Since my last report in March the world has changed dramatically. India’s Prime Minister Mr Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on 25 March, announced with little warning, leaving millions stranded and without food. People were only given 4 hours notice and had no time to get back to their villages before transport and work shut down. A Kolkata based NGO Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, which works with migrant labourers said it had received tens of thousands of calls for help since the lockdown and had identified at least 30,000 workers across the country who were stranded and facing imminent starvation.
I would be seriously concerned if the New Life Centre school was in Kolkata, but thankfully it is situated in a remote rural area of West Bengal. Whilst this has proved to be difficult for the school financially, as it is the cities that benefit from Government Aid, at these times it is definitely a blessing. So far no Covid-19 cases have been detected in the Sarberia area. The area is known as a green zone which means that it is virus free.
The Indian government put in place an online teaching programme at the beginning of April for 13 – 16 year olds. This is implemented through a Group WhatsApp system by subject and class. When I asked Alindra Naskar how this could work in this poor remote area with limited electricity, he replied, ‘Government education department will telecast through the TV subject wise as per Board syllabus. Our teachers will monitor the programmes and follow up through phone calls with the students, checking on their progress. This is due to start on 10th April.'
It is unexpectedly going quite well with some children, but there are a good number of children in the school who are unable to participate due to not having easy access to an Android / Smartphone and therefore relying on neighbours or friends!
When asked how the staff were managing financially, Alindra writes, ‘The staff of the school is managing with their own resources but we are paying some salary to those who are teaching through online system, despite not receiving school fees for the last 3 months.’ The only source of income now is through donations.
A further disaster struck on May 20th when Cyclone Amphan, the first super cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, hit West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Three districts in India's West Bengal where the New Life Centre school is situated were very badly hit.
Thankfully there are no fatalities amongst the New Life Centre school community and the school only sustained minor damage to the windows, but there was devastation around the area. The majority of the staff and families in the school live in mud huts, and these had been destroyed. Electricity cables were down so it was difficult to communicate with the staff and parents, but Alindra would not rest until he had checked on their safety.
As I write, the school will be closed until the end of July although it is uncertain when it will reopen as the numbers of Covid 19 cases are on the rise in India. In the meantime Alindra Naskar and the staff work as well as the limited resources in the area allow, never losing sight of the fact that children are at the heart of all that they do.
Wouldn’t you like to show solidarity for this community at this time of extreme hardship?