A Town is Born

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How Pathsala became one of Assam’s major education hubs in the space of a decade

PATHSALA, ASSAM ~ Utpal Kalita, a philosophy lecturer in Bagadhar Brahma Kishan College in Baska district, Assam, comes from a poor family. His native village is adjacent to Jalah Ghat, where the college is located. After he got the job, he envisioned a few things: turn his hut into a house, buy some arable land and send his children to Guwahati for higher education and employment. As this dream slowly began to fructify with every passing year, Utpal started to notice that 30 km away, a small town called Pathsala was undergoing a metamorphosis. In a quiet place known only for mobile theatres, there were now tens of thousands of students swarming into a large number of schools, coaching classes and hostels coming up.

In 2007, he bought a piece of land on the banks of the Bisannala rivulet on the town’s outskirts and migrated with his family. His children were admitted to one of the newly started private institutions. He insists that it is only for their education that he made the shift. If he had stayed back, he would have saved a lot of money. A public school charges close to nothing. In Pathsala, the admission fee itself is Rs 15,000 and the monthly tuition fee about Rs 1,200. Jalah Ghat continues to be his workplace, and every day, he uncomplainingly cycles 60 km to and fro for his livelihood. Pathsala had become too big to miss and Kalita wanted a piece of the social revolution.

Then there are many like Don Bruno, an 18-year-old Santhal boy from a village called Doomni near the Assam-Bhutan border who has temporarily migrated to Pathsala. A decade ago, neither Don nor his family knew that Pathsala existed just 40 km south of where they lived. No one from his village could get a good education because Guwahati was too far away and unaffordable. Now, he rents a room, studies and goes home once a month. A few years ago, an overwhelming majority of people in Pathsala only spoke the local tongue—the Kamrupi dialect of Assamese. Now, the town in Barpeta district 100 km from Guwahati is home to students from at least ten different communities including Bodos, Misings, Hajongs, Bengalis, Karbis, Dimasas and Tiwas.

The roots of Pathsala’s social revolution go back to 2002 when the Bajali Academy of Excellence, a private higher secondary institution, was established there. In Assam, the top ten rank holders in board exams tend to become overnight celebrities. Their interviews are published in the media for months and nearly every organisation in the state felicitates them. In 2005, Hiramoni Patgiri from Bajali Academy stood second in Arts and it immediately brought Pathsala into the limelight.

Hiramoni, who is now pursuing her PhD at Gauhati University, says she chose to study in a school no one knew about because it promised her all assistance in getting a rank. She was pleasantly surprised to see people being dispatched by the school to different libraries just to find her an article or essay she needed. Nurturing bright students is a strategy pursued by all institutions in Pathsala now. Such students from poor families are also often exempt from paying fees. Another business trick is to convince famous retired professors of local colleges to associate themselves with the institution.

“They select a few students as targets who, if worked on well, would give them great results and thus a huge rush for admissions next year. But do you know how many fail? Last year, 147 students failed from a private institution in one stream alone. But that is not highlighted,” says Kamaleswar Uzir, who is currently acting principal of the government-run Bajali Higher Secondary School. The success of private schools is also a result of the failure of government institutions.  Since January 1993, no principal has been appointed at Uzir’s school. He has been playing the roles of principal, a teacher, a fourth grade employee and a demonstrator all at the same time because 23 posts are vacant. The science stream had to remain closed for admissions for two years because it did not have teachers for mathematics and physics. Bajali Higher Secondary School is not a case in isolation; the overall picture of public school education in Assam is grim. Patachar-kuchi Bidyapeeth, a higher secondary school near Pathsala, also has 23 or 24 posts lying vacant, according to a teacher.

Meanwhile, private institutions like Bajali Academy of Excellence showed entrepreneurs that there was a market waiting to be exploited.  And in came Ranjit Deka, a name now synonymous with the academic revolution of Pathsala. From a nobody, he has become an education-industry moghul who owns Anundoram Borooah Academy, a conglomeration of a primary school, a high school, a junior college, a degree college, a B Ed College and a coaching institution (on the top floor of a towering structure that is his house) at different locations around Pathsala.

To meet him, you are made to wait in his office for an hour. Then finally word is sent to him that you are outside. You wait for one more hour, and suddenly see the people around you stand up, erect and alert, opening the door of the most luxurious car in town, quickly vacating the corridor to allow someone a smooth passage. The man is leaving. You run and remind him that you were waiting. He does not have time today but generously orders an assistant to hear you out. That same evening, I bicycle to the village where he grew up. It is a place called Puthimari, 15 km from Pathsala on the bank of the river Pahumara. Deka’s eldest brother teaches English at a nearby government high school. “Ranjit was always ambitious, never content with things. He failed on many occasions, and failed very dangerously. But he never gave up because he has too many dreams,” says the brother. From him and his wife, I hear the story of how he co-started a school in Maligaon in Guwahati and was cheated, how he became the principal of a college in an interior village and left it rather bitterly, and how a school in Kayakuchi started with much hope and effort too failed him. “He was head over heels in debt and often threatened, but still he would often tell me what he would do as Chief Minister of Assam, how he would revolutionise the literary scene in the state by becoming the elected president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha,” says his niece, who studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Deka was not an exceptional student, but he had drive. “We laughed at his dreams, advised him not to overestimate himself, but he would not listen,” says the elder brother.

In Pathsala, he rented a small room on the ground floor of a building, and, with the woman who would later become his wife, wait for students interested in taking tuitions. His institute became the facilitator for correspondence courses from different universities in India. “When I went to inquire about an MSc in Mathematics in correspondence, there was a lady seated in the room with no assistants or staff. She would readily impress you with her convincing abilities. I did enrol for my MSc, partly led by my sympathy for a small business done for a greater good,” says Ramen Kalita, who was a BSc teacher in Meghalaya at that time.

The success of Deka’s institution in producing rank holders in the 10+2 board examinations has been unprecedented in recent history. In 2006, Samir Choudhury was ranked second in Arts, followed by three of the top 10 ranks, all in Arts, in 2008. In 2009, Monoj Swargiary, a student from the Bodo community in Assam, got first rank in Science with the highest marks in physics, mathematics and Bodo. This resulted in a rapid migration of Bodo students to this institution in particular and Pathsala in general. After a lull of one year in 2010, in 2011 five students from this institution were among the top ten in Arts in the state. And there were another two, fifth and seventh, in Science, making it seven altogether in that year. Three more followed in 2012, and people believe the list will only lengthen. On the admission day of Anundoram Borooah Academy, the roads are a sea of people, all restaurants run out of mithai, and the school uniform tailors and textbook sellers make a killing.

Other private institutions have tried to follow suit.  Krishna Kanta Handique Junior College, for example, produced one rank holder each in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and three in 2010. Dhirendra Nath Talukdar, who retired as the acting principal of Bajali Higher Secondary School in 2006, has since been leading the teachers in this institution. When I visit his house to meet him, he defends the privatisation of education. “In 2006, I retired from Bajali HS School as a subject teacher of Assamese. Even today the post is lying vacant.  I heard a Sanskrit teacher was persuaded to teach Assamese. Then, a contractual guy was brought in from somewhere on a salary of Rs 1,000. How will public sector education survive, tell me? Same is the case with other public sector schools in the district,” he says. According to him, as for many others, one main reason for the huge influx to Pathsala is the newly built National Highway 152 that connects the town to Bhutan. The town also was less touched by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Bodo armed movements. It had a large number of educated unemployed youth who could be employed by institution owners.

But the biggest reason for students to flock to Pathsala, many argue, is the availability of hostel facilities. Anundoram Borooah Academy alone has 61 hostels and is in the process of starting ten more from this academic year. There is no lane, no surrounding village in Pathsala that does not have one of its hostels. People say there is a team whose job is to maintain and constantly update a list of all landlords in and around Pathsala. They go to them in person and offer a rent much higher than what they expect. On one occasion, an institution rented a building and allowed its waitlisted students to shift in the same evening. They came with mattresses and books only to discover that another competing school had upstaged them by offering a better deal.

Life within these hostels is rigorous. A student who spent five years in such a hostel says there is a constant effort to turn these residences into ‘topper-factories’. There are surprise visits by the warden and often by the institution head himself. People are assigned to wake students up in the morning. “Even in the absence of the warden, if we indulge in anything that in the books of this hostel are crimes for God-knows-why, the news reaches the institution office and the next day, we are summoned. I believe there are moles employed,” says a student. Mobile phones were allowed only recently. ”We are not allowed to use them in the evening. We have to go to the warden’s room and deposit them,” says a student staying at one of the Anundoram Barooah Academy hostels. Earlier, regular teachers were given the additional job of wardenship, but since the institutions want to ensure that students who do not have a class do not fritter away their time, wardenship is now allotted shift-wise so that there are always teachers to oversee students. A landlord says that when he rented out his house as a hostel, he was offered extra money to watch, if and when he could, whether the girls were studying.

Pathsala’s transformation has led to an extreme increase in the local cost of living. A junior engineer tells me that he has stopped eating fish for two reasons. One was the price, of course. Secondly and more strikingly, the way fish sellers retorted if he tried to haggle. The standard response is “Imane daam. Apni nikinli nai. Hostelor randheni ahi ji daam koung heite uthe loi jabo.” (This is the price. I don’t have a problem if you don’t buy it. Cooks from hostels will come and buy it all at whatever price I quote.)

A considerable number of indigenous Pathsala residents feel left out of this transformation. Before anyone could realise, the almost completely homogeneous town became heterogeneous and cosmopolitan. As a result, xenophobia is taking hold of locals. In 2009, the first rank of the Bodo student Monoj Swargiary was a catalyst in the migration of a huge number of tribal students and families to Pathsala. But, in town, you often hear this ugly comment: “Suli thiya thiya kachrir soli damadami ahi jagakhen boya kori phellak,” (the spiky haired tribal guys coming in hoards have destroyed the place).