In Jharkhand’s Naxal Hotbed, a School of Hope and Worries

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West Singhbhum, Jharkhand:  A once-prestigious government boarding school in Saranda – Asia’s largest forest on the tri-junction of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and a Naxal liberated zone between 2000 and 2012 – is now being revived with the help of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the remote Thalkobad village.

A CRPF camp in this Jharkhand village, established over the last three years, has made teachers like Vijay Kumar Raut, who joined the new school that has come up some distance from the earlier one, feel safe.

“Initially, for a few months, we propped up this school and my boys even taught here when teachers refused to come,” said Nadeem Ahmed Samdani, Commandant of 197 battalion of CRPF.

But worries remain about the state of education in the area. 26-year-old Gumidha Hanaga, a resident of Thalkobad, attended the now-defunct boarding school for six years – between 1995-2000 – till the sixth grade. In 2005, he was picked up and put in jail by cops for allegedly helping Maoists; his education was abruptly cut short. But Gumidha is optimistic and says, “If the children get educated here, they will have a future.”

Another contentious issue is the ambitious Saranda Action Plan – put into action in 2011 – that sets aside over Rs. 200 crore for development in the area including the construction of at least 10 residential schools. “The truth is that, till this date, even land surveys have not been conducted for the schools,” said politician and human rights activist Sushil Barla.

“We are trying to improve existing infrastructure first, including the existing 70-odd schools in the area,” said Devendra Kumar, Manoharpur Block Development Officer, incharge of Saranda.

The biggest area of concern, according to activists, is security forces occupying school buildings or setting up camps right next to them in conflict areas, thus putting children’s education at risk. A CRPF camp in Jharkhand’s Chota Nagra, for instance, is situated right next to a school. Locals allege that the camp occupies the school grounds, a claim the CRPF denies. “In my opinion, our presence means that the children feel safer and not the other way around,” said Mr Samdani.

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