The ‘loneliest’ child in Bangladesh
Shafiqul Alam/Bureau Chief at AFP News Agency
Arnob Sarker is the loneliest child in Bangladesh. At a state-run primary school at Moynapur village on the Jessore-Khulna border, the seven-year-old child is the only student for nine teachers. The school isn’t shut down yet and each morning Arnob, from the low-caste Hindu community of the village, comes to attend the classes alone. It is a privilege to get all the attention of your teachers and it is also an eerily scary business.Two news on the one-student school appeared in Dhaka-based newspapers this week. Bonik Barta broke the news and has even sent its Khulna correspondent to write the story to delve deep into the reasons. Dainik Ittefaq also carried a story. But it is more matter-of-fact journalism, just highlighting the record-breaking incident.
But if you scrub the surface, it reveals some disturbing patterns — things which will haunt Bangladeshi policy makers more frequently in the coming years.
Bonik Barta says the Total Fertility Rate of the Moynapur village has declined to 0.24, much lower than the replacement level of two percent. It said the village hasn’t had a child born for years. And it also highlighted how rural poverty has triggered a slow migration of villagers to the cities and nearby urban centres — cities like Khulna and Jessore or fast-growing sub-district rural towns like Keshabpur, Dumuria or even Chuknagar.
But there are also deeply troubling issues. The school is at the heart of Moynapur village, which is predominantly Hindu, who are mostly fishermen and farmers. The lonely student highlights the declining birth rates among the country’s Hindus. It appears to be a mystery, but it is a growing fact of life in rural areas that Hindus are taking fewer children. Is it related to any health issues, which particularly afflict the people of Hindu faith here? Or are they hungry for a quality of life of their children and that’s why they are taking fewer children? Or don’t they think Muslim-majority Bangladesh is a safer place for their children? Or is rising salinity to blame for depleting sperm counts and therefore birth rates in the region?
We don’t know the full picture. But one thing I have noticed is that there is a massive migration of families from rural areas to the cities and urban centres. And that is happening more among Hindu families. In the villages in Magura where I am from I have seen how they are quitting farming in an increasing number and investing more in the education of their children. And I am sure by 2040, you may not see any sizable Hindu population in the rural areas.
And also the lonely school pokes questions on where we should invest in education. Should we build more state-run schools in rapidly growing urban centres than in places like Moynapur where population is depleting. There are now thousands of Moynapurs across the country. And there are also hundreds of fast growing urban and industrial centres like Meghanghat, which grew into a mid-sized city thanks to an industrialist called Mostofa Kamal. Shouldn’t we build hundreds of new state-run schools here in these new industrial towns and cities?