Drought in Rajasthan: From unemployment to school dropouts, Barmer sees exodus for works as crops fail

Sandeep Kumar Meel | Mar 24, 2019 | 6 min read


In Rajasthan, drought threatening children’s education, forcing them into child labour

Sandeep Meel

Siwana, Barmer (Rajasthan): Five-year-old Neetu Kumari (name changed) can recite the multiplication table of 1 and 2 with ease, she knows the English alphabet as well, but fumbles as she nears the end. “L, N, M..no…L, M, N, Q…I’m not sure what comes next,” she says. 

By the time the English teacher at the government primary school in Siwana block of Barmer district in Rajasthan where Neetu was enrolled had completed the first few classes, Neetu had dropped out to earn a few extra bucks and was miles away plucking cotton along with the rest of her family in a field in Gujarat. 

Apart from its obvious effects on farming, drought in western Rajasthan has also had another unexpected fallout - forcing thousands of children to give up on their dreams of an education and do odd jobs to support their families. 

Barmer is among the nine districts that were declared drought-affected by the Rajasthan government in February this year.

Many of Neetu’s classmates met a similar fate as her. According to estimates, 50% of children enrolled in government schools in Siwana in July 2018 had dropped out by the end of the year.

Most students enrolled in schools in Siwana and other drought-hit areas come from families that depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Scanty rainfall last monsoon destroyed the Kharif crop, forcing several families to migrate in search of employment opportunities. These mostly included the nomadic and tribal communities of Bhil, Garasia, Jogi, Swami, Kalbelia, Gadiya, Lohar, Mirasim, Nat and Bawariya.

Droughts and dropouts

Block Education Officer, Siwana, Hanumana Ram admits that a spike in number of dropouts is usually seen in years that a natural calamity hits the district. In 2018, however, half of the students who had enrolled at the beginning of the academic session had dropped out by the end of the year.

Explaining the situation, Hanumana says, “The drought not only creates scarcity of food and fodder but also causes a rise in unemployment. In many cases, students have to leave their studies and do odd jobs to support their families. Some families also move to other states to earn a living.”

Many students who quit studies to support families end up as workers in factories, construction sites or cotton fields.

According to Hanumana, enrollments for this year have also suffered because many families which left last year in the wake of the drought never came back. “Generally, the enrollment of students rises each year. This year, only a marginal rise was seen in the number of new students.”

Hanumana’s claims of several families not returning to their native land is corroborated by data from village panchayats. Panchayats in villages of Meli, Dewandi, Ramneeya, Motisara in Siwana block have recorded a drastic dip in members.

Parched throats

Barmer is reeling under what is claimed to be the severest drought of the decade as rains have evaded the district for the fifth consecutive year. Apart from Barmer, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jallore, Jodhpur, Hanumangarh, Pali, Churu and Nagaur have also been declared drought-hit. The districts had recorded 25 per cent less than normal rainfall from June to September.

Nearly 30% of Rajasthan’s total population that lives in these nine districts now has to contend with shortage of water and fodder for cattle. Lakhs of farmers are reported to have lost half of their crop. 

The government has announced that fodder depots would be opened and asked state officials to submit proposals for relief activities. For residents faced with parched throats and dry lands, relief is slow in coming. 

As a Kharif farmer in Siwana puts it, “We are yet to get compensation. Farming is hardly feasible here as rains have continued to disappoint us year after year. Many people have left to find jobs in other areas. With so many mouths to feed, all family members are expected to earn. It’s all about survival right now.”

In such a scenario, education for their children is a luxury many families can ill-afford.

Numbers tell the tale

As rains play hide and seek, students have continued to drop out of schools in the drought-prone Barmer district. In academic year 2014-2015, enrollment in primary schools in the district had declined by 33,904 students compared to 2013-2014. In 2016-17, 13,906 less students enrolled in primary schools than in 2015-2016.

In the adjoining Jallore district as well, 34,941 more students had enrolled in primary schools in 2013-2014 than in 2014-15. In 2015-16, 8,572 more students had enrolled in schools than in 2016-17. 

The path to education: Long and broken

It is not just natural calamities that are to be blamed for children shying away from education, lack of infrastructure in the region has also dealt a blow. Local residents say that most villages do have primary schools but for higher secondary, a single school caters to a cluster of villages, forcing students to trek several kilometres, sometimes on kuccha roads. Girls end up bearing the brunt of this as parents are reluctant to let them travel long distances. This means that for several girl students primary education is the end of the road. 

To boost girl education, the state government has opened a few residential schools for girls, but lack of awareness among residents has hampered the success of the initiative. Residents say that the problem can be solved only when residential schools are opened at the panchayat level. At present, residential schools are available only at the block level.

Some parents have displayed more determination to ensure education for their children despite repeated failures. For past few years, Roopnath from Rakhi village in Siwana has been enrolling his two children in school at the beginning of the academic session. But by November, both of his kids quit, as yet another dry spell leaves their crop destroyed and Roopnath penniless. 

Mukesh Sharma, a teacher at a government school in Siwana, says, “Sometimes children take up work but don’t drop out of school. They simply stop coming to class. If they do take exams, they fail, which further demotivates them, causing them to stop pursuing studies altogether.”

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