It appears that the above quote of Victor Hugo has made a strong impression on Sikkim. Besides government schools, almost all Gram Panchayat Units all over Sikkim now have at least one private school, if not more. And more schools come up every academic session. While the total number of private schools cannot be accessed at this point since a large number of these schools are probably not even registered with the Government, surviving because they are fulfilling the interests and aspirations of families from lower income groups who cannot afford the more reputed schools but are unwilling to trust their wards to government schools.
The mushrooming of these schools is boosted by their lower fee structures and flexible payment structures they afford parents. That said, these institutions are also cutting corners, and that remains a worry. Several schools pose potential threats to those who study and work in them. Some buildings of even the “recognized” schools will fail miserably if even the most basic fire-safety measures are enforced. Safe exit from some of these schools in case of an emergency are in God’s hand since no thought has been paid to ensure otherwise.
With safety measures overlooked, other facilities become even more challenged. Several schools lack even what should be basic needs like playgrounds, libraries and even proper sanitation. Of course, availability of permanent, trained and skilled teachers is not even included in the dictionary of functioning in many such schools. In their defense, this last condition is not for want of trying – school managements across the board will admit that trained teachers are in short supply, and because of the difficult economics of most, especially new schools, retaining them remains an attendant challenge as well.
Despite these limitations, efforts of school managements even in rural areas to try and improve infrastructure to serve the learning needs of children is palpable. But these efforts are hamstrung by a general lack of availability of adequate land and spaces free from traffic congestion. A visit to even the more established schools around Gangtok during school hours will reinforce how vehicularly congested areas around schools can become. The worst conditions are around schools located in and around the Gangtok Municipality, especially those situated along the national highway. Of course, more schools are also coming up in this area as demand grows here in step with the population and the growing desire for private school education.
For instance, the first day of the new academic session on 16 February brought down a severe traffic jam in Gangtok. Bottlenecks started from the Holy Cross School gate itself at 6th Mile on the national highway. The first jam for up traffic normally begins at Joredhara or Manipal Gate which is 5th Mile.
As one drives up, a jam grows more intense outside every school along the route – Mount Zion, then Tadong Senior Secondary School and onwards… The jam on the roads notwithstanding, the highway crossing for students remains a risk-filled undertaking.
Here come the challenges and responsibilities of everyone, from school managements to parents, to Government to the laymen.
From the school management’s side, they must develop at least the basic infrastructure and more urgently, also include some semblance of traffic management systems to keep students safe on the roads. Arrangement of a mini bus service for students by more schools will go a long way towards ensuring that children do not stay on the roads, and thus at risk from rash drivers, for more than required time. Parents should also make sure that schools have proper transport facilities with parking arrangements before enrolling their wards in the school. The option of school buses will save time for the parents as well and also guarantee safety of their children.
The concerned authorities in the Government must ensure availability of basic infrastructure before issuing authorization certificates to run schools, and also enforce strict minimum safety standards for schools seeking registration to operate in urban concrete jungles.
The Government should also sanction and approve at least one pedestrian flyover like the one at Fiveways in Deorali every financial year. The urgent need for such flyovers is obvious at Zero Point, Bansilal Petrol Pump, the Truck Stand at Deorali, Convoy Ground, Holy Cross School Gate and Ranipool Bazaar.
When I interviewed the then Urban Development & Housing Department Minister, DB Thapa, in the year 2011 when the Deorali flyover was under construction, he had announced: “Two more flyovers, one each at the Tashi Namgyal Academy gate and Tadong Senior Secondary School, will be initiated within this financial year itself.” He had further stated, “Most probably, the construction work of these two flyovers will be completed within 2012.”
It is almost four years since… no such project is underway at any of these points.