Every day student Rosma Rai (13) of Chunabhatti village walks 13 km, climbing the hilly road meandering through the forest, to reach Mine Junior High School (MJHS) in Chuikhim village. Similarly, Prerna Khawas (10) of Frangtar village and Smita Bhujel (12) of Ratey village, wake up very early in the morning to reach the school 14 km away from their home.
“The summers and winters are manageable,” said Bhujel who completed her primary education at the primary school in her village and is presently in class VI. “It’s during the rains that we reach the school with our clothes and satchels wet despite the umbrella and often taking shelter under the trees.”
Though there are 12 primary schools spread across hamlets such as Yalbong, Novgoan, Longrep, Ratey and Kambal among others, it is Chuikhim which has a secondary school. The local residents built the secondary school, which students like Rai, Khawas, Bhujel and scores of other kids walk long distances to attend.
Sans secondary education
Rolling hills, terraced fields and a valley are set in the backdrop of mountains bathed in mist and cloud. The mountain gradually slopes down to Lees River snaking placidly. That’s what one observes on reaching the picturesque village of Chuikhim, located in the southern part of the Kalimpong hills in West Bengal.
Travelling on a jeep from New Jalpaiguri railway station or Bagdogra airport, tourists drive 13 km uphill from Bagrakote through the deep forests and winding roads to reach Chuikhim. They do not pay much attention to the stone-built classrooms of MJHS or the students within, for there is much else to see and do.
Chuikhim got its primary school in 1980, which was established by the West Bengal Board of Primary Education. It serves the 260 household-strong village, catering to students from classes I to IV. However, the authorities failed to establish a secondary school to complement it.
In the absence of one, those who completed their primary education discontinued their studies. After a few years, the youth migrated to cities like Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai in search of livelihood, working in roadside eateries and hotels, driving vehicles or serving as security guards in housing societies.
In 2008, Chuikhim Welfare Society began classes for the secondary standards in a rented room, 1.5 km from the primary school. A new building was constructed two years later. “As we were getting more students the ad hoc situation had become untenable,” said Sapan Gurung (30), a Chuikhim resident who teaches mathematics at the secondary school.
“The villagers decided to build their own secondary school and volunteered to raise funds among themselves and we collected Rs 1,10,000,” Sapan Gurung, who is also the first resident of Chuikhim to become a graduate, told VillageSquare.in.
Dambar Singh Gurung, a local resident, gifted a parcel of land in mid-2010, and every adult member of the village worked on raising six classrooms. They completed the construction in a few months. Named Mine Junior High School, it stands alongside the primary school. Some of the funds received for road laying work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) could also be used.
For the last 11 years, a dedicated group of six youths have been running the unaided Mine Junior High School – which has a student strength of 123 with classes from V to X. The youth work without receiving any remuneration.
But for Sapan Gurung whose family runs a homestay facility in Chuikhim, the other teachers are from the neighboring villages and have shifted to Chuikhim due to the school. “It was difficult to travel from my village to the school and I was wasting four hours daily so I decided to rent a room here,” said Aparna Kharka (28), a post-graduate who teaches English.
Lack of recognition
As the school in Chuikhim awaits recognition, class X students appear for Madhyamik exams in a Bagrakote-based school. The state’s education department has yet to regularize the school or provide funds despite several representations.
Last September teachers of MJHS met Tshering Dahal, chairperson of District School Board with a plea to recognize and regularize the Mine Junior High School. The teachers were instead told that there had been a backlog of filling up vacancies in primary schools, numbering 882, the last recruitment having been in 2002.
“We are pressing for filling up these vacant posts through an open interview so that all deserving candidates get an opportunity for a job,” she told the teachers. One of the major reasons for the backlog on appointment of voluntary teachers is that the School Service Commission (SSC) set up for the hills, was discontinued in 2002 following opposition from the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
Farm and tourism-based livelihoods
Kalimpomg district is home to tribes such as Raj Bangshi, Mech, Raba, Toto, Limboo, Lepcha, besides Nepalis and Bengalis. Inhabitants of Chuikhim and other villages earn their livelihood through agriculture, growing crops like ginger, tapioca, large cardamom beside several kinds of vegetables.
They grow the crops on their terraced fields which range from a quarter of an acre to an acre. “The traders arrive from Siliguri to buy ginger and cardamom,” Gurung told VillageSquare.in. “We collect the vegetables grown here twice a week and sell it in Siliguri town.”
From September, when there is a comparative chill in the air, people from the plains, mainly Kolkata, visit Chuikhim, renting the handful of affordable homestays. Every November the village hosts the Indradhanush Chuikhim Earth Festival, attracting a large number of tourists.
It is the tourists who run the economy of Chuikhim and often donate to the perennially fund-starved school. Like Pradip Kumar Roy, a banker and agronomist who visited the village last November along with friends.
“Having learnt about a dedicated band of youths running the school during our stay, we raised Rs 5,000,” Roy told VillageSquare.in. “We were told the amount would be shared among the teachers as remuneration and that a part of it would be spent on stationery.”
However, it’s during the bird watching season between March and April that the village bustles with activity, with birders armed with long-lensed cameras and binoculars thronging the village. Birds such as Sultan tit, striated bulbul, black-throated parrot bill, green cochoa, white-browed piculet, long-tailed broadbill, the popular great hornbill and several others are a common sight.
Not only bird lovers from India but abroad too flock the village. A group of teachers from Singapore Management University, who have been visiting Chuikhim since long, have donated generously to the school’s activities.
In December the teachers made a representation to the District Inspector of School, Secondary Education, Kalimpong, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and soon plan to approach Member of Parliament Saugata Roy with a plea for government recognition and funds.
The teachers continue their work, despite the difficulties. “Many teachers have left. But we continue hoping that one day the school would be recognized and we would be retained,” Anam Darji (28) an arts graduate who teaches at MJHS, told VillageSquare.in.
Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer. Views are personal. Email : firstname.lastname@example.org