.” She added, “Some things have become easier. All our paperwork, for instance, is handled by the senior school and there are fewer responsibilities. But bigger schools do not understand.”

Mathur and her fellow teachers in Durgapura had unsuccessfully fought the merger with letters and signature campaigns.

The move has been rougher still on the 90 children of the Durgapura, Raiger Basti, school. For weeks, brothers Gaurav and Krish Sharma, students of Classes 1 and 2, insisted on sitting with the fifth-graders and the teacher who had come from their school, Puranmal Dhayal.

Teacher Puranmal Dayal and first-grader Gaurav Sharma moved to the senior school in Durgapur when their old primary school merged into it.

The boys miss the tree in their old school compound. Dhayal, too, reminisced about the old school building. “There was a small area to play in and even from the classrooms, it was possible to see the road outside,” he said.

But at the centuries-old building that houses the senior school, the windows are set too high for even adults to look out. There is no place to play and the children are placed either in a small, dark space that possibly served as a room for guards or in what the teachers call “the hall” – a generous description for a room that is better lit but still crowded. Girls still use the toilets of the old Raiger Basti school.

Dhayal at the abandoned Primary School, Durgapur, Raiger Basti.

Attendance is about 50% on average, said Mathur.

Dhayal added, “Children get attached to their teachers, their spots in the school. All were reluctant to come and I even visited some of their homes. But 10-15 did not return at all and I do not know where they are.”

All photos courtesy Shreya Roy Chowdhury.

This is the first part in a series on the impact of the Rajasthan government’s decision to merge government schools in a bid to improve quality of education.