The last and least in Rautahat

TOO POOR TO MATTER: The bamboo shed that serves half the 124 students enrolled at Uma Primary School in Rautahat district. PHOTOS: Gargee Pradhan Shrestha

From afar, a little bamboo and mud hut looks like the many cowsheds that dot this district in central Tarai.

But it is actually a classroom for some of the 124 students enrolled in Uma Primary School and their two teachers. A nearby cement building that houses a single, tiny furniture-less classroom looks less than inspiring. On the best days, the hut struggles to hold all the children, but with monsoon rains in full swing, the children are always wet.

“Where do I even begin with the list of problems our school faces,” says Principal Munni Kumari Pandey, “a proper school building with desks and chairs, classrooms in which students actually fit, a compound wall so children are safe from the road, and we want more teachers.”

Read also: After quantity, Nepal’s education needs quality, Prakriti Kandel

Uma Primary School is a fitting snapshot of the state of education in Rautahat, which ranks as the worst district in Nepal for school performance. Scoring low in other Human Development Indicators like health, life expectancy, and gender equity, Rautahat trails even remote mountain districts like Humla, Bajhang and Bajura. Its literary rate (42%) is lowest in the country, only half of the men and a third of the women in Rautahat are literate.

“The largest section of our budget is devoted to building roads and canals, and to help flood victims. We support schools through salaries, but upgrading their buildings is beyond our budget, and so we have to ask the central government,” explains Arun Kumar Saha, mayor of Durga Bhagawati rural municipality where the school is located.

But Gokarna Dhwaj Karki, DEO of Rautahat, passes the buck right back: “Since the country went federal, the central level does not do local budgeting. The District Education Office only has enough budget to operate its own office. Municipalities have to make their own budgets, and our task is only to oversee and approve it.”

Read also: Lowest Common Denominator, Editorial

Indeed, two years after local governments were elected in Nepal’s new federal structure, there has been no palpable improvement in schools here. A report by Rudra Pangeni for the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) indicates that this is not an exception but the rule across the Tarai, as local budgets ignore the social sector and focus on infrastructure. In Rautahat and Sarlahi, several municipalities allocate half their budget to construction, and less than a fifth to education and health combined.

As the country is still figuring out a new working mechanism, it is still not clear what rights and responsibilities each level has, and so real local priorities continue to get overshadowed by more showy instant development work, like roads.

Officials are happy to blame Rautahat’s grinding poverty for its low school performance. Indeed, Uma Primary School serves children from the Chamar community, the lowest of the Dalits according to the traditional social hierarchy, and Muslims. Children from Dalit families often drop out of school to help out at home, and Rautahat’s Muslims who make up 20% of the population mostly send children to madrasahs.

As elsewhere in Nepal, families that can afford it, send their children to private schools. But government schools have reported increased enrolment and improved attendance when the children are provided school bags, scholarships, and lunches. But these programs are sporadic and occur only if NGOs step in.

Read also: Class Struggle, Prakriti Kandel