Guwahati: Lackadaisical Attitude, Vested Interests Lead to Downfall of Govt Schools
Cotton Collegiate School; the oldest educational institution of northeast India is in a shambles due to financial suffocation
School! It’s the place that defines who one is today. It’s the roots of one’s education and future - a place offering fond memories. The very essence of childhood! It is rightfully called the ‘Temple of Knowledge.’
How do you remember your school? Every inch of the place, every nook and corner is engraved deeply in every student’s heart. As one grows into a successful human being, one is bound to proudly look back at this school and hope for its development in this fast-growing world.
And what if you are an alumnus of the most prestigious and the oldest educational institution of the state? They wish to see that it keeps shining is even higher.
When senior consultant engineer, JN Khataniar visited his alma mater, the revered Cotton Collegiate School during Durga Puja last with hopes to retrace his footsteps, he was more heartbroken than happy. The reason is the sorry state of affairs of this 185-year-old institution that has bridged three centuries.
The prestigious Cotton Collegiate Government Higher Secondary School, situated in the heart of Guwahati – Panbazar - is slowly acquiring the shape of ruins. Today, it is a campus full of dilapidated buildings.
A successful engineer himself, Khataniar’s close inspection of his beloved school campus brought to light the disintegrated and dejected state this historic institution is in, which would otherwise have remained unknown to the masses and hence remained in continued negligence.
To start with, the two-storey building where classes are presently held itself remains unattended and neglected. The condition of the functioning classrooms is unhealthy and unsafe. While most doors and windows are either broken or completely missing, the roof leaks at many parts. This building was constructed only in 1969-70 and is still referred to by many as the ‘new building’.
“We have had instances where parts of the roof had given away on students and teachers while class was going on,” recalled the principal, Balay Kumar Borah, to G Plus.
The toilets are unclean, unhygienic, without proper water supply and sewerage systems. Of the eight toilets, four do not even have water linkage.
While the number of students has been gradually diminishing over the years, the school is not even able to provide enough desks and benches for the ones currently enrolled. Hence, an alumnus of the school recently donated about 50 desk-bench sets.
The weather-battered crumbling walls, the flaking paint of not just the classrooms but the exterior of the building still go unnoticed by the administration and the ministry alike, many of whose officials and members are themselves alumni of Cotton Collegiate School. And not to forget its prime location, surrounded by some of the most important offices of the city, from the Deputy Commissioner’s office to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation and the judiciary itself in close proximity even as it stands right next to the main road, the Mahatma Gandhi Road, that see a footfall of the ministers every single day.
Apart from this main structure, a part of this oldest school building that was constructed in 1834 is still standing, but of course in a shambles. The lack of understanding, interest and the lackadaisical attitude of the people and higher officials of Assam at preserving our heritage cannot be overlooked as this structure, that could have been converted into the oldest temple of education in the entire northeast region, is in a deplorable condition, covered in wild plants, vines and mosses, at the southern part of the campus right next to the two storey building.
In 2009, when the school celebrated its 175th anniversary, the alumni association of the school, comprising well-established names of the state, proposed to set up this structure as a ‘Heritage Centre’. In 2010, retired teacher of the school, Nagendra Nath Choudhury, laid the cornerstone for its restoration. But due to reasons unknown, this heritage building continues to be in ruins even after 10 years.
The Cotton Collegiate Alumni Association also undertook an initiative to build a three storey structure consisting of a classroom and an auditorium about 6 to 7 years ago. Rs. 5 crores was given by the government for the noble cause. But reportedly due to financial crisis and other mismanagement its completion has been hampered.
Jugal Goswami, president of the governing body of Cotton Collegiate Higher Secondary School, speaking to G Plus said, “We are in severe financial crunch. Since it is a completely government-funded institution, it is their responsibility to look after the overall maintenance and up-gradation of the school. Ever since education was made free-of-cost at our school, we do not collect any fee from the students. Hence, there is no source of income to take up any high scale maintenance. And there is no such funding as well. We get some funds for other matters like the procurement of sport goods, uniform, etc. But for overall development, we get a minimal amount annually. That is just around Rs. 40,000 and it is for our day-to-day use. It’s not possible to work on the physical condition of the school with that money.”
Balay Kumar Borah, the Principal, said, “We have been repeatedly writing to the Public Work Department (PWD), the concerned authority for maintenance of the school campus. We have also reached out to the government time and again. But nothing has been done so far. Sadly, the PWD Commissioner himself is an alumnus of our school.”
“Currently, there is no proper water supply, no drainage, many iron grills and pipes have broken due to rusting, the ceiling fans and switchboards of many rooms are non-functional. We undertake certain repair work from time to time, but those are temporary services. We need some major funding and renovation on a grand scale to set things straight. For that, financial intervention from the government is a must,” he added.
“Last year, the PWD officials inspected the campus after such a complaint was raised. They assured us of immediate steps and showed us an estimate of Rs. 42 lakhs. But nothing materialized. And the lockdown has added to the woes,” added Jugal Goswami.
Manoj Saikai, general secretary of the Cotton Collegiate Alumni Association, was remorseful of the present condition of the school while speaking to G Plus. “I am always grateful to my school. Today whoever I am I owe it to this very institution. We formed the alumni association in 2008. We first had a general meet and proposed the school authorities to celebrate the 175th anniversary in 2009. The three-day program was organised by the alumni alone with the sole aim to bring back the school to focus and bring forward its great heritage. We neither got support from the government not much from the school authorities.”
“Later, I and a few members visited New Delhi and submitted a proposal to revive this historic institution to the NITI Aayog. The proposal contained the construction of the new auditorium building that would house classes of extra-curricular activities and other educational and vocational classes. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal was a Member of Parliament then and he helped us in the submission process. The Centre approved and provided a fund of Rs. 5 crores. We initiated the development process but the actual work was the responsibility of PWD. They started construction but halted the work midway reportedly due to shortage of fund,” he said.
“We had raised the issue with both the earlier Congress government and the present BJP government. While the previous government overlooked the issue, CM Sarbananda Sonowal took up the matter and work resumed. However, everything came to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic and we have again submitted a memorandum appealing for the resumption of work,” Manoj Saikia said.
Principal Balay Borah has informed that the PWD officials have resubmitted the earlier proposal for maintenance of the school building on 30th October, after the issue was reported in media extensively. However, the proposal papers are reportedly dated 5th March, 2020. This was done after the government urged for an urgent revival of work.
It needs to be mentioned that contrary to the quality of education imparted in the government schools of Assam, their counterparts in a few other states of the country are doing phenomenally well. Government schools of the national capital have not just secured 99 percent results, Delhi government school students set another performance benchmark with 53 students qualifying for JEE Advance and 569 students for NEET this year. In recent years many schools of the state have also seen reverse admission flow, with students from private schools joining government-run institutions instead.
Physical buildings apart, the educational scenario of govt schools equally depressing
The deteriorating quality of education in government schools across the state is of major concern. In Guwahati metropolitan, while the majority opt for private schooling, the government-run vernacular mediums are the source of education for the children of low-income families only. However, it cannot be overlooked that students from this section of society are equally intellectually bright and can return commendable results provided they are given the required minimum guidance.
But time and again, concerned citizens are of the opinion that these government schools and colleges of Guwahati do not even have the necessary student-teacher ratio, limited subject teachers mostly without requisite qualifications and the necessary educational infrastructure.
Allegedly, a major section of the teaching staff positions in such institutions are occupied by spouses and relatives of politicians, highly placed civil service officers and of people with good political connections. Most often many such staffs are found to be absent during school hours as per their whims without abiding by rules, and some allegedly to not even have the qualifications of holding the post. However, given their powerful backing, authorities are compelled to let them off the disciplinary actions’ radar.
As such, there are frequent transfers of the teaching staff and a lack of permanent competent teachers to take the personal responsibility of the students.
Sources have informed that the present Principal of the Cotton Collegiate Higher Secondary School is only an ‘Acting Principal’ in the absence of anyone to hold permanent office. Further, there is a significant shortage of teachers. Reportedly, the school has a shortage of 12 to 13 teachers.
College Collegiate School currently has about 550 students and annually around 60 students take admission. But the teachers are relatively less and many have questioned the attachment that the teaching staff hold to their duties and towards the students.
Strong alumni ever ready to contribute, but only with proper govt support
Although presently in a sad state, the Cotton Collegiate School has stood strong in its history and education, producing great students who have come forward for the up-gradation of their alma mater and restoring the institution to its old heights.
Manoj Saikia, now the Chairman of Assam Livestock And Poultry Corporation (ALPCo) Ltd, said, “I visit my school regularly. Last year, I even funded the extra tuitions of a few good students. My only vested interest was to use their results to bring Cotton Collegiate to the limelight if they manage to secure a position in the HSLC examination. However, they missed it by a few marks.”
“A school’s good name can be retained only when its students secure good results. And Cotton Collegiate has been known for its matriculation results. If we can bring that back, the government will be compelled to support the school better. No doubt, the government is responsible for the degrading situation, but the school authorities and management are also equally at flaw. If the government comes forward I and the other members of the alumni association are ever ready to help,” he proudly added.
Another alumnus JN Khataniar, now an Executive Consulting Engineer, has shown interest in taking up restoration of the heritage structure of the school at his own expense and wishes to provide a detailed project report (DPR) for the renovation process free of cost.
“Restoring the past glory of the school is a priority. And I as an engineer, a product of this institute’s education, will do everything possible for it,” said Khataniar.
The glorious history of Cotton Collegiate School
Capt. Francis Jenkins, the Commissioner of British Assam (1834-1861), sent a dispatch to the “Government of India” in 1834 for “taking some active measures to provide instruction for the Assamese youth” and recommended the establishment of schools “to impart English education in four sadar stations — Gauhati, Darrang, Nowgong and Bishnath.” He also collected a sum of Rs 1,740 from the inhabitants of Guwahati with the purpose of setting up an English school in the town.
In 1835, the government, run by the East India Company approved the proposal and a school was established with 58 students. Thus secondary education set its foot in Assam in 1835.
Mr. Singer was the first headmaster of Gauhati School. By 1840 the number of students increased to 340 and donations poured in from different quarters.
Emphasis was given on the study of English. The use of globes, arithmetic with translation, and composition were also taught. In 1838, Mr. Robinson was appointed as the new headmaster of Gauhati School, now named as 'Gauhati Seminary'.
Though schools opened in different parts of Assam, the standard of education could not reach the desired height. The school in Guwahati also failed to produce expected results. The initial euphoria soon vanished and from 1844 onwards there was a steady decline in the enrolment in English classes.
Still, the success story of some students of the school in the 1860s elated everyone. This included names like Anandaram Barua, the first Assamese to be a member of the Indian Civil Service, Bolinarayan Bora, who became a Gilchrist scholar and went to England, Zalinur Ali Ahmed and Sibram Bora, the first two Assamese to enter the Indian Medical Service, Manik Chandra Barua and Abdul Majid.
By mid-1860s, the government decided to raise the status of the school to a collegiate school “for political grounds of endeavoring to train up natives of the province for offices and responsibility and trust.” Officially, the Gauhati School was declared a collegiate school in 1865. The classes started in this collegiate section — the first-ever school in entire northeastern India to achieve this status. The new academic session started in 1866. A sum of Rs 12,000 was sanctioned towards the additional expenses of the upgraded section. Some teachers were also brought from outside the province, particularly from other government colleges of different places of British India.
Though the Collegiate School in Guwahati witnessed many ups and downs during the period that followed, the school has the distinction of being the first seat of higher education in the entire region. Much later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the institution was renamed Cotton Collegiate School, when the school began to thrive again.
Its alumni list is quite impressive, comprising many who contributed towards Assam’s socio-cultural and political life. They include Tarun Ram Phookan, Kamal Narayan Chowdhury, Rajen Bora, Bhavani Bhuyan, Hiren Gohain, Anil Goswami, Anupam Ananda Bharali, Amarjyoti Chowdhury, Dipankar Bairagi, Sonmoni Bora, and many others.
(Source: Dipankar Banerjee)
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