Hemanta Bhandari is a nine-year-old boy who walks 10km roundtrip to a private school in Ghorahi everyday from his village. He has a heavy school bag that he slings across his head porter-style, and he is sweating and tired by the time he reaches his class. "I wish I lived in Ghorahi, so I wouldn't have to walk this far every day," Hemanta tells a visitor.
There are hundreds of thousands of children all over Nepal who have always walked long distances to school. But these distances have suddenly become longer for children because the Maoists have forced the closure of private schools in their home village. Hemanta's old school in Guruwagau shut down for good after Maoist threats and extortion.
But now, parents and guardians of children in Dang are fighting back. They are tired of waiting for the government to do anything, so they got together to open some of the schools that the Maoists closed down in towns across the Dang valley last year. After the ceasefire, the parents had successfully helped open schools but in the past months the Maoist student unions have again started visiting school after school making demands that are impossible for many educators to fulfil.
"The period of the ceasefire is not a return to normalcy," said Pradeep Oli, a Maoist student leader who defended his group's action saying the education system was rotten to the core and needed to be completely destroyed before being rebuilt. "We won't allow private schools to open unless they are free," he added.
Many parents who heard Oli's speech last month said some Maoist demands were difficult to meet, and therefore a sign that the Maoists are getting defensive about targeting schools. Parents' outrage over the prolonged closure of schools has now boiled over, and the simultaneous re-opening of some schools is the first sure sign that the tide may be turning because of public opinion.
"We told them, look, no one wants to go to government schools because of the poor quality, why not try to improve them instead of closing down the only alternative people have," said Shreedhar Mahara, founder of the Scholarland English School in Guruwagau. "But they don't listen to reason." Mahara now lives in a rented room in Ghorahi, trying to get his own two children through school.
Of the 50 private schools in Dang, only a handful remain open. Some of them are in Maoist-affected regions. Said one principal who did not want his name disclosed: "We have taken permission from Maoists to run our schools. All we had to do was to pay them off."
To cater to the demand of families displaced from the interior, Ghorahi has seen three new private schools open up in the past year. It is the job of Om Bhakta Chaudhari of the Maoist student union to keep an eye on them, so he pays them visits regularly threatening them to close down or else-and then pockets their 'donation'.
With support from parents most schools are now resisting. Some, like Rapti Vidhya Mandir, are islands of excellence in a sea of darkness. Of the 69 students who appeared in this year's SLC from Rapti Vidhya, 68 passed in first division. "If you have dedicated teachers who believe in quality, there is no reason why all schools can't be like ours," says principal Ghanashyam Dangi. Rapti Vidhya Mandir is likely to bag this year's Regional Education Award for best performance in the SLC .
But the reality of rural Dang and other districts in Nepal is different. There are many schools where not a single student passes the SLC, almost all are government schools. The anti-private school campaign of the Maoists tries to capitalise on this inequity as well as the fact that for every good private school there are others which are over-commercialised and charge exorbitant fees.
Some private schools without a library charge library fees. There is one school in Ghorahi that charges for 'extras' under headings like L.F.G.S., A.I.B.C.C., D.P.C.C., E.C.E 'Y', with no explanations about what these acronyms mean. Many private schools cram students into airless, dark classrooms and have poor results. But because government schools are even worse, and many private schools are closed, demand for education outstrips supply, and it has become a seller's market.
Nirmal Gautam, president of the Guardians' Association of Dang is monitoring how different private schools are charging fees. He told us: "Education and health are the fundamental rights of every Nepali, and they should be provided free of cost. But our country doesn't have the money so private schools have stepped in, but some schools are over-stepping the guidelines by taking illegal fees."
Gautam's Guardians' Association has submitted a 15-point memorandum to the District Education Office in Dang, and issued an ultimatum that the suggestions be implemented. But in a situation where the government has abdicated its regulatory role and left schools, parents and students to fend for themselves, it is unlikely that the demands to reign in over-commercialised schools will be met.
There is a wide disparity in fees that parents feel is irrational. The Deepshika Higher Secondary School charged nearly Rs 3,000 per month from its nursery class, while a similar category Valley Top School, charges only Rs 500. While some school owners argue that in a free market the fees will ultimately rationalise themselves because no one will go to a more expensive school of the same quality, others say the difference in fees is just too glaring and the government has to step in. "If the government doesn't do anything, it leaves the field open for Maoist threats," says Gautam.
Purna Oli is the principal of Valley Top School, and says his school is proof that quality education doesn't need to be expensive. "Our students are the children of labourers, masons and rickshaw pullers," says Oli. "If you take out the profit-markup of greedy owners, schools can be cheaper." Valley Top prides itself in being an innovative school with extensive teaching aids in class.
Parents in Dang, like elsewhere in Nepal, are caught between the threat of violence by Maoist students, lockout by Nepali Congress and UML student unions, and the inaction and apathy of the district education officials. "We are sick of the strikes, closures and high fees. We are losing our patience," says Ramesh Regmi, a local guardian.
Many like Regmi believe that while the school system needs reforms, their children are being targetted by the Maoists and the parties to further their political agendas. For the guardians, the main goal for now is to prevent their children from being made pawns in the political games being played out in faraway Kathmandu.