As Kashmir received the season’s first snowfall on November 3, power transmission lines were damaged, plunging the Valley into darkness. In the following weeks, pictures of schoolchildren writing exams under candlelight and rechargeable lanterns, shivering in unheated rooms, went viral, prompting public outrage.

It is not uncommon in Kashmir for exams to be postponed because of harsh weather, but, this time, the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education went ahead with its scheduled annual exams for Class 10 and Class 12. Nearly 1.2 lakh students were appearing for them.

Last month the State Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the director of School Education, Kashmir, seeking a report on the lack of basic facilities in schools.

Official records paint a dismal picture of school infrastructure in the state, especially in the Valley. In a rare speech on the subject early this year, Syed Altaf Bukhari, then education minister, informed the Assembly that of the state’s 23,773 government schools, at least 17,901 did not have electricity. “If this was not enough, 26,000 toilet units and lavatories in our schools are in a dilapidated condition,” he said. “Nearly 1,000 girls’ schools are without any toilet facilities.”

The main reason for this state of affairs is inadequate government spending, Bukhari told Jammu and Kashmir needs an estimated Rs 3,000 crore to develop and upgrade school infrastructure, he noted. Yet, the 2018-’19 budget earmarked only Rs 150 crore for this purpose.

Lacking infrastructure

Government records obtained through Right to Information applications show that nearly 305 of total 519 government schools in Srinagar district lack electricity connections. In Central Kashmir’s Budgam, 1,036 of the 1294 schools do not have electricity. In addition, 940 schools are without fencing and boundary walls, and at least 248 schools “don’t have proper and direct connectivity of water”.

In South Kashmir’s Anantnag, 1,271 of the 1564 schools are without electricity, while 1,065 schools are missing boundary walls and 314 lack drinking water facilities. Only 35 of the 51 girls’ schools in the district have washrooms and lavatories. In Ganderbal district, 76 per cent of government schools are without electricity, RTI replies show.

“It is the story in every district,” said activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat, who had filed the RTI applications in September. “Replies from many districts are still awaited. But I am sure it is the same story.”

Jammu and Kashmir ranks low on several indicators of school infrastructure. As per data for 2016-’17, published by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, the state ranks 30th among India’s 29 states and seven Union Territories when it comes to having government schools with boundary walls. For schools with electricity, it ranks 31st.

Government apathy

“I constituted two committees to suggest ways and means to address the problem,” said Bukhari. “They had to submit their reports in three months, in June. Probably, nobody followed it after that.”

In June, the coalition government of Bukhari’s Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party fell after the latter withdrew support. The state has been under governor’s rule since.

According to Bukhari, the state’s failure on the “infrastructure front” has directly affected the literacy rate and the ratio of girls in schools. “When 90% schools don’t have toilets, how can you expect the ratio of girls to grow,” he explained. “How can you expect a child to study in a government school when there is no infrastructure? Unless it is taken in a missionary mode, nothing will happen.”

Asked why successive governments have failed to address the problem, Bukhari replied bluntly: “It doesn’t give you immediate electoral gains. That’s why nobody takes interest. People say they will send their wards to private schools. Is that an answer?”