BEED/SURAT: Shobha Godam joined Vaijnath Sugar Cooperative in the town of Beed in Maharashtra as a clerk. Now, she is the teacher at the factory-run school or sakharshala (sugar school).
An empty, dusty godown, carrying a sign that says Sakharshala 2004-05 is all there is to the school. There are no desks or benches. And there are no toilets.
Visitors are unlikely to find children from the sprawling colony of sugar-cane cutters that has come up just outside the factory gates here. They are unlikely to find any children at all in the school.
The only thing they will find is a register with over 200 names and almost universal attendance.
The Vaijnath Sugar Cooperative is run by Bharatiya Janata Party party MLA Gopinath Munde. Munde, a former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra is, currently, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly.
“Sakharshalas might not be running, but at least they have been set up. Is that not a great improvement from before?” he asks.
The sakharshalas are part of the government’s efforts to fight a problem unique to the country’s sugar belt: the seasonal migration of entire families, including school-going children.
The register of the government-run school in northern Aurangabad’s Uppalkheda village, shows that Arvind and Anil Rathod study at the institution. The two brothers are actually over 300 km away from their home and school, in South Gujarat. They have been on the road since November with their parents, and they have been going from field to field, cutting cane for the sugar factories of Surat.
The brothers are among the 200,000 school-going children who drop out for six months every year when their parents begin an annual migration motivated by survival. For over six months, these migrants harvest cane across three states.
Government officials say they are aware of and are addressing the educational fallout of this distress migration. “Half the children, or about 70,000 have been kept back in village hostels that we begun this year, and have not migrated with their parents,” said Narendra Kawde, director of the Centre’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), or education-for-all programme. “All the others are being covered by sakharshalas run by the sugar factories.”
The state’s education department puts the burden of educating migrant children on the mills, providing them with annual grants for establishment and teacher costs.
According to statistics provided by the SSA directorate, 643 schools—more than four in every sugar factory—are assuring migrating children quality school education. The reality is very different.
On the ground, many factories have no schools. In others, like Munde’s Vaijnath factory, the schools exist but are not functional.
How does the education department ensure that sugar factories follow the rules? Simple; they don’t. “There has been no instance so far where a district education officer has had to pull up a school,” said Kawde.
Meanwhile, sugar mills from Surat in southern Gujarat, to western Maharashtra, to Belgaum in northern Karnataka are looking at a season that will stretch for an additional month, into May, this year.
That also means children, like the brothers Rathod, the first from their family to go to school, are unlikely to be back home in time for the annual exams. “We left the village and they came with us. The schools here are Gujarati. How can they go to them?” asked their mother Jijabai, illiterate, like most women cane cutters.
The Rathods are among over 100 families that headed out from Uppalkheda in November for the sugar-cane fields of Surat. “The classrooms are emptied of 60-70% of the students”, said K.S. Rathod, a teacher at the village school.
The reporter is National Foundation for India, Media Fellow 2006-07
This is the concluding Part 2 of the series on sugar-cane cutters of western India.