Quake or No

By: Ratna Bharali Talukdar
On September 18, 2011, Bimola Rai’s world was reduced to rubble. A student of Class III in Bop village in Chungthang block of North District in Sikkim, a Himalayan border state, she was left traumatised when a devastating earthquake of 6.9 magnitude on the Richter scale, flattened her home and school building, located at an altitude of 5,500 feet.
Disaster Events

Today, Bimola joins 26 other children of her village to walk a four kilometre stretch, filled with quake debris, to reach the Tasa Tengay Government Secondary School. The trek has become a daily feature in her life, ever since her earlier Bop Primary School made alternative arrangements for her schooling. This brave band of youngsters set out from their village early in the morning, to make sure that they reach school by 7.30 am. Though the trek to school is difficult, Bimola and the other tiny tots are quite happy to attend classes at the new site. She displays her books with such enthusiasm that her face lights up, “Our homes got damaged but, my books and uniform were fine,” she exclaims. Bop, about 100 km from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, is an ancient village. It lies in one of India’s protected areas and visitors need to acquire a special permit from the district administration.

The school register at Tasa Tengay Government Secondary School had marked the presence of 18 new students from November 8, 2011 onwards – of them 13 were girls. Says Sita Ram Singh, the head master, “This arrangement ensured the prompt restoration of schooling after tremors – it is very positive. Our secondary school is now running two shifts to accommodate new students.” The district administration’s list of school buildings that had been damaged during the earthquake has the following remark about the Bop Primary School: “Classes are attached with Chungthang till a new site is found”. This indicates that Bimola’s old school will have to be built again on a new site and if the authorities had not acted so promptly she would not have had access to schooling for a very long time. What helped the re-establishment of schooling in these parts is the mid-day meal programme. The lunch provided every day, even under the tough post-quake circumstances, has given these young students a much needed nutritional supplement – that Bimola looks forward to after her gruelling march to school.

In fact, school authorities in the district moved quickly on two fronts after the quake: They set up temporary sheds for schools that were partially damaged, in addition to making alternative arrangements for those whose schools were destroyed. These temporary sheds were expected to last for at least two to three years. Also a detailed assessment of the damage to school buildings was made by the authorities and was submitted to higher authorities – 75 school buildings in this district are undergoing major repairs while six are engaged in minor work.

Given the message sent out by the government that schools should carry on despite all odds, even private educational institutions made alternative arrangements for affected students. For instance the Moonlight High School, a private educational institution in Chungthang, now runs its classes in the camp of Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), on a specially demarcated site. “Before the quake we had 150 students. The number has now come down to 85,” says Gurung, a teacher here. He attributes this decline to the fact that the children of the employees of a major hydro-electric project in the area, who had constituted a significant section of the student community, left the area with their parents.

In Chungthang, every house, even if it is still standing, has developed some cracks, according to Lendup Lepcha, president of the Chungthang Gram Panchayat. But Lepcha is grateful that the local people joined hands to ensure the education of their children carried on without disruption. There were many acts of spontaneous generosity. For instance, the proprietor of Mount Everest Academy, another school in the area, offered his own home after the quake severely damaged the school building. Authorities of religious institutions, including local Buddhist monasteries, also got busy. Today, around 42 monks – who lived in the majestic Rumgom Monastery, established in 1852 at Mangan, the district headquarters of North District, and travelled a 58 kilometre stretch from Lachen to take religious teaching in Tibetan Buddhism, are now studying in temporary sheds provided by the district administration. The education department has introduced formal education with religious teaching in all these monasteries, having appointed two teachers under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) mission for this purpose. If these alternative arrangements still prove insufficient and some find themselves out of the schooling system because of the quake, a special provision has been made for direct enrolment at the ‘Special Residential Training Centre’, established this year at the Hee-Gyathang Senior Secondary School of the district under the SSA.

After the earthquake struck, priority was accorded to the resumption of education, so that the growth in the education sector is sustained. And, Sikkim has made substantial progress. For instance, the literacy rate as per the Census, in North District increased to 77.39 per cent in 2011 from 67.21 per cent in 2001. However, many challenges remain. Says gram panchayat president Lepcha, “One can easily notice signs of trauma and anxiety among these children, as their parents have had to face so many problems, including rebuilding their damaged houses.” Recovery will be a long, arduous process given the scattered population, tough geographical terrain and the general devastation.

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