Young Kashmiris pursue their dreams in half-burnt school buildings

Hindustan Times, October 9, 2017

By Neelam Pandey A group of young girls laze on the grassy lawns of their school, discussing a class test the day after. The snow-capped Himalayan mountain peaks provide a majestic backdrop to the school building — a picture-postcard setting in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

The school is a half-burnt building, ash lies everywhere on the floor and damaged wooden furniture are strewn all around. The broken walls are blackened by soot, part of the roof gone.

Amid the scene of devastation, students take classes in other rooms of Kabamarg Government Higher Secondary School.

It was one of at least 37 schools set afire by unidentified people in October last year when the Valley was rocked by months-long street protests after security forces gunned down militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8. At least 100 people, most of them civilians, were killed during the protests. Many children were blinded, some in both eyes, by pellets fired by security forces.

The arson that accompanied the protests destroyed schools and other government buildings in Kashmir. Of the 10 districts of the Valley, Kulgam in South Kashmir was the worst affected with the most number of schools either completely burnt or partially damaged.

The government estimates the loss of education infrastructure to be Rs 10 crore. Apart from the physical losses, the educational institutions functioned only for 80 out of 197 working days.

Education minister Altaf Bukhari said students whose schools were damaged are being imparted classes from rented buildings.

“We have earmarked funds for reconstruction and work will start soon,” he told HT.

Official sources, however, said the government deliberately delayed the reconstruction efforts, as it would not have made the people feel the sting of the loss.

“This is an institution that doesn’t belong to any government or any particular person…Our future belongs to it. We have a political problem and we wanted them to realize the pinch…The school authorities and residents need to guarantee that they will safeguard it,” an official said.

As recently as August, the Jammu and Kashmir high court also directed the government to complete the process of providing funds for reconstruction and repairing of the damaged schools within four weeks.

But nearly a year after the arson, the buildings are yet to be repaired. The psychological wounds haven’t healed either.

“It is inhuman to have students study in the same building where they are constantly reminded of the fact that an attempt was made to burn it. The least the government can do is to repair it,” said a teacher of another government school in Batengoo, in Anantnag district.

“Imagine studying in the same premises where you can see blackened walls and broken roofs. What impact will it have on the young minds?” the teacher added, seeking anonymity.

The trauma apart, the sheer logistical nightmare of cramping hundreds of students into a few remaining rooms have become a nightmare for teachers and school administrations.

At the Batengoo school, eight of the 14 classrooms were completely gutted. With the government yet to provide aid, the school authorities used funds of the school and financial help of chief education officer to repair two rooms. Four bigger rooms were divided to create separate classrooms.

The situation is worse at the Kabamarg school.

At least 10 classrooms were gutted completely and 20 partially burnt when the arsonists stuck, school officials told HT. All equipment, including sports material, were gutted.

The school administration used around Rs 30,000 of its own funds to repair doors and windows of the partly damaged part so that classes could resume.

Though the 450-odd students have been asked not to venture out to the destroyed part of the building, it has not been barricaded and safety issue remain.

For the group of girls, the damaged building is now part of their lives.

“…If we pause and think about all this all the time, how will we study?” said a student not wishing to be named.

The school authorities have not cleared the damaged area or removed the broken windows and roofs, fearing that the government might seek proof for estimating compensation.

Rayees Ahmad, a junior assistant at the school in Batengoo said estimates have already been given and an application made to the government but so far reconstruction has not started.

“We hope the government will start the work soon. Measurement and other detailing have also been done but it’s been a month and nothing has been done so far,” he added.

For students, the problems are more than just having less space.

“We had more space in our classrooms earlier but after the incident my classroom was divided into two. It’s a little difficult to concentrate as I can hear the voice of another teacher who teaches in the other half of the classroom,” said Tanvir Hyderi, one of the students.

Last year, the students were forced to sit for their annual exams in November despite schools remaining closed for months and only 50% of their syllabus completed.

“This year, we will strictly ensure that 90 days’ attendance is mandatory of the days schools function. Extra classes will be held this year to ensure 100% syllabus is covered,” the education minister said.

Students and teachers are keeping their fingers crossed. Their parents more so.

“My mother is always concerned whenever I return late from school after the incident. Nothing is safe now. Schools were never targeted earlier but even that has started now,” said Umer, a class 8 student of the school at Kabamar.

“But we have to attend school, how else will we get educated?”