A project started in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Jharkhand with the support of the Union government and its think-tank, the Niti Aayog, is facing resistance and criticism from unusual quarters – Jharkhand’s BJP MPs.

Jharkhand’s department of education, supported and advised by a private consultancy group appointed by the NITI Aayog, has merged over 6,000 schools in the state. About 4,600 New Primary Schools opened under a universal education scheme in the early 2000s have been merged with other schools nearby.

But it is another other set of 1,200 schools that has activists more concerned. These schools, with enrolments of fewer than 10 students, have been merged with other institutions with similarly low numbers or with schools that have upper classes – such as primary (Classes 1 to 5) with upper-primary (Classes 6 to 8).

These low-enrolment schools, which are usually in remote areas, have not necessarily been merged with schools that are in the vicinity, activists say. This, they say, might lead to students dropping out because their new school is too far from home.

Another lot of schools, with enrolments of under 30 students, is set to merge over 2018-’19.

The exercise of merging schools with low enrolment has been previously undertaken by Rajasthan. The exercise goes by many names – merger, rationalisation, and in Jharkhand’s case, school reorganisation.

State governments argue that such mergers allow for a more efficient use of resources, especially of teachers. But activists contend that the exercise leads to the closure of schools and the exclusion of the most disadvantaged children from education. Civil society organisations and teachers’ unions in Jharkhand have been protesting against the mergers since February.

BJP MPs protest

Early in August, a dozen Jharkhand MPs from the BJP joined the chorus. The group, including Hazaribagh MP and Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, Nishikant Dubey (MP from Godda), Ram Tahal Choudhary (Ranchi), Ravindra Ray (Kodarma), Kariya Munda (Khunti), Vishnu Dayal Ram (Palamu) and Pashupati Nath Singh (Dhanbad), wrote to Chief Minister Raghubar Das, requesting him to reconsider the exercise.

Their letter pointed to the shortage of teachers in schools, and recommended that the government should “increase the number of teachers” and then, “postpone the decision to merge for the next one year to give the school system a change to improve and give strong orders to teachers and officials”.

Ram Tahal Choudhary told Scroll.in that before the joint letter, he had written to the prime minister and the minister for human resource development on the matter as well. Vishnu Dayal Ram said they are “waiting for the decision of the state government” before considering whether to take it up with the Union Government.

There is no consensus within this group on how they will proceed – or even whether they will take it up any further – if the state government does not relent. That the dissenting MPs are from the BJP, which also leads the state and Union governments, has led to awkwardness all around. “This is not a struggle but a suggestion to our own government,” said Pashupati Nath Singh, the MP for Dhanbad.

A ‘policy prescription’

Jharkhand is following the process that Rajasthan began in 2014 even though teachers and education activists in that state expressed their scepticism about it.

In July 2017, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued a set of guidelines on “rationalisation of small schools across the states for better efficiency”.

This was the “policy prescription” that Jharkhand followed, said AP Singh, principal secretary for school education.

In their letter, the Jharkhand MPs pointed out that the bulk of the schools being merged were established under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan or the Universal Education Mission, which became operational over 2000-’01, when the National Democratic Alliance was ruling at the Centre. In 2009, under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, the Right to Education Act was passed. It mandated that the government had to provide at least one neighbourhood primary school in every habitation. For Jharkhand, that meant one primary school within 1 km of students’ homes and a middle school within 3 km.

AP Singh said the existing schools “are now being tested against the parameters” of the Act. “Our situation is there are three schools in less than 1 km that were opened before the Act,” he said. “Unnecessary schools were opened which led to substandard or no education. The government of India did an intensive study nation-wide and came up with a policy prescription.”

He said over 6,000 schools are being “reorganised” in two phases – one lot in 2017-’18 and another over 2018-’19.

Countering the claims of MPs, activists and local coverage of the issue, AP Singh insisted that the NITI Aayog is not involved in the merger process. “NITI Aayog has nothing to do with this,” he said.

NITI Aayog and school mergers

A letter to states sent along with the July 2017 guidelines on school rationalisation said that the guidelines were born of a “Prime Minister’s review” in March 2016 and “NITI Aayog’s follow-up points”. The next month, the ministry drew up an “education roadmap” for Uttar Pradesh and recommended school mergers. By November, the NITI Aayog was independently signing memoranda of understanding with states that wanted its assistance in restructuring their education systems – a programme called “Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital” or Sath.

Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand were the first three picked for the 30-month programme under which the NITI Aayog enlisted two private organisations – management consultants, Boston Consulting Group, and the Piramal Group’s non-profit, Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership – to implement reforms.

By March, roadmaps for all three were handed to the states although what they say is a mystery – they are not on the NITI Aayog’s website and activists in the states have not been able to obtain them either. Anil Pradhan, education activist in Odisha, and AK Singh, based in Jharkhand, both said they have not been given any documents on the subject. Scroll.in sent detailed questions to the NITI Aayog, including a request for the roadmaps, but they did not respond. This report will be updated if they do.

However, state education officials in Odisha have publicly stated that one of Sath’s main objectives was to oversee the merger of over 4,000 of its schools.

In Jharkhand, AP Singh said, Boston Consulting Group works “under the advice and guidance of the state government”. Their consultancy fee paid equally by the state and NITI Aayog, “They help with analysing facts…and are helping with making the facts available based on which the education department can go ahead with the policy”.

This probably why the letter Jharkhand’s MPs sent the chief minister has the tone of a fact-check. Saying that communities across districts are upset with the decision, it seeks to bring “facts to the attention” of the government.

‘Ground reality’

In their letter, the MPs argued that the decision to close schools will result in a decline in education levels among children in the villages for “Jharkhand is a state of hilly and forest areas and rivers and small villages spread among them”. Vishnu Dayal Ram pointed out that his constituency, Palamu, is a “Naxal-affected area”. If schools are set far from home, families are less likely to risk sending children there. This point, however, is not mentioned in the letter.

Pashupati Nath Singh is similarly concerned that children from Dalit and Adivasi communities in the districts within his constituency – Dhanbad and Bokaro – may drop out if their new schools are too far from their homes. “Thousands of children in Jharkhand will be excluded from education,” says the letter. It also warns that empty school buildings will become the “centre of activities of anti-social elements”.

Most importantly, the letter also draws attention to state government’s failure to provide teachers and essential facilities in the schools it runs. “Population in the villages has risen but due to the shortage of teachers and the lack of facilities, children are running to private schools,” it says. “Rather, it is necessary to fix the school system.”

Godda MP Nishikant Dubey pointed out that Jharkhand “did not fill the vacancies” in schools and as a result, children left for private institutions.

Sanjay Singh of Jharkhand’s Primary Shikshak Sangh, one of the state’s four major teachers’ unions, said that of the 68,000 sanctioned posts for regular teachers in Jharkhand’s elementary schools (Classes 1 to 8), only about 41,000 are filled. Even the number of sanctioned posts falls far short of what is required, he continued, and there are still about 67,000 para-teachers – temporary staff on contract – although most of them are trained. “Then, the vast majority of middle schools have no headmasters, time-bound promotions have been stopped in most districts and in Upgraded Middle Schools (primary schools to which Classes 6 to 8 were added), posts for language teachers and science teachers were not created at all.” All this has to children dropping out, he said.

“Instead of looking at all this, NITI Aayog decides, and you shut schools,” said Dubey. “That that should not have happened. Only the state knows the ground reality.”

Those who can afford it, are being drawn away by private education.

Dubey said that children and their parents are attracted by the promise of English-medium education and the affiliation of private schools to the Central Board of Secondary Education. Many parents believe this board is better for those who want to later sit for several entrance exams to higher education institutions. Till recently, the CBSE conducted entrance tests for undergraduate engineering and medicine programmes.

Education activist AK Singh said that even the new Central scheme, Samagra Siksha Abhiyan, formed by merging three others – Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for primary schooling, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan for secondary schooling, and a teachers’ training programme – promotes large-scale mergers. “The plan now is to form education hubs and to provide transport to children except we all know that is not going to happen,” he said.

Dubey added that the Parlimentarians have not met the chief minister about the matter, but said his response to their letter “was positive”.