March in the Little Rann of Kutch is torrid. By mid-morning, the sun is already burning up the cracked earth and and high velocity winds whip you in the face. From time to time, tankers carrying fresh water into this saline desert in Gujarat and trucks carrying salt out of it trundle by, raising clouds of dust that obscure everything in their wake.
For the Rann’s traditional salt farmers, the Agariyas, who live in the Little Rann for eight months of the year, it is nearly the end of the salt-making season. For their children, it is nearly the end of the school year. A school year that starts in a regular school in the village in mid-June but, two and a half months later, is a hit and miss affair in the desert.
Since 2009, the Gujarat government has officially run seasonal “tent schools” in the Little Rann. No permanent buildings are permitted in the Rann, a nature reserve since the 1970s that is among the last homes of the Indian Wild Ass. Fewer than 400 elementary school children are currently enrolled in the 24 tent schools of Surendranagar and Patan districts. There are more school-age children who do not go to school during the long salt-making season and instead work alongside their families in the salt pans scattered across tens of square kilometers. Gujarat claims to have a monitoring system to track every migrant child. In reality, only a small fraction of the Agariya children turn up in this data.
In 2016-’17, children in the desert schools made do with tattered tents, flying blackboards and a patchy supply of constantly changing teachers. This year, through the efforts of an advocacy group – Agariya Heetrakshak Manch – they got new tents. But they did not have teachers, or at least not until mid-January.
In the mid-1990s, when the state first committed itself to universalising primary education, Gantar, a non-profit based in Ahmedabad that works with migrant communities and against child labour, set up the first informal primary schools in the Rann as well as seasonal hostels in the villages. They picked young Agariyas with some schooling and trained them to work as “bal mitra” in place of the formally trained teachers.
For over a decade, at various points of time, Gantar ran 14 to 21 schools, funded by donors, said Sukkhdev Patel, a founding member. These Rann Shalas did not survive, suffering the vagaries of voluntarism and donor funding. However, their model has become the accepted model for Agariya schooling.
Many villages around the Rann, in what is now Surendranagar district, have had regular primary schools since at least the late 19th century, when the British lighted on the idea that it was more lucrative to make salt in the Rann and supply it to their Indian empire than importing salt from the Cheshire mines in Britain. It seems there were schools at the main production sites inside the Rann as well. However, the salt works of the Bombay Salt Department at Kharagoda, later called the Pritchard Salt Works, were only a few kilometers from the periphery of the desert, not spread over thousands of acres as they are now. When Gantar made its first contact with the Agariya community in 1995 it found four elderly men who said they had attended the Rann schools. In 1958, Pritchard Salt Works was renamed the Hindustan Salts Limited after Independence – and with the name, it seems, the Rann schools too vanished.
In 2001, following the Bhuj earthquake, the Agariyas came to the attention of NGOs and the media. A Jaipur resident named Narendra Malav wrote to the Supreme Court about the abject condition of the Agariyas, citing an Aaj Tak television documentary called Namak ke Ansu. The court listed Malav’s letter as a writ petition, spurring the state into formally acknowledging its obligation to the community.
In the court, the Gujarat government cited Gantar’s Rann Shalas as proof that there were schools for the Agariyas. Following this, the court enlisted Gantar as a confidential reviewer of the work done by the government in fulfillment of its directions. In 2006, satisfied with the government’s action taken reports and Gantar’s confidential reports, the court dismissed the writ petition.
Following the judicial intervention, the Gujarat government adopted Gantar’s model as its own, making its first budgetary allocation for Rann Shalas and seasonal hostels in 2006-’07.
In Sukhdev Patel and Agariya Heetrakshak Manch’s telling of the story, this was also the beginning of an unraveling. NGOs with little or no experience in education followed the government money. In 2009, by the government’s own assessment, most NGOs had effectively abandoned the programme. State funds for the Rann Shalas also appear to have dried up after 2010.
It was after this, and with the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2009, that the government took formal control of the programme for Agariya children’s education. As Surendranagar district’s Human Development Report for 2015 claimed, “The government has set up 19 tent schools in Kharaghoda and Zinzuwada areas of Patdi taluka...The expenditure on this arrangement is met by the government.”
This claim is entirely at odds with reality. There are no government funds for tents and teachers – without which there are no schools. For the academic year starting in 2017, the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch persuaded the State Bank of India’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme to fund new tents. In recent years, district officials have also raised private donations to pay for essentials such as water tanks and other equipment for the schools.
Bharat Somera, an activist with the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, takes a glass-half-full approach. “Where there was nothing, there is something,” he said. “From having to buy water from private tankers and no schools for their children, the Agariyas now have water supplied by government tankers, even a pipeline is being readied for Zinzuwada, and permanent schools for their children.”
But he admits that the smallest gains have had to be wrung out of the administration and would not have come without sustained pressure from groups like his. Somera, whose parents were salt makers, is on the Zilla Empowerment Committee for Patdi in Surendranagar and it is his persistent advocacy that has brought teachers to the desert in Surendranagar and, this month, the midday meal.
It was consequent to their campaign that a couple of years ago, the Rann Shalas started to be treated as extensions of village schools. Attendance in the Rann school now counts as attendance in the regular school, and in Surendranagar regular teachers from village schools are deputed to teach at Rann Shalas by rotation. As schools prepare to close for the season, the government has also, for the first time this month, enlisted members of the salt-pan community living close to a Rann Shala to cook the midday meals, as is done in regular government schools.
It was a particularly hot and windy day in the Rann when Kamalbhai arrived at his assigned Rann Shala – a tattered tent with a few jute bags for ground cover, a blackboard lying flat and a small plastic tank for fresh water. He was later than he had expected to be as he had to go by the village school to collect flavoured milk sachets that are part of the district’s school nutrition scheme. His first task was to secure his bag containing the all-important attendance register, tying it to the metal frame of the tent. The register is proof that children attend the Rann school, and he could not afford to have it carried away by the wind.
As Kamalbhai started to write simple sums on the blackboard, the gusting wind kept pushing it down. Everyone got to figuring out how to hold it in place. Eventually, a skipping rope was used to tether it to the tent frame. Sums quickly done and checked, the class was taken over by a volunteer of the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch, who visits each Rann school about once a week with mobile wi-fi and tablets loaded with educational games and learning material. Once the wi-fi van was on its way, so were the children – walking fast under the blazing heat of the afternoon sun.
This was Kamalbhai’s first week teaching in the desert. Teachers are assigned by rotation for a week or a fortnight at a time. Kamalbhai admitted he was tired when he arrived. It was over 45 minutes on his motorcycle across the desert with the wind against him; a ride made more stressful because it is easy to get lost in the undifferentiated desert landscape with no roads and no landmarks or signposts. He said ruefully that there were possibly more children present on the day because of the promise of getting to use the tablets.
That was last year. This academic year, the Rann Shalas had no teachers at all until late January. Anandbhai who had done two fortnight-long stints in the desert by mid-March this year said much as he liked teaching the small classes of the Rann Shalas – “you can focus on each child” – posting a teacher to each school for the duration was not possible. Living in temporary shelters in the desert – all supplies have to be procured from outside, fresh water is rationed, and having a bath requires a trip to the village – was not something any of them would contemplate. Just travelling everyday over the harsh terrain was enough to put most teachers off the job.
The school where he is regularly employed is about 20 km from the desert school he is assigned to. He travels either by motorcycle or car. “Either way it is exhausting, it is such a dusty ride,” he said, “God forbid your car or bike has a puncture!” On the way, he picks up students whose homes are on his route. “They would not come to school otherwise,” he said. He has 14-15 students and between those who come on their own and those he picks up he usually has upwards of 12 in attendance.
Getting children to school in the desert is no mean task. The salt pans cover thousands of acres and homes are scattered. For most children, therefore, it is a 3 km-5 km walk to the nearest school.
Every family this reporter visited in the desert had children, predominantly girls, who had dropped out after primary school. While figures for dropout rates specifically for the Agariya students are not available, it is commonly accepted that it is likely higher than for other communities in the region, and more so for girls.
Educating children from families that migrate seasonally for work is one of the biggest conundrums of Indian education. And the Agariyas present an especially complex problem: they migrate for all but two and a half months of the school year, and to what is one of the most inhospitable terrains in the country.
The Agariya Heetrakshak Manch agrees that residential schools or at least seasonal hostels near village schools are the most viable form of schooling for the community. However, not all parents want to leave their primary school-age children, particularly daughters, in a hostel.
Among the advocates for seasonal hostels is Somera. He is university educated and he did all his schooling from Class 3 while living in a hostel in Sanand, near Ahmedabad. The Surendranagar district coordinator for the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, Punabhai Vakatar, who is from a family of maldharis, nomadic cattle herders, also lived in a hostel “from a very young age”.
The government has so far built two seasonal hostels in Surendranagar district and two in Patan for Agariya children aged 6 to 14. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds cover all expenses for resident students. Currently, the hostels in Surendranagar have less than half the 50 students they are designed for. But they had girls in residence. Pankti Jog of the Agariya Heetrakshak Manch said much could change if the hostels were connected to village communities, perhaps even managed by them.
There is, however, no question of disbanding tent schools anytime soon. They are necessary “support schools” that allow the Agariya children to remain in school whatever their circumstances. But even if all the parents wanted all their children to reside in seasonal hostels, the state does not currently have the capacity to provide for them.
Somera, ever the optimist, said a beginning had been made. He said that last year was a milestone year for the Agariyas, with 11 of them selected for government jobs through various state public services exams. Their success, he said, would certainly influence how the community views education, perhaps even hostels. Whether they get their due or have to keep fighting for it as they have done so far remains to be seen.
These articles are part of Scroll.in’s long-running Educating India reporting project.