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Sugar schools

Dec 12, 2008

A special effort is being made in western India to ensure that children of migrant sugarcane workers don’t miss out on basic education. Makeshift schools have been set up to provide child-centric teaching and learning.

Pune, Maharashtra: In the vicinity of a sugarcane factory located on the outskirts of Pune in western Maharashtra is a hastily put up camp that clearly indicates the presence of migrating workers. Even at an early hour of the morning, what makes the camp conspicuous is the presence of many children but hardly any adults.

“My parents have gone to work in the factory. They will return only in the evening,” says eleven-year-old Malati Shendge. And so does this mean that there is nothing to do but play throughout the day?

Malati shakes her head. “No, the teacher will come now and we will attend school,” she says. Malati and many others in the age group of 6 to 15 have their day’s academic task cut out for them thanks to sakhar shalas or sugar schools which provide basic education to the children of migrant sugarcane workers.

These schools are second-semester schools which operate during the six-month cane crushing cycle — beginning in November each year — in the vicinity of most sugar co-operatives across Maharashtra. The migration period is around six months i.e. November to April/May.

This coincides with the second semester of the school in the state with the first semester having ended with the Diwali vacation. Children of migrant workers therefore discontinue studies to be with their parents. In some cases, elder children who are studying and can look after themselves are left in the native villages.

Migration affects education

Younger children, however, suffer because due to long absences from school they fail to cope with their studies. When they are back in their villages by the end of the sugar-harvesting season, either they appear for the final examinations and fail or do not appear and are therefore not promoted.

Gradually they get dissociated from the education process and end up working as child labourers alongside their parents.

A study conducted by the NGO Janarth reveals that 79% of adult sugarcane cutters are illiterate (males: 62%, females: 90%). These figures are way above the national average and suggest that the younger generation would have a better level of educational performance, only if arrangements could be made to ensure the continuation of their academic pursuit.

Maharashtra’s sugar industry, which contributes one-third of India’s sugar production, is heavily dependent on migrant workers for the immensely labour-intensive task of cane cutting.

“A total of 12.05 lakh hectares was under sugarcane cultivation in the state during the 2007-08 crushing season,” says Rajgopal Devara, Maharashtra’s Commissioner of Sugar.

Annually, almost five lakh people from the socio-economically backward and resource-poor areas across the state move to sugar factories in western Maharashtra. Among these seasonal migrants, there are two lakh children in the age group of 6 to 14, who move with their parents and are deprived of primary education as there is no provision to educate these kids at the destinations they go to.

Children either accompany their parents to the cane fields or simply wait at the temporary settlements near factory sites. In the last few years, however, sustained efforts by organisations like Jnana Prabodhini, Pune, and the Aurangabad-based rural development NGO Janarth, as well as the sugar cooperatives, has helped arrest this pattern and ensure continuity of education for the children of migrant cane labourers.

One such example can be found near the Sant Tukaram Sugar Cooperative at Kasarsai-Darumre in Mulshi, about 35 kms west of Pune. The school is in its fifth year (2008-09) and has about 60 students this year.

Good retention rate

According to N P Durve, Managing Director, Sant Tukaram Sugar Cooperative, “We have over 300 families of cane-cutters who migrated here this year, mostly from the Marathwada region and Ahmednagar. They have settled in makeshift camps at locations across the factory’s cane reservoir area of Mulshi, Maval, Khed and Haveli talukas. The biggest settlement has come up in front of the factory and kids from this camp go to the seasonal sakhar shala.”

The school itself is a simple two-room structure made of cement-plastered walls and an asbestos sheet for the roof. Three teachers, trained by the NGO Jnana Prabodhini, conduct the classes in separate groups. “There is no fixed timetable here. We teach between 10.30 am and 5 pm,” teacher Bharati Bodke informs.

The sakhar shalas primarily provide competency-based teaching to enhance the capacities and potential of the young children to better control their lives. “The competencies refer to language, mathematics, science and basic skills (reading, writing and the numeric system). We also focus on child-centric teaching and learning, developing observation and thinking through experiments, developing character and physical fitness,” says Pravin Mahajan, Founder and Head of Janarth.

Post-exams, the students return to schools at their native places for the first semester of the following academic year.

Janarth alone operates 126 sakhar shalas, covering 15,000 children and 39 sugar factory sites. “The schools have attained a retention rate in the range of 75 to 77 per cent, which is credible given the socio-economic background of the migrant children,” Mahajan points out.

The retention rate refers to the number of children who appear for the exam and those returning to the sakhar shalas in the second semester of the ensuing year.

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