Home / Opinion / Columns /  The plea to reopen schools from within a wilderness of paradoxes

All my weight was on my right ankle, as I fell, slipping on the freshly washed single step. Lying there, sizing up the pain in my ankle, estimating the weeks before I could run again, if it was broken, I remembered that the last I had a broken bone was also in the same town. Forty years ago, playing basketball in the wide corridor of a school, I had smashed my hand against a concrete pillar in the momentum of throwing the ball. The school is still there. Smaller than in my memory, but looking better. I had run past it in the morning, as also past other buildings still standing not only in my memory. The small town peeps out from the city it has become, if you knew it.

Back on my feet, the ankle was sore, but not broken. We drove out of the city on one of the many highways which by force of use have become navigable only by dumper trucks. Cars are tossed around from one crater to the next, the only escape from which is to find a string of winding narrow rural roads, too small for dumpers, even if it doubles the drive to your destination. Which we did. In a mere 5km, the dust clouds, grey wraith-like trees and tall chimneys were a distant dystopia. Instead, we were in the intimately familiar jungle of my memory. Alive, silent, unerased by developments over these past 40 years.

The driver lost control on a sharp but not blind bend, and the car skidded in to a 6-foot deep ditch. It didn’t overturn, all of us had seatbelts, and no one was hurt. That was third time lucky in three hours: averting a dumper that seemed intent on crushing me while running in the morning, an ankle unbroken after my slip and fall, and now escaping unhurt with the car in a trench in a jungle. Despite the loose mud, we got out without much difficulty, though with the drivers’ brashness chastened; a good outcome of the three days spent in this wilderness of paradoxes. In ten minutes, the dystopia that we had left behind was upon us. We were forced for a few kilometres on another dumper-ridden highway lining the side of a gigantic hole mined for coal.

Back in the deep quiet, at our destination, we sat in a glade. Outside the government school shut by the pandemic, like all others in the country. A bunch of people from the village and some of us from outside. They could not figure out how the pandemic found its way to them, 80km inside the jungle. Over 100 had tested positive through the year, but with no fatalities, fortunately. Fear was still around. But their chronic troubles were because of the whiplash effect of the country-wide lockdown. While the crops this season have been good, the debts incurred from April to July, including for survival and sowing the kharif crop, weigh them down. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has played saviour, but it is not enough. In mid-February, when we sat in that glade, they had no idea what to do next. Only on schools were they clear: “It makes no sense to keep them shut, when the kids play together all the time; look there."

We drove 10km to another school, built within a thick treeline beside an incongruously large playground, overlooking a hill with similar thick foliage. The children had all gathered under the trees and the teachers were teaching. This school was shut. But the teachers had decided in June that it was illogical to believe that classes would increase the risk of infection within their community. So, without opening the school, they had restarted classes in the open. Monsoon and winter had disrupted their efforts for weeks, so they dreaded the onset of the searing heat come March, and were desperate for schools to reopen.

That evening, back in the city, our hotel’s glitzy lobby was teeming. People waited for elevators to go up to the ballroom to celebrate a child’s birthday. There were no masks visible. We fled to the open-air restaurant for dinner.

Next morning, I again ran 12km. Later, in the shower, the soot inside my throat and nose streamed out. The soot-laden air had choked my breath, but the quantity that had got into me was still surprising. It stained a white towel even after the shower.

We went to another mohalla class, and another, and then another. Each echoed the same cry: “Please open the schools." That afternoon, we sat down with three people who work in villages in that pristine jungle. “Forty-five 12-14-year-old girls have been trafficked from those 15 villages in the past two years," and they narrated the details. The lucky ones are bonded labour in Delhi homes, they said, and the unlucky ones are in Mumbai brothels. They were not abducted but lured. The seduction of lipstick and dresses that they had seen on TV. Parents paid bribes of a few hundred rupees and had their conscience settled by promises of good work in the city. Only ten girls have been rescued and retrieved in these couple of years. “What do we do when a father on his way to bring back his daughter can be stopped with a bottle of whisky?"

The soot seems deep. Even in that pristine jungle. Even when you don’t see it. Even when you can’t feel its choke-hold. That is perhaps the price for the small-town transforming into a city. A bargain worse than Faustian—trading not your own, but the souls of the most vulnerable. Who am I (or you) to judge? Who else will? Because the father is unable to, and the daughter cannot.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation

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