By Sudip Chatterjee
Despite financial constraints and lack of resources, students clear NEET by making use of free online lessons
The tea district of Alipurduar is on the cusp of a transformation as the younger generation of tea worker families seeks alternative career opportunities. The recent success of five Scheduled Tribe students aged 20 and above in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) from Kalchini block has become a source of inspiration to many others.
Despite the financial struggles and limited access to coaching centres, Manish Minj of Bharnobari tea garden, Nidhi Lama of Bukinbari tea garden, Rita Lama of Bhatpara tea garden, Sonam Lama of Mechpara tea garden and Anjali Lakra of Latabari did not give up on their dreams of becoming doctors. They made it happen using online resources, finding free coaching centres and pushing themselves beyond the limits.
Alipurduar has 64 tea estates, where a combined population of 7 lakh people reside. According to registered trade unions in the block, almost 80 per cent of these people belong to Scheduled Tribes.
The district administration has established English medium model schools in many tea garden areas. However, students attend government medium schools only as they cannot afford the fees at English medium schools. For higher education, they must travel to colleges in Falakata, Alipurduar, Jaigaon or Birpara. If there are no available slots, their last option is the college located in Binnaguri in Jalpaiguri district.
Nidhi Lama, the daughter of contractor Nayan Deep Lama and anganwadi worker Sanju Lama, secured 88 per cent marks in Class 12 last year, but could not clear NEET on the first attempt. Her other family members work in the tea garden. ‘I did not lose hope when I failed to clear the exam. I decided to double down and use free YouTube videos to enhance my knowledge,’ she told 101Reporters. Nidhi has joined the MBBS course at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital.
There are no institutions in Alipurduar district to prepare students for NEET, JEE or government exams. So the district police have stepped in to establish ‘Koshish,’ a free coaching centre in the garden areas to prepare students for West Bengal Civil Services exams.
‘Students also have to travel to Cooch Behar district, which is 22 km away from Alipurduar, to get coaching for government examinations. The round-trip bus fare alone costs Rs 200, which is a significant expense for families surviving on a daily wage of Rs 250,’ said Bikash Mahali, Centre of Indian Trade Unions leader at Kalchini tea garden.
‘Many families have one member working as a tea garden labourer, while someone else works as a bigha (casual) worker, who is called in only when tea leaves need more picking. Bigha workers earn Rs 240 per day, but they work for only three months a year. So students often hesitate to spend Rs 200 to travel to Cooch Behar,’ said Ganesh Lama, United Trade Union Congress leader, Kalchini tea garden.
The same is the case with coaching centres in Siliguri, where high fees also act as a barrier. According to trade union leaders, only 12 per cent of ST students get the opportunity to appear for NEET and JEE. Others try for government jobs, after attending internet cafes and taking advantage of free online classes.
Sesang Lama from the Raimatang tea plantation is actively preparing for NEET. Her father Persing Lama is a tea plantation worker. ‘In our financially challenged families, girls often do not receive separate tuition. However, I have a strong aspiration to become a doctor in future. So, I am putting in a dedicated effort. I attend the district police coaching centre at times to enhance my general knowledge and mathematics skills,’ Sesang told 101Reporters.
Equitable access to education
Manish Minj from Bharnobari tea garden area of Kalchini had the opportunity to study medicine through the district police coaching initiative. Despite facing financial constraints, he pursued his dream of becoming a doctor after witnessing the lack of healthcare services in the tea garden area. Manish aspires to return to his village to provide free medical treatment to the tea garden workers.
Hailing from Latabari of Kalchini block, Anjali Lakra said she wanted to serve the residents of her area in future. Both her parents are tea plantation workers.
‘The stories show education has the power to uplift individuals and communities. These students have the potential to make a significant impact on healthcare in their region, and their achievements are a source of pride for the entire tea belt communities,’ said Rajesh Barla of the Bharatiya Tea Workers Union.
The parents of these children could never dream of higher education earlier, but now they are witnessing their sons and daughters pursue their aspirations and prepare for esteemed exams, defying financial challenges and limited resources.
‘Right from the beginning, I was determined that nothing would hinder my son’s education. That is why I continued to educate him, even when we did not have enough to eat. My daughter is in her last year of medical school, and my son is soon starting his first year. Our dream is on the verge of coming true. My son will become a doctor,’ Raghu said.
Sanju Oran said he resolved to become a doctor in his childhood when he found out that many people in his locality could not afford medical care. Sanju is currently enrolled at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital. His father Suresh Oran is a labourer in the Chuapara tea garden.
‘Earlier, children of plantation workers became labourers themselves. My generation did not receive much education, so we started working in the plantations after class 8. The children, however, are aspiring for a different path — the one that brings dignity to their lives,’ said Suresh.
Similarly, Parvati Oran, a student from Torsha garden, is currently working towards a master’s degree in English. Her father Vinod Oran works in the tea garden. ‘Parvati’s ambition is to become a college professor and challenge the stereotype that girls from tea gardens lack education… Earlier, daughters were married off at an early age. Now, the people have embraced the concept of their daughters becoming self-sufficient and achieving their aspirations. Let them fulfil their dreams,’ Vinod said.
Sudip Chatterjee is a West Bengal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.