Extreme weather has had a profound impact, not just on the physical environment, but the social environment as well.
If you take a short stroll in Rewali Adampur, an embankment in Kaiserganj Baraich, one of Uttar Pradesh’s most flood prone districts during the monsoon you will instantly get an idea of the gravity of the predicament people face year after year, because of the vagaries of the weather.
Raj Balli, a farmer from Khasipur with a family of five to feed, describes his life graphically, “Every year, there are floods in this regio. I lose everything, including my land, to the rising waters. We try and save our food stocks by building a loft and stacking our provisions away so that we can survive the months of heavy rain.”
Interestingly, while the 2010 floods threatened to destroy Raj Balli’s life all over again, there was one silver lining in the dark clouds. For a change, his children could attend school throughout this difficult period because of a new measure introduced by the local district administration.
“I was not as distraught as I normally am when the floods came, because at least my children’s education remained uninterrupted. This almost made up for our other losses,” he recalls.
Similar sentiments are echoed by Bechani, a farm labourer from Behrampur. He says, “I have seven members in my family to feed and when the floods come, land is lost to the river, leaving us with no work for months. Last year my daughter too was injured and found it hard to walk. But the embankment school running in the rescue camp helped reduce her misery. She has been attending it regularly and now wants to continue going to school. The prompt action to set up a makeshift school brought us some relief.”
India has enacted a law guaranteeing eight years of schooling for every child. But there is a huge difference between enacting a law and actually implementing it. Every year, droughts, floods and other environmental reversals across the country prevent thousands of children from going to school.
Take an area like Baraich, which lives under the threat of perennial floods unleashed by the raging Ghagra river. During the season of the floods, everything goes under the rising waters, not just land and livestock, but often the local school too. Yet, Baraich can ill afford interrupted schooling since it registers a poor literacy rate of 47.2 per cent, with the female literacy standing at a dismal 23.3 per cent.
Rigzin Samphel, Baraich’s former district magistrate under whose tenure the initiative began, explains the situation, “Every year, over 424 schools in this district are disrupted with the coming of the floods. Since the monsoon brings heavy rain and the flood waters take time to recede, children are forced to remain out of school for over four to five months a year. It is a huge problem, especially given the poor literacy rate.”
This is where an innovative idea has made a huge difference, the construction of makeshift embankment community schools, with classrooms being conducted under plastic tents provided by international agencies. Thanks to them, the children in Baraich and the surrounding areas have got the opportunity to attend school even when their district was battling the elements and flood waters were swirling around their homes. Unbelievably, while the area was inundated for over a month, these 15 makeshift community schools continued to run throughout the district.
Functioning in separate batches of Classes I to V and Classes VI to VII, these community education centres perched on embankments were attended by children streaming in from the flood-hit schools. Talking to the children in one such facility gives a glimpse of the impact of the initiative. Observes Madhuri, 11, “Every year floods would disrupt our classes and our schools would be converted into rescue camps or community kitchens. We lost out on our education, and some students never came back to class even after we went back to regular school. But last year, school kept running, and because of that we were able to complete our syllabus.” Madhuri, incidentally, wants to be teacher when she grows up.
In some areas, these makeshift schools continued long after the flood waters receded and things returned to normal. Explains Virendra Pande, District Programme Officer, Baraich, “In 2010, we lost two schools permanently to the river. So the makeshift schools are running even now in Jarwal block. We are on the look out for land to rebuild the schools there but until we find something suitable, these community schools will continue functioning.”
What helped was the quality of material made available for these makeshift educational institutions. The tents were extremely resilient and the district administration was glad to receive them at a time of crisis, since it had no budgetary provision in its Crisis Reduction Funds (CRF) to buy such material for running schools.
Embankment schools to weather-proof education in Baraich have emerged as a useful eco-solution for our times. But it needed a district magistrate (DM) who understood the ground situation in his district. The idea, in fact, came up during discussions that the DM had held with villagers in June 2010, while preparing for the floods that invariably visits the district during the late Monsoon period.
With the administration evincing so much interest, things soon got going. Everything, from plastic sheets to textbooks, soon materialised for these proposed makeshift schools. Adele Khudr, who heads UNICEF in Lucknow, the state capital, too, visited the schools to see how the children were benefiting from this experiment. “It was a wonderful surprise to see the children doing so well in times of such crisis. These schools were indeed remarkable, and it is an idea that must be replicated in other areas facing similar emergencies, so that education for children does not suffer,” she says.
What really made the difference, according to Khudr, was the pro-active involvement of the district administration. She believes such schools can also cater to the nutrition and health needs of flood affected children.
Everybody recognises that the most important outcome of this innovative eco solution was the fact that children continued to be in the classroom even when the weather was at its most extreme. As Samphel points out, “The biggest problem was the adolescents who were out of school. Not knowing what to do with their time, many were even tempted to take to crime. But now things have changed and, hopefully, the future for the kids of Bahraich will only get better.”