Set up in Kasturba Gandhi’s name, the school was neglected until eforts by activists six years ago
A school is the only source of education for girls in a 17-kilometre radius in Bihar’s West Champaran district. But the all-girls school receives no funding or support from the government and runs fully on crowdfunding in spite of being a beacon of education and liberty for girls in the region.
Kasturba Kanya Ucch Madhyamik Vidyalaya was first opened in 1986 in Bhitiharwa village, Gaunaha block. The school soon became non-operational as people were reluctant to educate their daughters, said Pankaj, an activist contributing to Champaran land rights movements for 40 years.
A group of independent activists came together to bring the school back to life. Today, around 30 people teach in it without drawing a salary. The area has the lowest female literacy rate in the state — 18.07 per cent compared to 29.05 per cent for males.
The state government has ignored all appeals by the school for funds, claimed Deependra Bajpayee, the principal. “Every single piece of furniture is bought with money from donations,” he said.
Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Sunil Kumar and Rajya Sabha MP Satish Dubey recently wrote letters to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, requesting him to recognise the institute as a government school.
Lalu Prasad Yadav had issued a letter to make the institute a government school during his tenure as the state’s chief minister. His wife Rabri Devi had taken note of the school and insisted on it, said Bajpayee, who hails from Bettiah.
However, there was a lack of public will in the villages, he said. “Nobody made efforts for it to become a ground reality. The prospects for the school hence went into cold storage back in the 90s,” he said.
The school is, however, affiliated with Bihar Board even if it is not recognised as a government school. “Politicians often visit the school whenever they visit Bhitiharwa Gandhi Ashram. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had visited and even taken a class at the school during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign,” he said.
The institute has an all-time high enrollment of 400 students. “There were only seven girl students back in 2016 when the school restarted,” said Bajpayee. The teachers hail from Patna city and towns like Bettiah, Gaya, Jehanabad and Chapra.
The government schools in the area didn’t have proper classrooms or furniture, Class X student Gunja Kumari told Down To Earth.
“There was no high school in the village earlier. But this school has proper facilities and separate teachers for all subjects: Hindi, maths, English, Sanskrit, social science and science. It has arts, science and commerce streams for classes XI and XII as well,” she said.
The education is free at the school, which helps girls from low-income families. “Teachers helped convince our parents to allow us to study. Both my sister and I will opt for higher studies after completing our education from here,” Kumari added.
The school was named after India’s freedom activist Kasturba Gandhi, who lived in an ashram during Mahatma Gandhi’s visits to Champaran. Kasturba would take classes for girls in a hut on the ashram premises and emphasised the importance of education.
“No one wanted to run the school either, even though seven families in the village had donated three acres of land to pay homage to Kasturba,” Pankaj said.
Child marriage is rampant in Gaunaha’s villages and the young brides are not allowed to study anymore. The teacher-activists mobilise girls’ mothers, making them aware of the importance of education.
Even students partake in initiatives and rallies to stop children’s weddings in Bhitiharwa and other villages like Pakdi Bisauli and Srirampur.
The school faced severe challenges during the COVID-19-induced lockdown. “The school was shut for months. Teachers made arrangements that students with smartphones could help those without them to attend online classes,” said Kumari.
The teachers also helped distribute masks in the district and spread awareness of COVID-appropriate behaviour, added Kumari’s classmates Shilpi Chaurasia and Jyoti Kumari.
“The school is just 10 mins away from my home, but there is no other high school in a 17-km range,” said Shargusta Jamal, another student from Srirampur. Jamal wants to leave the village and be successful someday.
“My father is a farmer. My mother supports my dreams of higher education. I want to study science,” she said, adding that her elder sister could only study till intermediate classes.
The school tries to provide opportunities to the girls, with Chaurasia and Kumari reporting being selected for district-level Kabaddi competitions. The children also learn Bihar’s famous Madhubani painting style and sometimes exhibit their work at Kasturba Gandhi Ashram.
The school sometimes has older adults as students too. “We have 22-year-olds from the village studying as well. The women had to drop out of school after they were married off very young,” said teacher Vivek Kumar.
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