On the morning of July 3, while being rattled around in a car on a rural road of Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, Mahinder Singh informed me I was in the news. Singh, who oversees the implementation of a community-mobilisation programme in government schools that I was reporting about, whipped out his mobile phone. Badaun Express, an online publication, had carried an article and a photograph with a tantalising headline: “Shreya Roy Chowdhury visited upper-primary school Harraipur.”

My visit to the school was reported like it was a momentous occasion. The article described how I spoke to students, heard about their summer activities and was “very impressed” with their music performance. I felt a twinge of pity for the site’s regular readers: they must have wondered who I was and why my visit mattered.

The report had carefully elided the fact that I was a journalist on an assignment and consequently, I cut an odd figure in it – a random visitor, supposedly from Unicef but with unclear motives and an opaque job description, quizzing children and critiquing their art.

Singh, mild but mulish, told me he had issued a press release and ignored all requests to not issue any more. The next day, based on his dispatches, two local journals had produced similarly earnest pieces with banal headlines and an odd photograph of my visit to another upper primary school, in Gotha village. The attention was mortifying.

But as I realised, such coverage serves a different purpose in Uttar Pradesh villages. The resource-starved and deeply insecure institutions rely on public goodwill and charity to survive. For schools, this was a way to rally community support, to help get small plans off the ground and be noticed for initiatives like school adoption schemes and cleanliness competitions.

A little attention

A mention in the local publication goes a long way. All the reports included names of the numerous school officials who attended these meetings – lists meaningless to everyone except those named. “It motivates villagers to contribute to the school and take pride in it,” explained the Gotha school’s science teacher Manoj Varshney.

While I chatted with members of the school’s management committee, he directed his students to take pictures. One, featuring several Gotha stalwarts, was published in the Bareilly-based Shah Times’ Badaun edition. Badaun Amar Prabhat covered the visit too, announcing my designation in the headline like you would for a minister.

Press coverage has seen the Gotha school through a lot. It has promped donations to buy furniture and to pave the yard. It helped make Varshney’s attendance campaign a success. Spurred on by frequent mentions in the news, Gotha villagers ensured that all 134 children enrolled in the upper primary school attended every working day from August 26 to December 6. They recorded 100% attendance for 72 days.

Gotha upper primary school in Budaun. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Bearers of information

There is another reason such visits are judged worthy of coverage in these parts. Both Badaun and Moradabad districts have villages set many kilometres from any town or highway, where residents collectively feel neglected and disempowered. Visitors inquiring about their lives and experiences represent a possibility of change and a way to get word of their troubles out.

For months after the trip, I received calls from Uttar Pradesh villages informing me of a new problem afflicting them or an old one that has persisted.

In late July, the Supreme Court had nullified the appointment of contract teachers, or shiksha mitras, as permanent teachers by the state government. With that and the ensuing strike, Primary School Nanakheda, Badaun, was left with just one teacher. Shan Mohammad, a village resident, called to ask if I could be counted on to arrange for another.

Anganwadi worker Afroz Jahan, from Birpur-Bariyar village in Moradabad, called a few days later to check if I knew when the supply of nutrition supplements to the early childhood care centres, stopped months ago, will be restored.

I doubt my story on contract teachers solved Nanakheda’s problem. The last time I checked, Uttar Pradesh’s early childhood centres were struggling because the anganwadi workers had launched a protest demanding better pay. The lack of results made the laudatory coverage of my trip seem more egregious.

By the end of the Badaun trip, mine was a recognisable mug in the district administration’s offices. When I arrived to meet the basic shiksha adhikari, the top official for primary education, Prem Chand Yadav had just left for home. His car had already exited through the gate when he spotted me approaching the main door. He came back to the office because he had recognised me from the photo in Badaun Express.

Read Shreya Roy Chowdhury’s reports from Badaun here, here and here.