Truant Teachers, “Barefoot” Tutors, and the Breakdown of Schooling in Pandemic Affected Sundarban

From the Series: A Collaboratory of Indian Ocean Ethnographies

Photo by Abhijit Chakraborty.

We are three educators. Guru is Assistant Professor at the Sundarban Hazi Desarat College on the island of Pathankhali in South 24 Parganas in the state of West Bengal, India. Jalais is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore, with long ties to the Sundarban where she taught at a local school while conducting fieldwork between 1999 and 2001. Lahiri is a secondary school teacher in Bardhaman, in India’s West Bengal, and the editor of a reputed Bengali magazine on Sundarban titled Sudhu Sundarban Charcha. While “stuck” in the confines of our homes during the stifling “lockdown,” the three of us often received calls from our students or acquaintances from the Sundarban asking, “When will teachers return?” and “When can we resume attending school/college/university?”

Online teaching, thrust upon everyone starting in March 2020, came as a shock and posed enormous challenges in an India that is digitally segregated (see Southern Collective's yet unpublished report by Sridhar Anantha et al. 2021; Shanmugavelan 2013) especially with respect to those living in rural areas, i.e. nearly seventy percent of India’s population. As public transportation came to a standstill, many rural places were cut off; this, plus quarantine restrictions, prevented anyone, teachers included, from traveling to or from their workplaces. As a result, in the last eighteen months, most students from rural areas (as well as poor students living in the slums or streets of urban areas) have had little formal schooling as (urban-based) teachers have felt little responsibility towards their rural and poorer students’ education (hardly any attempt to teach online to the few students who might have smartphones/computers and even less at resuming in-person classes, even when vaccinated). This baffled the islanders, especially in the early months of the pandemic when rural areas were spared COVID-19 infections. The islanders who as highlighted in Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa et al.’s essay in this series saw contagion as flourishing in “spaces of affluence and hyper-mobility” and not in villages where the proximity of people to open air, rich soil, and rivers, they believed, made them less susceptible to the virus. So the sudden and near-total abandoning of the rural areas seemed to reinforce Sundarban islanders’ beliefs that they still are “second class citizens” (Jalais 2010). As the lockdown persisted and days turned to months, Guru, Jalais, and Lahiri faced with their students’ questions, wondered: how does one find alternatives to “online” education in times of a pandemic, particularly in places like the Sundarban, where such a word seems chimeric?

At the end of June 2020, Guru finally managed to travel from his home district of Purba Medinipur to his workplace in Pathankhali. On the way, Guru met Animesh Gayen, his student from the remote island of Satjelia, who told him that almost all his peers had been simply unable to switch to online teaching. Instead, they had started working in the fields, had taken up fishing, or hunting (or rather poaching, in the eyes of the authorities). It is in the field of education that the pandemic has wreaked its most disorienting effects, especially in rural India, where students neither have stable internet coverage, nor access to smartphones or computers, nor reliable electricity. On the whole, since the pandemic started, nearly 250 million Indian children have not been able to access education because of the physical closure of schools (Vyas 2021). In this situation, many have suggested the return of the mohalla classes (these are in-person classes set up in community spaces with a small group of social distancing students to reduce the risk of infection), and in some parts of India (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh), these have started working.

In a region where living means struggling at every turn (Mukhopadhyay 2016; Jalais and Mukhopadhyay 2020), the islanders now had to battle with yet another newfound complication—the near absence of school teachers who have played unwitting truants during this lockdown, as very few reside on these islands. After the Indian Government announced the first lockdown (March 24, 2020), and up until the time of writing this essay (end of July 2021), schools in India have remained shut. Just across the border, in Bangladesh, forty-two million children—mostly from the southern-most areas of the Bengal Delta—have also had their formal education stalled (Montu 2020). If children living in cities, and belonging to the ten percent better-off Indian “middle classes,” have been able to continue with online classes, this has not been the case for children living in the villages of deltaic Bengal. In the southern inhabited islands of the Sundarban region, only around ten percent of teachers actually reside on the rural islands that they teach in, most of them opting to commute every day as it allows them to continue benefiting from the better services offered in cities (schools, hospitals, infrastructure).

Twenty years ago when Jalais volunteered as a school-teacher in the Sundarban, teachers were valued members of rural communities: organizing literary meets, helping brighter students to migrate to cities to further their education, assisting the islanders in drafting letters to the authorities, etc. The islanders, thus, had educated people to turn to for support—even if in those days, too, teachers were never really keen to participate in the life of the village and were often quite desperate to leave the Sundarban as soon as they retired (Jalais 2010, 33). But over the years, with transport facilities having improved, teachers have stopped residing near rural schools preferring instead to commute, often arriving late and returning home even before the end of school or college hours, or even bunking classes at the slightest of excuses. This has made the islanders feel resentful of these new teachers, who benefit from having a secure government job but are more like “visitors” who do not give back to the community. While attending a conference at Haji Desarat College, in January 2020, Jalais noticed that soon after the lunch break at around 2:30 PM, even as the conference was picking up momentum, many of the participating college teachers began fidgeting, and eventually left, since they did not want to reach home (in Kolkata) too late. So pandemic or not, when it comes to education, southern Bengal seems particularly deprived.

“Education does not only mean learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic, it should provide comprehensive knowledge (...) We want teachers who know both Bengali and the English language, at the same time are free from religious prejudices.”
- Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (1853).

The early to mid-nineteenth century was marked by a commitment, particularly among the Bengali intellectual, educator, and reformer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, to “reform native society according to modern ideals” held to be “universal” and to do so via reforms in education (Mukharji 2017, 565). But nearly 170 years later, the Sundarban remains a segregated society, still very much marked by religious prejudices, especially if one considers the intersections of religion, caste, and class. As the Sachar Commission established, Muslims, who constitute twenty-seven percent of West Bengal’s population (2011 Census), had less than two percent of government jobs in the early 2000s, and they still live with very little institutional support (Alexander et al. 2016, 68). The situation might have slightly improved today, but not by much. In the South 24 Parganas, 35.6 percent of its population are Muslims (2011 Census), but at the Haji Desarat College, for example, there are only five Muslim teachers among a faculty of forty-eight. Many of the newly recruited teachers posted there were marked both by their urban, as well as by their (higher) caste identities, and they usually looked forward to moving to schools in urban areas once their probation periods ended in the villages. Thus, there are very few experienced teachers in these islands because with age and experience choices increase, and most teachers invariably opt for a posting closer to the city.

Over the last decade, there has been a noticeable change in the attitudes of parents in the Sundarban towards their children’s schooling. Sending children for secondary education is often perceived as the preferred route towards social respectability and economic security for those who can afford to, but they are still a minority. Despite the combined ruinous effects of lockdown plus cyclones Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021) which submerged homes, lands, and ponds with brackish water, many islanders have desperately tried to ensure that their wards do not drop out of schools or colleges. Take the example of Rakhi Mondal, who came to Guru’s college from the far-flung island of Gosaba to plead with the administrators to allow the admission deadline for the BA (Honors) course to be slightly extended. Her father had gone to the forest to collect crabs in order to put together the sum she would need for her college entrance fees, but he had not returned. Many people in the Sundarban, for the first time in their lives, have been forced to venture into the mangroves for their subsistence, and this has happened at great personal cost. As recorded by Lahiri (2020), twenty-five people have died from tiger mauling in the Indian Sundarban in 2020 alone, and already nine in the first six months of 2021; for the previous years, there had been ten for the entirety of 2019, five for 2018, and four each for 2017 and 2016. Moreover, Guru observes that schooling offers children more than mere education. Along with a certain sense of community, schooling also offers the much sought-after midday meals to children in these poverty-stricken islands. While some trustworthy NGOs, such as Ek Tara, Humans of Patuli, and MUKTI have stepped in with food donations during the pandemic, they certainly cannot become a substitute for the Government's midday meal scheme, which reaches one hundred million children throughout India.

In light of this situation, the release of the Indian Government’s Union Ministry of Education action plan titled, “Covid response in School Education,” seemed timely. Parents and some educators were expecting that this action plan would involve a road map of sorts, ensuring a gradual transition towards the reopening of schools, especially the resumption of in-person classes like it has in most parts of the world. However, reopening schools was not even mentioned with the onus of education seemingly resting on the shoulders of technology and parents, therefore catering only to the ten percent of middle-class children within urban areas. In places like the Sundarban, what has interestingly occurred in the current situation, is that the local and rural-based private tutors have taken over the education of children. Operating from their backyards, they often cater to many children at a time, making a farce of the whole “social distancing” reasoning that led to school closures in the first place. “Barefoot teachers” was first used in India by Sr Cyril in 1980s Calcutta, when she started to train many grassroots-level youth who had no qualifying exams but who wanted to serve their communities. Presently, teacher’s training programs exist for such young people, but they are mainly operated by NGOs and are not part of the formal government employment system. We believe that “barefoot teachers” working at mohalla centers have immense potential, and that the government should start its own teacher training programs to equip young college drop-outs from rural areas become teachers in and for their own communities.

Evidently, a structural malaise has occasioned this putative stepping-in of private tutors to replace the public education system. Teacher recruitment in government and government-aided schools in West Bengal involves an examination and an interview to select eligible candidates. Rural-based students often do not fare well, nor do they have the money required to pay off the illegal “fees'' levied from those who get jobs. Newly recruited urban teachers ending up in these marginal island schools prefer living in the comfort and security of their urban homes and apply for a transfer to more urban places as soon as their probation period is over. So in these circumstances, is it not better to have the village “barefoot teachers” or teachers at mohalla centers pick up the slack?

Private tutors ruling the roost. Sagar island, Sundarban, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, India. Photo by: Abhijit Chakraborty.

This pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have made us seriously rethink the general shortage of teachers in Sundarban government schools. It has also been an eye-opening experience in that COVID-19 has highlighted the constantly ignored hidden inequalities of our society. What we suggest is that the government starts recognizing these “barefoot teachers,” or the educated rural youth living in these outlier spaces, as perfectly fit candidates for the job. Why doesn’t the government take up their training, and insist that the condition for employment in rural areas be that teachers should reside in the villages where they teach/work for the entire term of their appointment? This policy will meet the long-term shortage of teachers, ensure local employment, enable rural communities to gain greater literacy, and bridge the huge societal gulf between people. Just as in the case of government-trained “paramedics” (local health officers without a medical degree), or government-trained “civil volunteers” (semi-policemen who keep law and order in communities), rural-based “barefoot teachers” could be similarly trained. In case outside teachers are willing to reside within a five-kilometer radius from the village school (and this could be extended to transfer rules as well), they could be welcomed, too. We believe it is quite possible to find interested, qualified, and more representative local teachers. This pandemic has taught us that extraordinary times can certainly make space for special state actions, especially in the very special place that is the Sundarban. We are also convinced that this would work well even in less extraordinary times and in less special places around West Bengal and perhaps even in the rest of India.


Alexander, Claire, Joya Chatterji, and Annu Jalais. 2016. The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration. New York: Routledge.

Jalais, Annu. 2010. Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans. New York: Routledge.

Jalais, Annu and Amites Mukhopadhyay. 2020. “Of Pandemics and Storms in the Sundarbans.” In “Intersecting Crises,” edited by Calynn Dowler, American Ethnologist website, October 12, 2020.

Lahiri, Jyotirindranarayan. 2020. “Sundarbane bagh ebong manush ubhoykei banchte hobe,” Eishamay, Kolkata.

Montu, Rafiqul Islam. 2020. “Web of Misery: Education of 42 Million Kids in Bangladesh Affected By COVID-19. A Majority Living On Its Islands Cannot Access Online Classes.” GaonConnection, December 11, 2020.

Mukharji, Projit Bihari. 2017. “Vernacularizing the Body: Informational Egalitarianism, Hindu Divine Design, and Race in Physiology Schoolbooks, Bengal 1859-1877.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 91, no. 3: 554-585.

Mukhopadhyay, Amites. 2016. Living with Disasters: Communities and Development in the Indian Sundarbans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shanmugavelan, Murali. 2013. “Looking Beyond Neo-liberal Communication Approaches.” Media Development 3: 7-10.

Vidyasagar, Iswarchandra. 1853. “Letter to the secretary of the Council of Education.” Selections from the Records of the Bengal Government, No. XXII (n. 35): 71.

Vyas, Ankit. 2021. “School Closures Have wHurt Indian Children – But Mohalla Classes May Be the Way ForwardScroll. in, June 30 2021.