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School comes in a little box in cyclone-hit Sunderbans

By Soudhriti Bhabani, IANS,

Kultali (West Bengal) : Radharani Sardar, a Class 4 student, can never forget that May evening when she saw cyclone Aila batter her home here in the Sunderban islands that contain the world’s largest mangrove forests.

“My house was completely destroyed. Everything, including our clothes and utensils, was washed away during the storm,” Radharani, who lives in Kultali village in South 24 Parganas district, told this IANS correspondent. “I lost my books and school uniforms as well,” she said.

There are millions of schoolchildren in the Sunderbans who are still trying to cope. Aila, which struck May 25, has left a deep scar. But now Unicef is trying to bring back a semblance of normalcy in their lives – with a little kit called the School-in-a-Box.

Unicef began distributing these kits this week, with one being given to each school. They have already given out 200 such boxes and will give away over 500 more next month.

With normal life gradually gaining momentum in the region, many schoolchildren have now started attending classes. But most of them have no textbooks and other study material.

“It’s true that many of our children do no not have any study material. We’ve got a fresh lot of new government books but that is not adequate to meet the total requirement in my school alone,” said Mrinal Kanti Mondal, head teacher of Kultali Primary School.

“It’s great that Unicef has stepped forward to help our students with the kits,” he said.

According to Unicef, the concept of School-in-a-Box is to help re-establish learning as the first step towards the restoration of normal schooling following an emergency. Unicef hopes to benefit around 56,000 schoolchildren with these kits.

The kit, which is basically a metal box with a padlock, has basic school material like books, painting brushes, paints, measuring tapes, scissors, slates and pencils.

“The schooling of children is the first casualty in the affected areas, adding to their vulnerability. Education was disrupted beyond the normal scheduled day of opening after summer vacation,” Sara Poehlman, Unicef India head of education programmes, told IANS.

“Multi-sector assessment and education sector assessment reveal that the majority of schools in the Sunderbans have been largely damaged and the unaffected high schools were used as shelter camps for the displaced population during rehabilitation work.”

Children like Radharani saw everything destroyed in the cyclone and the heavy rainfall that followed. The roof of her house was blown away, the mud walls collapsed. She along with her parents, took shelter at her uncle’s place for one week – as the saline water took time to recede.

“Before leaving the house, I remember we ran here and there to take the valuables with us. But we could not manage to take everything. When we returned we saw there was nothing.”

Poehlman said the attendance of children was noticeably low and the onset of monsoon and weak embankments were adding to the calamity in schools as they were causing water-logging in many pockets.

“We need to build an environment so that students attend their classes and the authorities also resume the process of normal schooling in cyclone-hit areas. The School-in-a-Box will only help support the noble initiative to bring Aila-hit students back to school,” said Poehlman.

Unicef is also supplying 60 tents that can serve as makeshift schools in affected areas.

“The Sunderbans is extremely vulnerable in terms of natural calamities. So if we can build certain preparedness now, it’ll help the people of the island in the days to come,” she said.

“This apart, if we can encourage students and bring them back to school, it will help prevent social menaces like child labour and child trafficking issues.”

Thousands of people in the districts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas have lost their livelihoods due to Aila. The saline water that inundated most of the villages after the cyclone has destroyed agricultural land.

The maximum damage took place in islands like Gosaba, Basanti, Patharpratima, Hingalganj, Sagar and Sandeshkhali. Over 920,000 houses were damaged in the cyclone, the majority of them in the Sunderbans.

(Soudhriti Bhabani can be contacted at [email protected])