Editor's note: In a three-part ground report, we seek to cover different aspects of the impact of the annual floods in Assam from its children to the exchequer. Part 3 focusses on the tough future that children in flood-hit areas face particularly those residing on the sandbars.
Guwahati: While every parent's dream is to see their children get a good education and a great career, residents of Assam's flood-prone areas don't harbour such illusions.
A conversation with Lokman Ali and his family, residents of Gomaphulbari village in Barpeta district – currently living in a relief camp at Kakdhowa reserve forest – made it apparent how they don't have a choice.
"My children do not go to school. They used to study in Tarabari LK High School but two years ago, the flood washed away the school. Now, they help me in jute cultivation. It's not possible for me to get them admitted again in a faraway school," Ali told Firstpost. "It’s better if they become good farmers."
His children, too, are not keen on going back to school. Muslim inhabitants of these regions are often branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and run the risk of facing harassment. Ali's son Saukat, though only 13, is aware of the situation and understands its implications.
"The camp has become home to us. Our father says if we go to other villages and start living there, people will brand us as Bangladeshi and the government will anyway evict us. We feel safe here. The whole day we work in our jute fields. Now that the fields are watery, we are waiting for the flood to recede. Then we will start doing banana cultivation," the young boy said.
In Dhubri district's Pub Kanori village, which is a sandbar surrounded by rivers on both the sides, six-year-old Sumanur Ali was busy digging out his half-buried schoolbag in his house on Saturday. The persistence of his tender hands paid off and he was happy to retrieve his prized possession.
"Now that the water is gone, I hope to find my water bottle somewhere here too," he told this correspondent.
When the floodwater began to enter houses on the sandbar mid-June, Sumanur and his friends had no time to catch hold of their school material as their families rushed to safety. If the flood didn't carry away their books, they must be buried in the mud like Sumanur's bag was.
Even when there's no flood, going to school is a draining task for these children. Ten-year-old Sukur Hussain described how. He said that first, they have to take a boat from their village and travel one kilometre on it. The boat takes them to the railway bridge footpath, from where they have to walk about a kilometre to catch a bus in Golakganj town. From there, it takes a 10-minute ride in the bus to reach Rahmatganj LP School.
Pub Kanori village had got a venture school — schools local people establish with the government's permission — two years ago, but it too was washed away in the flood. Then the students were shifted to South Tokrerchora Part 4 area of Golakganj, which tripled the distance for children in Pub Kanori and adjoining villages of Rakhal Path, North Tokrerchora and Lakhimari. The new location of the school put it out of children's reach in monsoon, since one has to cross a swelling river to get there.
According to media reports, schools in Golakganj and other flood-hit areas have remained closed since June and 14 schools have been washed away in the Dhubri district alone.
Low literacy rate
With 40 percent of the state's area flood-prone and deluge being an annual affair, the socioeconomic cost of the natural disaster is huge and children and their future is one of the long-term casualties.
The last time socioeconomic indicators of these sandbars, called chars in Assam, were collated about a decade and a half ago. Socio-Economic Survey Report, 2003-04, by Directorate of Char Areas Development, had revealed that literacy rate in the river islands was in the range of 13-19 percent. Compared with 1992-93, the literacy rate of three districts was found to have reduced. Among these districts was Dhubri, whose literacy rate went from 19.06 percent 25 years ago to 14.6 percent in 2003-04.
Extreme poverty in these regions — with 70 percent families falling below the poverty line — and a lack of development hasn't helped the cause of children. A journal published in December 2014 noted: "The problem with the poor families is that if their girls get an education beyond class X it becomes difficult for the peasants to get a husband having an equal educational qualification. Because of their poverty, many boys drop school in order to help their parents in cultivation."
As per the Assam Human Development Report, 2014, 35.83 percent students of char areas and 30.42 percent students of flood-affected areas drop out of school to support their family.
According to the Assam State Lower Primary Association, the education of about 2.7 lakh students of lower primary schools has taken a hit owing to this year's flood. Jiban Chandra Borah, president of Assam State Primary Teachers' Association, said while 2,000-odd schools on river islands are inundated, the ones on higher planes have been turned into relief camps. He said the association has been recommending ways to the education minister to avoid loss of academic session but in vain.
Amid this grim reality, NGOs are doing their bit to keep children's education on track. Jhai Foundation, active in the western part of Assam, has proactively been teaching children in the Barpeta district. By engaging a Guwahati-based school principal, they even teach English to these children through Skype. When it rains, the classes are held on a boat.
Uttaran, another NGO working in Lakhipur char area of Barpeta district, has been goading parents to send their children to the nearest school. However, going there requires crossing the Brahmaputra, which takes an hour. General secretary of the NGO, Ashraful Hussain, said the school's location has made it hard to convince parents. He said they had written to the administration five weeks ago to take up a survey of the area and build a school, but nothing has come out of it so far.
Childhood vs basic challenges
Education is far from the only casualty of floods in Assam. The aftermath of deluge brings the threat of malnutrition, diarrhoea, water-borne diseases like cholera and dysentery, psychological stress and human trafficking. Drinking water and sanitation remain a challenge even if one is living in a relief camp.
Meena Bora, a mother of a three-month-old baby and a four-year-old girl, has been staying in a relief camp in Naoboisa revenue circle, in eastern Assam's Lakhimpur district, for three weeks now. She told Firstpost how there are only three makeshift toilets in the camp accommodating more than 380 people. That she has little children with her makes living there even tougher.
"Life here is difficult. I could not bring clothes for the baby girl. I have seen her shivering. I fear she has a fever. No doctor has visited us so far. Thanks to an NGO, they gave me a tin of milk for the baby. My health is also deteriorating," she said.
Read the first and second parts
The author is a Guwahati based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. She tweets @syedaambia
Published Date: Aug 02, 2017 11:35 AM | Updated Date: Aug 02, 2017 18:19 PM