Two years ago in September, 14-year-old Sonali Gogoi boarded one of the crowded shuttle buses from the Namsang Tea Estate, where her mother Jondoi Tanti works as a plucker, to Joypur town in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh district. It was the first time that Gogoi had stepped out of the lush tea gardens — to “go to Class 9”.
Until then, Gogoi and her friends had attended the local primary school, just a few steps from the labor ‘lines’— the crowded residential quarters for tea garden laborers — she grew up in.
For four months, Gogoi rented a room for Rs 400 in Joypur, attending the high school there, leaving her mother and her younger sister at the tea garden. But then, her mother fell ill, money ran out and a dejected Gogoi returned home, dropping out of school, just before her final exams. “I thought I would not be able to study again,” recalls Gogoi, who wants to be a nurse when she grows up.
Two years later, Gogoi stands in front of the newly constructed ‘Model Tea Garden School’ in Namsang, with classes from 6 to 12, one of the 97 to be inaugurated later this month as part of Assam government’s initiative to “combat dropout rates and Facilitate the completion of school education” in the tea garden areas of Assam.
“Now I can take care of my mother,” says Gogoi, holding a brand new textbook in hand. “And go to school.”
The proposal to set up 200 tea garden schools was introduced in the 2017-2018 state budget by then finance minister and now Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The state government has plans to build 119 of these schools, of which 97 will start this session. The remaining 22 are in different stages of construction and will be made functional from the next academic session. In November 2020, foundation stones for 119 model schools were laid at a cost of Rs 142.50 crore.
Assam’s tea garden workers are mostly Adivasis from the Chota Nagpur plateau region who were brought to the state by the British as indentured laborers in the 19th Century. Politically considered a crucial vote bank and referred to as the ‘Tea Tribes’, they have for generations who lived marginalized, isolated lives in the gardens.
Literacy and education, too, have long suffered in these areas. According to the Plantation Labor Act of 1951, the responsibility of providing lower primary education (classes 1-5) to children between 6 and 12 years of age lies with the managements of the tea gardens.
But with bigger problems of labor and wages to deal with, for the managements, education of their workers was rarely a priority. Poor infrastructure and lack of facilities have meant high levels of dropouts and low literacy rates among the tea garden youth. In 2015, the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) had, in a report, said that at least 80 per cent of tea gardens in Assam were flouting the Right To Education Act, and illegally employing children in the gardens.
“After lower primary schools, there are no facilities available in the garden areas for higher education. Some Middle English schools (ME schools with classes from 6-8) came up but there were no high schools,” Ranoj Pegu, Assam’s Minister of Education and Welfare of Plain Tribe & Backward Classes told The Sunday Express. “Our government studied the problem and decided to improve education standards wherever possible.”
Admissions to the 97 schools have begun and teachers from government schools have been hired as the administration prepares itself for the new academic session starting May 10.
Pegu said the government hopes the new schools will “reduce the burden” on tea garden workers. “In the absence of high schools, children of garden workers would have to travel far. Some parents could not afford to send their children and so, many dropped out,” he said.
Like Gogoi. “I never wanted to leave school,” she says. But away from home at 14, life became even more difficult. Her father, a carpenter from a nearby village, had succumbed in 2015 to cancer, adding to the family’s growing financial burden.
“My mother would send wood, vegetables and some rice once a month from what we had at home,” says Gogoi, now 16.
Gogoi’s friend Rajonti Jal dropped out of school in Class 8 itself. “My parents did not have money to send me to Joypur,” she says. Over the last two years, the 16-year-old has often gone to see if the “big school” was actually being built. From May 10, Jal will be among the 216 children to officially be a student at the Namsang Model School. She will join Class 9.
It is a busy Monday at the school. Students of classes 6 and 9 have brought cardboard pieces to sit on — the desks and benches are yet to be set up — to attend ‘bridge classes’ that will ease them into the new academic session.
“We have heard that new baideos (elder sister in Assamese) and sirs are coming…I hope they teach us English,” says Jomi Orang, a Class 7 student. Another student, Vivek Goala, from Class 9, asks one of the teachers, “You will be able to make the journey right?”
His anxieties are not unfounded. Located close to the Joypur Reserve Forest, the approach to Namsang is through the dense rainforests of Dehing Patkai National Park, where commuters are known to be often waylaid by herds of elephant wilds.
Dipika Choudhury, Inspector of Schools, Dibrugarh, says that among the 13 model schools set up in the district, Namsang was the “most challenging” because of its “unique location”.
The school’s new principal, Debajit Ghosh, has his work cut out. “When I came here in March, there was nothing but the building. There was no water, no electricity,” he says.
Over the last two months, the government has installed solar panels, and a pump and purifier to draw drinking water from the nearby river. “We are also planning to make a reservoir for rain water harvesting and a kitchen garden that can take care of supplies for midday meals,” says Ghosh, adding that transporting anything to the school is a task. “We are yet to get the benches and desks because twice the truck driver bringing the furniture arrived in the evening and was too scared to drive through the forests,” says Ghosh.
School inspector Choudhury says she is trying to “motivate” the teachers, and has requested the government to build residential quarters for the faculty.
These days, Ghosh brings his seven colleagues from Dibrugarh and surrounding towns in his car to school. “Understandably, one of our teachers, who is a mother to a 20-month-old baby, has applied for a transfer. The trek is not easy,” he says.
About 100 km away is Sepon Tea Estate, also in Dibrugarh district, where another model school is being set up. Nikhil Gonju, who teaches at the lower primary school, says they have “waited three decades” for a high school. Over the last month, he has been going from house to house in the labor lines, explaining to the workers why they should get their children admitted to the new school.
“Education has always taken a backseat in our community. The lack of infrastructure and staff, the isolation that comes with being a tea garden worker… Many parents do not see the point of education. This has resulted in a lack of confidence and we barely interact with other communities,” says Gonju, adding that most children who drop out end up working in the tea garden as pluckers or in the factories.
While the tea tribes are largely appreciative of the new schools, experts say implementation of the project is as important as getting the infrastructure off the ground. “The schools are a welcome step but proper implementation is also needed. In tea garden areas, pre-primary and primary education need urgent focus. The existing schools should be made better because dropouts happen at that stage too,” says Kamal Tanti, poet and activist from the community.
Bondita Acharya, Director, Purva Bharati Educational Trust, an NGO that works on education and livelihood in rural Assam, including in tea garden areas, pointed out that the pandemic-induced learning loss has affected tea garden children far more than those from other communities. “The schools have been set up, but a lot of work is needed to bring children to the level of the current syllabus,” she says.
The gap is something Gogoi worries about too. “My mother is happy about the new school, but I tell her I have not attended classes in two years and I’m behind in studies,” she says.
But Jondoi is certain her daughter will catch up. “I have always told my daughters not to suffer the life of a tea plucker. Study well, be a doctor or an engineer.”