Chalo Bihar! Voices from the field

– Posted by Ranajit Bhattacharyya

Lush greenery of Bihar

‘You will not believe this but I actually trained 72 DIET students in Hindi, which was also attended by senior district-level government education functionaries’ said an excited Sajal, and ‘from the quiz results it was evident that they understood everything that I conveyed to them!’

Sajal, Piyali, Arijit and Bipash, from West Bengal, are part of a 75 member ASER team, drawn from practically every state in India – Kashmir in north to Tamil Nadu in South and Gujarat in west to Nagaland in east – majority of them veterans of many an ASER survey, but not many fluent in Hindi. They are in Bihar to participate in the Bihar Elementary School Evaluation.

A 4 day state level residential training of 200, at the SCERT Patna, comprising the 75 ASER team members, 76 MTs from DIETs, BRCs and CRCCs of 38 districts of Bihar and 50 Pratham personnel from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in extreme heat set the tone for this 3 week exercise, where the group would encounter many challenges that will enrich their learning process, as well as face interesting situations that will linger in their memory for years to come.

Inauguration of district level training

After a 3 day gap, the state level training was followed by a 4 day district training, where the 200 were broken up into 38 groups of about 5, with each group training about 60 or 75 DIET students or CRCCs to conduct the evaluation in every district.

Piyali went to Bhojpur to train DIET students, and was pleasantly surprised to meet ‘pahalwanji’ who after spending much of his youth in Calcutta fighting amateur wrestling bouts, tending to the DIET campus situated in village Pirauta, 7 kms away from Arrah town, as a volunteer for the past 40 years. The campus has many trees planted by ‘pahalwanji’, and is a virtual island of green surrounded by arid terrain. Piyali, however, was taken aback by the reluctance of the female DIET students to participate in the evaluation of children in the schools, which was to follow the district training. She was even a bit surprised the way the female students could jump the queue and move ahead of the male students during lunch. ‘They also got to sit at the front of the class, where all the fans were directed!’This was quite a change from what she had witnessed in West Bengal, where she feels, ‘women not only take the lead in field work but are also not meted any preferential treatment in such situations’.

In Bhagalpur, where Sajal was deployed for the district training and subsequent evaluation of Std. 2, 4 and 6 children in all schools of 2 clusters from 2 blocks of the district, he was disturbed to find 3 of the sampled schools being taken over by the respective villagers for impending weddings in each of the 3 villages! The hapless and harried headmasters and cluster level education officials were just mute spectators, lest they get roughed up by the villagers. The evaluation in these schools took place in the open! ‘We always hear of shirking government officials and truant school teachers, what I saw here was quite the opposite. I have never seen a more interested set of officials and teachers who are more interested in learning outcomes of children. It is the parents and guardians who are preventing them from discharging their duties’ lamented Sajal.

The newspaper reports in Delhi suggested that Bihar was the hottest place in India, hotter than even than the deserts of Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan! Rather unusual for this time of the year. Bipash who was part of the Patna district training team found himself staying in the DIET campus at Bikram. ‘An ancient structure that was used by the RAF (Royal Air Force) airmen during the 2nd world war that is falling apart now. The room in which I was staying was round in shape, with 6 large windows overlooking a large open field. The daytime temperature of 45 degrees heated the room like a furnace. The 1st night I slept with all 6 windows open, to beat the heat. When I got up in the morning I realized a crowd was observing me from all 6 windows, which made me feel like a caged animal. I had no choice but to shut all the windows from the next night and try to sleep in an agonizingly suffocating room!

It started raining heavily all across Bihar when the evaluation started. “We had to travel at least 30 kilometres in heavy rain each day by car to the sampled schools. Thanks to good road conditions, the car could go inside the school premises in most schools, but we still had to start early in the morning to reach the schools on time”, said Arijit, who found his involvement in the Chalo Bihar exercise to be a ‘great experience’. “Actually, I conduct many training sessions and monitoring activity in West Bengal, but that is in a language that I am fluent in. It is quite different here. Besides differences in the spoken language, the culture is also different; we have to always be careful to appreciate local customs and values.” He was, however, saddened to see multiple schools running from the same premises, and the community’s apathy to education in some parts, “parents are more interested in the mid-day meal than education.”