On Friday morning, the residents of Rajgarh village in Rewari district of Haryana were in a belligerent mood. It was the seventh day of their dharna (sit-in protest) at the Government High School, Rajgarh, it was punishingly hot, and although sundry officials had visited them, they were nowhere closer to getting the secondary school upgraded to a senior secondary institution.

A secondary school has classes from six to 10. After completing Class 10, the students of this school go to a senior secondary school, which has Classes 11 and 12. The one closest to Rajgarh is 8 km away. Daunted by this distance, many girls have dropped out. As a result, the residents of Rajgarh are now demanding that Classes 11 and 12 be started in the existing school – a process that is called an upgrade.

On May 17, the state government had capitulated to a similar demand in Gothra Tappa Dahina village, also in Rewari. Over 80 girls there, supported by the community, had started a hunger strike on May 10. They had complained of harassment on the way to the senior secondary school in Kanwali village, 3 km away. Bending its own rule on the minimum required enrolment, the government had upgraded the school in Gothra Tappa Dahina.

This led to demands and protests for similar upgrades in Gurugram, Sonipat, Palwal, Jind and Kaithal districts. The dharna in Rajgarh started on May 20.

There is now a proposal to upgrade over 120 schools in Haryana, including the one in Rajgarh, but an education department official said “the screening process is on and nothing has been finalised”.

Long commute

India has struggled to keep girls, especially older ones, in school. One reason for this is the long distances they have to travel to get to school, especially in rural areas.

In 2006, Bihar introduced a scheme under which it gave away bicycles to girls in higher classes to reduce dropout rates. It was a success. A 2013 working paper published by The National Bureau of Economic Research said that such an intervention “increased girls’ age-appropriate enrolment in secondary school by 30%”.

Now, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab all have some kind of a cycle scheme for girls. So does Haryana. PK Das, additional chief secretary in the state’s school education department, said cycles are available for girls of Class 9 and above whose homes are at a distance of more than 2.5 km from school. “Earlier we bought cycles and there were delays,” said Das. “From this year, students will buy [the cycles] and we will reimburse [them].”

Some states, including Rajasthan, provide travel vouchers if the distance is too great to cover even on a cycle.

But, as the Rajgarh case shows, there are limitations to such policies, especially where the community is concerned about safety and unwilling to let girls commute too far. “My parents would not let me go that far,” said Monika, who does not use a last name. She completed Class 10 four years ago and has not gone back to school. “Parents who had money moved their children to private schools with buses,” she added.

Students sit-in at a school in Rajgarh, Haryana.

Vandana Mishra, who works in the Lucknow office of the non-profit CARE India, said, “Cycles have raised mobility and retention rate of girls in Uttar Pradesh but not stopped them from dropping out. Safety is still a major concern.”

Her colleague Seema Rajput, who studies girls’ education in the Mewat region, said that the community objects to girls riding cycles in general.

Distances and dropouts

In Rajgarh, the protest continues. Villagers, many on leave from work, come with hookahs and playing cards to the school gate, which they have blocked since May 20.

“If you study arts, you go to Balawas village, 8 km from here,” said Hemalata, a protesting student who has just finished Class 10. “Science and commerce schools are in Rewari [town], which is twice as far. A single bus connects us and it is always very crowded.”

Commuting to these schools means passing a long desolate stretch with scrubland on either side. “How can we let our daughters ride through that?” asked Sadhu Singh, another protestor.

Kanwar Singh, whose granddaughter will be starting Class 11 soon, agreed. Mahinder Sharma may stop his daughter, in the same batch, from going to school altogether for the same reason.

Village elders, fathers and brothers join the protest by girls in Rajgarh.

Hoping for the best

Rajgarh had requested an upgrade in 2012 too. It was rejected because the high school was two rooms short of the required number of rooms, recalled Multan Singh, a social worker. The additional rooms were built that year itself but the uncertainty over the upgrade prompted many students to move to private institutions. “With 111 students in Classes 9 and 10, we then fell short of children,” said Singh. A secondary school must have a minimum enrolment of 150 in Classes 9 and 10 to be considered for an upgrade.

During the protest, the villagers have scrambled to get the required enrolment. “We have 151 now but the government is still not listening,” said Bimla Devi, whose grandchildren attend the school.

Among the 151 students are 18-year-old Ritu, who had left school in 2015 after failing mathematics in Class 10, and her twin Vatsa, who had dropped out in Class 9. Like them, Saroj, who dropped out in 2016 after failing a subject in Class 10, is willing to give school a try again.

And if the secondary school were to get senior secondary classes, students like Monika and Sarvesh, who dropped out despite clearing Class 10, could also resume their education.

Where it started

At the recently upgraded Gothra Tappa Dahina school, principal Satish Kumar said he had worked on “making a case for upgradation” for many years. Although the school had about 50 children in Classes 9 and 10, he felt it had room for Classes 11 and 12. Now that the approval has come through, he is worried about the preparations that still have to be made for the additional classes.

“We have few teachers,” he admitted. “Three of six posts for Classes 9 to12 are vacant. One of the three teachers we have is on child-care leave. Appointment of guest teachers has been stopped, so the [education] department has to transfer teachers here and fast.”

Satish Kumar, the principal of the Gothra Tappa Dahina school, managed to get the upgrade he wanted but is now troubled about a shortage of teachers for the new classes.

Additional Chief Secretary PK Das is sympathetic to Satish Kumar’s situation. “Libraries have to be upgraded and laboratories constructed and equipped,” he explained. “There is already a shortage of teachers. For an out-of-turn upgrade, we will transfer some from another school and that may leave both short. If the decision was taken earlier, we could have prepared.”

In fact, Das fears that students in newly-upgraded schools may find themselves worse off than before.

While the state and school authorities worry about such problems, the students in Gothra Tappa Dahina are relieved. Many of them had participated in the hunger strike. Nearly every Class 8 student, including boys, had joined the stir at some point. Neha Tanwar, who was there from the start, had fainted on May 15 and had to be given glucose drips for a day.

Nearly every student in Class 8 joined the hunger strike in Gothra Tappa Dahini.

“My sister, Pallavi, in Class 11, has started going to Kanwali village,” she said, explaining her reason for joining the stir. “Girls were harassed on the way. Men on bikes pulled their dupattas and grabbed their hands.”

Satish Kumar said he had heard villagers mention harassment before but no formal complaint had been registered.

Neha Tanwar said that on the evening of May 9, one of her sister’s classmates suggested a hunger strike as a way to get the school in Gothra Tappa Dahina upgraded and spread the word. By the time Satish Kumar arrived at the school the next morning, 25-30 girls were already at the gate, ready to join the protest.

Neha Tanwar was part of the hunger strike from the first day on May 10. She fainted on the fifth day and had to be taken to hospital.

Teachers are sceptical

However, officials and members of Haryana’s Primary Teachers’ Association are critical of such protests and believe the government’s response to the Gothra Tappa Dahina school’s demand sets a dangerous precedent.

“Local politicians must have promised upgrades and are now orchestrating these protests to put pressure on the government,” alleged Deepak Goswami, the association’s general secretary. While villagers and students vehemently denied this, Satish Kumar and PK Das admitted to suspecting the same.

Goswami also argued that upgrading schools that do not fulfil the requirements will strain the state’s resources even more. “Plus, the government has done nothing about falling enrolment in primary schools and the mushrooming of private ones,” he said. “Adding senior secondary classes is like building the roof before the walls.”

All photographs courtesy Shreya Roy Chowdhury