Heavy rains and flooding following a devastating drought in 17 districts of the south-western sea-board state of Karnataka (pop.64 million) in early August have taken a toll of 86 lives and inflicted property damage estimated at Rs.40,000 crore. The districts hit hardest include Belagavi, Chikkodi, Bagalkot, Kodagu, Chikkamagaluru and Gadag. Although relief and rehabilitation plans for over 200,000 people displaced by rain and floods fury are being drawn for restoration of road, rail and communication links, the issue of huge damage caused to the state’s education infrastructure has been placed on the back burner.
Visits to villages in the Belagavi, Bagalkot, Chikkodi and Chikkamagaluru districts by your correspondent in end August indicated that classes are being conducted in the open as most schools have been converted into relief camps for the flood affected. Since government schools have basic facilities such as toilets, kitchen etc, they have been taken over by local authorities to house the displaced, disrupting school calendars across the state.
Moreover, according to estimates of the Directorate of Public Instruction (DPI), over 5,500 school buildings have been severely damaged in the flooding. The largest numbers are in Chikkodi (1,200) and Belagavi (1,300) academic districts, with 31,200 classrooms requiring immediate repair. As per the preliminary estimate of DPI, Rs.371 crore is required to restore Karnataka’s impaired government schools.
“With lakhs of families being shifted from their homes to safe zones, we are allowing students in flood-hit areas to attend classes in other government schools without producing documents or paying fees. No transfer or birth certificates are necessary for such enrolments and neither are uniforms compulsory. If the students require hostel facilities, district officials have been asked to provide them,” says M.P. Madegowda, director of DPI.
According to education ministry officials involved in flood relief operations, the biggest challenge faced by them is forced dependence upon either the public works department or the rural development and panchayat raj local governments to repair schools. “DPI doesn’t have its own engineering section. Therefore, from drawing up damage estimates, monitoring construction and repairs, education officials are forced to depend upon other government agencies. Repair and rehabilitation work is moving at a very slow pace,” complains a senior DPI official.
The predicament of children in Karnataka’s 43,000 government schools has been worsened by political paralysis following the collapse of the Janata Dal (U)-Congress government in July. Although B.S. Yeddyurappa, leader of the opposition and president of the Karnataka unit of the BJP, was sworn in as chief minister by governor Vajubhai Vala on July 23, it took him four weeks to balance inimical factions within the BJP and appoint a minister for education. Meanwhile repair and reconstruction work in government schools damaged in the recent deluge has slowed to a crawl.
Monitors of Karnataka’s education scene are unanimous that fixing and reviving the 5,500 government schools in the flood-ravaged districts will test the mettle of the new primary and secondary education minister S. Suresh Kumar. “Repairing 5,500 schools is a huge challenge. But the real problem is that for successive governments of Karnataka, education of children and developing the state’s abundant human resources has never been a priority issue. Following the devastation caused by the recent floods in 17 districts of the state, the Rs.32,000 crore aid which the Yeddyurappa government is expecting from the Central government will be used to compensate farmers and repair roads, rail tracks and bridges. The education ministry will receive a pittance. This is a huge setback for Karnataka’s government school system,” says Shuba Pratap, an academician working with government schools in the flood-hit district of Virajpet.