Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
With the countdown for the west bengal legislative assembly polls scheduled in April/May having begun in right earnest, the prime contenders — the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — are loudly promoting their distinctive election agendas.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who famously ended 34 years of uninterrupted and ruinous CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) rule over West Bengal (pop.91 million) nine years ago, and is seeking a third consecutive term, has announced an array of schemes and recruitment drives, particularly in the health and education sectors.
Among them: transfer of Rs.10,000 into bank accounts of 950,000 class XII students enrolled in 14,000 government and government-aided schools and 636 madrasas for buying Smart phones, and distribution of 2.5 million bicycles to girl students of classes IX-XII.
Moreover on February 2, Partha Chatterjee, education minister of West Bengal, set February 12 as the date for reopening schools shuttered for over ten months. Simultaneously, the date of class X exams of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Schools has been set for June 1, and June 15 for school-leaving class XII students.
Given that till February 1, West Bengal had 570,177 cases of Covid infection with 179 new cases reported on February 1, teachers, parents and health experts are divided on the advisability of reopening school campuses. However, Dr. Devi Kar, director of the high-ranked Modern High School for Girls, has welcomed the reopening announcement.
“While online classes have helped to continue children’s education during the pandemic, it’s not a long-term solution. Students need socialisation and peer-to-peer learning. Therefore, schools should reopen as soon as possible with their managements taking all safety precautions,” says Kar.
On the other hand, government school teachers are more wary. According to a report of the Kolkata-based Pratichi Trust (constituted by economics Nobel laureate Dr. Amartya Sen and the Tech Mahindra Foundation), 30 percent of government primaries in Kolkata conduct multigrade classes; 59 percent of school buildings and infrastructure is dilapidated; the toilets ratio for girl children is 1:37 and 1:31 for boys. Obviously, conditions are much worse in district and rural schools. Therefore, government assurances to sanitise premises, provide hand washing facilities and enforce social distancing norms in the state’s 92,000 government schools in which the teacher-pupil ratio averages 1:59, amount to precious little.
Not a few monitors of West Bengal’s continuously under-resourced public education system believe that the TMC government’s push for restarting schools on February 12 could backfire if a substantial number of children in dilapidated government schools are infected by the Coronavirus.
Already facing normative anti-incumbency fatigue, two-term chief minister Banerjee who won 211 of the 294 seats in the last legislative assembly election in 2016, has a fight on her hands. The initiatives she has taken to modernise and upgrade the state’s moribund education system ruined by continuous infiltration by CPM cadres and faux intellectuals for over three decades, while welcomed by West Bengal’s bhadralok (cultured middle class), may not be enough to win Banerjee a third term.