The villages do not have enough children to enroll in schools
It was in 1991. The residents of Sangbay Ama and neighbouring villages ferried construction materials up steep hillsides and across the rivers. They voluntarily contributed labour to build the community primary school for their 120 children in the gewog.
The community’s hard work and the only school in the gewog of 300 households are today confronted with a threat of their own making or unmaking.
Penjore, 67, from Mochu village was one of the residents that contributed labour. He contributed labour in building Sangbaykha PS, and resources to build Mochu CPS, which remains buried in overgrowth today.
“I’m deeply worried that Sangbaykha school is not going to last long. It doesn’t bode well for us.”
In the past two years, two extended classrooms (ECRs) closed while a school, the Mochu Community Primary School, closed in 2000. The villages had no children to enroll.
“I cried when Mochu school closed,” Penjore, a former local leader said. “I couldn’t watch the drungpa distribute the school’s properties to others.”
Sangbaykha Primary School has seen a drastic drop in enrollment each year and had only 44 students this year. With more than six students graduating this year and no indication of new admission, the school’s officiating principal Chophela fears the end is near.
“The school’s doors could close in the next two years,” he said.
“There are no children to enroll,” laments Sangbaykha gup Thinley. The school did not have any new admission two years ago, which is why it does not have grade III this year.
This phenomenon is not isolated to his constituency but is widespread across the country, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said.
Education records show that new admissions to class PP have been dropping annually. From 16,225 new admissions in 2009, the decline has been more glaring in the past three years with 13,295 in 2015; 13,012 new students in 2016 and 12,854 in 2017.
Extended classrooms (ECR) were opened to improve access to school for every child, especially in remote, rural and scattered villages where students have to walk long distances to school. These centres have been closing fast.
In the past five years, 21 such centres closed. This year alone, 10 extended classrooms and two primary schools in nine dzongkhags closed due to shortage of children.
In 2014, there were 332 public primary schools and 87 lower secondary schools. The number of primary schools dropped from 318 in 2015 to 296 this year. The number of lower secondary schools also fell from 87 in 2014 to 68 in 2016. It rose to 71 this year as the government opened central schools merging some of the lower and primary schools with them.
“The possible causes could be reduction in number of out of school children and decline in population growth due to family planning or delayed marriage and childbirth,” Annual Education Statistics 2015 states.
Where are the children?
The residents blame the health ministry’s aggressive family planning programme for the situation.
“Surveyors came, cut our landholdings; doctors came and cut our testicles,” villagers told Kuensel.
In 1997, the health ministry launched a nation-wide campaign of family planning encouraging use of contraceptives or birth control methods, including permanent ones.
WHO South-East Asia Regional Office report on Bhutan in 2012 shows the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) increased from about 18.8 percent of couples in the reproductive age group in 1994 to 30.7 percent in 2000; 35.4 percent in 2008; 65.6 percent in 2010 and 66 percent in 2012.
This is way above the region’s average CPR of 57.5 percent.
“The fast-paced decline in total fertility rate (TFR) can be attributed to the sharp increase in uptake of contraceptives, especially over the past decade or so,” the report states.
Gakiling drungkhag health assistant Choki Dorji said the people misunderstood the campaign. “It was more on spacing their children and not necessarily on stopping birth.”
The prime minister feels otherwise. “The shortage of students in most rural parts of the school was a result of successful implementation of the family planning initiatives by the government and people.”
Lyonchhen said that the government realised this issue and was in the process of formulating a population policy, which is currently with the Gross National Happiness Commission.
“Once the Population and Housing Census 2017 results are out, the government could accordingly endorse the policy,” Lyonchhen said.
The draft population policy warns that if the current trend in fertility decline persists over a longer period and drops below the replacement level of average 2.1 surviving children per woman, it is most likely that Bhutan will experience much slower population growth as in most developed countries. “This would result in more devastating demographic and socio-economic impacts as opposed to positive population growth,” it states.
But the Bhutan Living Standards Survey, 2017, found that the fertility rate today is 1.9 children per woman, which is lower than the average replacement level of 2.1.
In the 10th Plan, the government had asked the GNHC to review the population policy of 1998, which advocated a two-child policy through family planning.
Sangbaykha primary school has the highest teacher-student ratio with four teachers for 44 students. This has compelled teachers to take classes in the multi-grade system. “Otherwise, we’ll end up leaving classes without teachers,” Chophela said. “There is no option but for a teacher to teach two or three classes in a period.” If a teacher takes leave the responsibilities multiply.
Both parents and teachers agree that the villagers over the years have admitted their children in urban schools.
Gup Thinley, who is also the chairperson of Haa dzongkhag tshogdu, said parents complain of deteriorating education quality in schools that is why they opt to send their children with their relatives to towns.
Residents said only teachers right out of college are sent to rural schools as experienced ones opt for urban schools, which affects quality. “Some teachers are sent to places like ours, on punishment transfer.”
Chophela said teachers are overburdened with classes and other activities. “Despite giving our best, at times it is difficult to do everything perfectly,” he said. However, their requests for more teachers did not materialise. There is also no guidance to students from parents at home.
“One of us has to be home all the time when our children attend the local school, otherwise we have to keep them with our neighbours, which is a hassle,” a parent said.
The community thrives on cardamom. Residents have to travel to Samtse with their produce and remain away for weeks.
“Most couples today choose to have only one child or at the most two because they worry of not being able to meet their education expenses,” the gup said.
Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay said if there are no students, the school has to close.
Chophela said some parents take their students away in the beginning of the academic year. “We are not sure how many will remain.”
A National Council report in 2016 states that teachers are over burdened and work 10.45 hours a day, indicating that teachers work 2.45 hours more than a general civil servant a day.
There are only 16 students altogether from Nakha, Tashigang, and Sangbay Ama villages in Haa, the communities closest to school. More than half of the students are from Yaba and Shama villages, about a day walk from the school.
Yaba chiwog tshogpa Sukman Rai said about eight households are empty in his village and the neighbouring village, Shama. “There is only one family with two children in the village.” Both villages are not connected by road or have a health facility.
Despite the gewogs being now connected with roads and other modern amenities, Sangbaykha gup Thinley said there are still gungtongs in the gewog, which was an outcome of human-wildlife conflict, among others . The issue of emptying households is reported nation-wide.
One estimate shows Haa has 30 empty households.
Villagers said unless basic facilities reach their villages, those who have left would not return. “With road reaching the gewog, we’re hoping they would return,” gup Thinley said.
The villagers have proposed a central school in Gakiling drungkhag.
Elders recall the opening of Sangbaykha School more than 26 years ago. Then, it took much persuasion and pleading to get the school opened. The gewog then like many rural places in the country had no motorable road, electricity or telephone connection.
The nearest school, Ugyen Dorji High School, was four days walk away in Haa town. A school was needed in the gewog because sending their children to far-flung school was difficult and dangerous as they had to cross swollen rivers and snow capped mountains.
“The school is an important centre for the community to learn from – be it waste management, sanitation, culture or observing important national events,” a village elder, Badhu said. “For Haa, the home for the country’s first school, closure of a school is definitely a huge set back.”