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A trip to Haroa: Field visit in COVID-19 times

Blog by Ranajit Bhattacharyya, a Pratham veteran

It is past 6 am in the morning. Manoj and I are on our way to Haroa block of North 24 Parganas, where we run the Hamara Gaon programme in a cluster of 25 villages with support of local volunteers. It was in this very district where Pratham started its first major programme in the state of West Bengal in 2007, when in partnership with the district administration Read India was launched in Sandeshkhali block. The programme was soon to spread across the district driven by the district administration. Quite a few of the current Pratham team members in West Bengal are from this district, having joined us back in 2007. 

We have started early because the volunteer-led community classes are likely to begin at 8 am in the morning and will typically last an hour. We want to witness as many classroom activities as possible within the hour. Classes are also held in the evening, but we cannot stay back to see them. The journey which is supposed to take 2 hours actually takes us just over an hour! We are in Haroa town after a 70-minute drive from our office in Salt Lake.

Pradeep Das, one of our local team members, joins us at the bus depot, our rendezvous. Like in most Pratham Hamara Gaon locations, the Haroa block team also comprises 6-members. They all live in the block office not far from the bus depot. All of them have returned to the block after a long break caused by Covid19. The field is gradually opening up. Physical visits to some villages are now possible.

Covid19 has also made us rethink our strategy. Schools have shut down from February last year, and only now slowly starting to reopen. Needless to mention primary education is probably one of the worst hit areas in our education system. When schools reopen, the children will perhaps be expected to follow grade level textbooks, unmindful of entire cohorts might have proceeded to Grade 2 and 3 without attending classes; the higher-grade children, like those in grades 4, 5 and 6 whose levels of foundational literacy anyway has been found wanting over the years, would also perhaps be taught from textbooks they are unable to comprehend. Under the circumstances even our strategy cannot be business as usual. We have tried various innovations to keep in touch with the children, parents, community members, teachers etc during the lockdown. We have employed a mixture of WhatsApp and SMS message-based activities and also our local village volunteers to maintain these contacts.

Since the beginning of August this year we have started 2 programmes, ‘Readiness’ directed at children in Grades 1 and 2 and ’Catch-up’ for Grade 3 and above. We are in Haroa to witness the effect of these. This trip also happens to be my first field visit to witness Pratham activities since February 2020! And also, my visit to this district after 14 long years!

The cluster of 25 villages where we work is dotted with many fish farms called ‘Bheri’ in colloquial Bangla. Massive expanses of water, with perhaps a little more than a knee-deep water, makes them more fearful than they perhaps actually are. Fishing, together with agriculture are the mainstay of the local economy.

We visit 3 villages with our local team members, Pradip Das, Mrinmay Mandal and Sridam Mandal. First to Makalgachi, followed by Dakshin Ranigachi and Uttar Ranigachi. In that hourlong window we get to see ‘Catch-up’ classroom activities supervised by volunteers, Kanchandeb Lohara, Mallika Lohara, Bandana Lohara, Dipti Roy and Minu Khatun.

Volunteer Kanchandeb Lohara’s class

Volunteer Mallika Lohara’s class

We meet Anima Lohara, an ICDS teacher in village Makalgachi, who helps us spread the ‘Readiness’ package amongst the mothers to conduct activities with their respective children in Grades 1 and 2.

We also attend a mother’s group meeting in village Uttar Ranigachi. Almost 30 mothers were present including Shampa Roy, an ICDS worker, and Rebeka Bibi, a ‘smart’ mother! A ‘smart’ mother coined by our team members is a mother with an android phone, who receives our ‘Readiness’ package. She then mobilises mothers with children in Grade 1 and 2 and distributes the package amongst them and holds weekly meetings with them to discuss the progress made by their children and any problems they might face to use the ‘Readiness’ package and suggest solutions.

Some common patterns are witnessed in these volunteer-led ‘Catch-up’ classes. They are being held in each ‘para’ or ‘mohalla’ with not more than 10 children in each. The children range from Grade 3 to 6. Social distancing norms were by and large followed in all classes.

But the most interesting part of our visit is, in every class we visit the children are so focussed on what is being taught that they choose to ignore our presence. An ideal situation really! But this is the first time I am witnessing anything like this. They acknowledge our presence only when the teacher directs her attention to us and promptly switches to her the moment she starts teaching again.

Volunteer Dipti Roy

Even the most restless child, who we later realise is extremely intelligent, is actually looking in the general direction of the teacher and continuously fidgeting! Both the teacher and we think he is not paying any attention, but he answers all questions asked of him and gives the most intelligent answers when we ask him questions, very animatedly.

Is it the pandemic which has made them so focussed or is it the proximity to Kolkata, perhaps they are more likely to meet people like us, I wonder? The volunteers clearly have a great rapport with the children, they know the names of each child in their respective classrooms.

The mother’s group we meet are equally enthusiastic about these classes. They clearly understand the value of these classes in these troubled times when the schools are shut. They are practically unanimous in their demand for more supplementary reading material for the children.

Bandana Lohara, is one of the ‘Readiness’ package contacts. Here she is seen displaying her various science models that she has created with the children. Bandana has been with us as a library group leader since 2016.

The dark clouds of a retreating monsoon and ominous rumbling sounds of an imminent storm hasten our departure from Haroa! But not before we encounter a party of frolicking villagers, on our way out. Yesterday was Vishwakarma Puja and the party continues!