Lakhi Boniya has been coming to this relief camp every year around this time for the past nine years. This year she has already moved in with her family twice here. She knows that this is not going to be the last time this year.
Every year, around September, another round of flood comes. She has moved in with her mother and three siblings. She is 14 years old and the eldest. Youngest sibling is three years old. Her father stayed back on the outskirts of her village to take care of the two cows and one pig that they own.
She spends time playing with other children (around 200 of them) who have accompanied their parents into this relief camp. Being the eldest sibling, she also has her baby brother and younger sister to take care of, as her mother goes back to help her father recover whatever is left back at home. Her grandfather had migrated several decades ago to this remote corner of Assam from the Chota Nagpur region.
There are about 2400 names on the beneficiary list of the camp. Approximately 1200 people stay in the relief camp; the rest stay in the higher grounds near the village where livestock are kept. Every alternate day, a government agency comes and distributes relief materials here. It comprises of rice, dal, salt and oil.
A temporary toilet has been made apart from the existing toilet. Clearly, these toilets are not enough for 1000 people. Most of the people, especially women and children, defecate just outside the relief camp. Electricity is always cut off long before the floods arrive. Strangely, the electricity department is the only government department that has access to precise weather predictions.
While staying here, Lakhi contracted a skin disease. She is one of many who have this severe skin disease here in the camp. There are one auxiliary nurse and a caretaker at the relief camp. Skin, eye and stomach ailments are the most common here. As per the nurse, almost 90% of the inhabitants are suffering from skin rashes. Clean drinking water and bathing water are not available. The entire camp is running on a rickety pair of hand pumps.
As for Lakhi, this place and the situation are no strangers to her. It is not only during the floods that she visits this camp. She comes here daily. It is her school. Dhansiri Mukh Janajati middle school is located on the outskirts of Kaziranga National Park, and sits very close to the point where the river Dhansiri, flowing down from Nagaland, meets the mighty Brahmaputra. This school, for the past ten years, has regularly been converted to a relief camp during floods. She has been studying here for the past eight years. After class 8, she may not continue her studies. Most of the girls her age do not reach high school. Accessibility of schools is not just an infrastructural issue.
But that is not the issue that bothers her. Not even the poor condition of the relief camp, nor the floods. What bothers her is that once the flood recedes and people go back to their homes, the school will be left behind as a huge garbage dump. It will be anything but a joyful learning camp. The foul smell, the dirty walls and courtyard, broken blackboards, overused toilets and burnt out hand pumps make the school look very disturbing. It is not just humans occupying the buildings, many livestock are also brought inside the school campus. The entire campus becomes a breeding ground for various kinds of diseases.
The head master, Sandeep Chakraborty, puts all the school equipment – benches, papers and cupboards – inside a room and locks it. The rest of the building is allotted as the relief camp. Three new classroom buildings had been constructed 7 years ago. Over the years, converting the school to a relief camp regularly has ensured that the buildings look old way beyond their years. It is very unfortunate that the school is not compensated adequately for the damages done.
The school closes down for about 10-20 days every year during the floods. For it to come back to the normal, full-fledged school routine, it takes another 15-20 days. Therefore, the school academic season is shortened by at least 3 weeks every time the flood comes. How do we expect these students to compete with rest of country when they lose out 3 -6 weeks from the academic season every year? In the media conversations about damages the flood causes to human and animal life, natural resources are often discussed. News about broken bridges and roads makes it to the headlines. But the damage it causes to school is rarely discussed. Rehabilitation of humans and animals is given priority. Even roads and bridges are repaired, but schools remain in oblivion. Rehabilitation of the schools should also become a priority. Reopening the schools is not enough. They should be ready to welcome students and create a joyful surrounding for them to undergo the process of learning and discovery.