School dropouts at ‘all-time high’ in climate change-hit Ganga delta

From the cyclone-hit Sundarbans to drought-prone inland Bangladesh, girls are leaving school in record numbers and being married off younger, as the impacts of climate change mean families struggle to feed their children.

Students participate in class at the Sujat Nagar urban slum school in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Banani Deb looks wistfully at her old notebooks from 10th grade and reminisces about her school days. This year, the 15-year-old left school and married a man 11 years her senior. He was from the same village as her – Baliara, on the island of Mousuni – and had appeared on her family’s doorstep in April with a proposal of marriage.

Deb, who is wearing an embroidered saree and gold jewellery, says that initially she was excited about getting married. But reality soon hit her, as she started to miss her school friends and her husband, who left for Jharkhand state two months after their marriage, in search of work as a daily wager.

Deb says she had known that she would marry young: many of her friends quit school around the same time as her – the girls to get married and the boys to look for work in other states.

Tucked away on the eastern coast of India, Mousuni is one of 54 inhabited islands in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. This small island is flanked by distributaries of the Ganga River, with the Bay of Bengal to the south. The 25,000-odd people who live on Mousuni can only access the mainland by boat.

In the past 20 years, the island has become one of the fastest-depleting parts of the Sundarbans. In three years, three cyclones – Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas – have eroded land, accelerated saltwater intrusion and destroyed property and livelihoods. Climate change is making such disasters more frequent and intense. This, coupled with Covid-19 lockdowns, has been devastating for the islanders, who depend on agriculture and fisheries.

“There was so much uncertainty after three consecutive cyclones that we were losing sleep,” says Sunil Deb, Banani’s father. “On our one acre of land and little pond we used to grow food and rear fish to sell, but Cyclone Yaas in 2021 ruined the standing crop and killed all freshwater fish.”

There are only two high schools on the 15 climate-vulnerable chars [river islands] in the Padma [river] and about 35-40 girl students of the two schools get married off each year since the char dwellers live in extreme poverty

Abdus Sattar, headteacher, Chakrajpur High School

Deb adds that the consecutive cyclones caused saltwater to seep into the family’s farmland, ruining not only the crops but also the land for at least the next five years. In the last few years, he says, local people, whose income primarily comes from the betel leaves they grow and sell, have had no crop.

After Cyclone Yaas, Deb says, the family of six survived on money sent by their son, who is working as a labourer in Gujarat, but that was “not enough”. These were the circumstances that drove the decision to get Banani married off early.

Children leave education early in record numbers

At Mousuni Cooperative School, one of the two secondary schools on the island, the number of dropouts is at an “all-time high”, says headmaster Binay Shi. “In the past two years, 15-20 per cent of children aged 14-18 have dropped out of school,” he says. So far this school year, 100 students out of 1,306 have dropped out; the previous year 151 left. Shi says at least 60 per cent of the pupils who leave school are girls.

According to the headmaster, admissions of younger students are increasing, yet “the overall number [of students] remains the same or drops each year”. Shi says that the number of students “falls drastically” after ninth grade “as that’s when these boys and girls are sent off to find work or are married off”.

Family after family The Third Pole spoke with said that once, their farm could feed an entire village. Now, they said, they are finding it difficult just to feed their own children. They explained that the pressure to have one less plate at the table is forcing many to pull their daughters out of school and push them into marriage.

To improve girls’ well-being and help them stay in school for longer, in 2012 the West Bengal government introduced the Kanyashree Prakalpa scheme, which provides annual scholarships to unmarried girls aged 13-18. This initially helped to reduce the dropouts, says Shi. But since cyclones Amphan and Yaas, the number of girls still in school and taking up the scholarship has been falling.

Government data for 2019-21 shows that West Bengal has the highest rate in India of girls marrying at below the legal minimum age. In 2007-08 it had the second-highest rate. The data for 2019-21 shows that 99 per cent of girls aged 6-10 in West Bengal attend school, which falls to 77 per cent for the 15-17 age group.

The problem affects boys differently – whose school attendance is even lower than girls’ by age 15-17, at 67 per cent. Every year, at least 2,000 teenage boys and young men leave Mousuni in search of work in other Indian states such as Gujarat and Kerala, or even further afield, says Ram Krishna Mandal, deputy chief of the Mousuni gram panchayat (village council).

Thirty-six-year-old Chanchal Giri from Kusumtala village recently returned to the island to spend some time with his four-year-old son and wife, after eight years working on construction sites in Oman, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. In 2009, Cyclone Aila spoiled his crop and made his land unsuitable for farming for the next few years. Last year, Cyclone Yaas rendered the land unusable again.

“One by one, all of us four brothers left the island in search of work. We keep visiting as our families still live here, but there are no job prospects for us to stay here long,” says Giri, who is the youngest brother. He says he anticipates a similar future for his son.

Similar situation in drought-prone Rajshahi

Climate change is having a similar impact on children’s education across the border in inland Bangladesh. According to Nasir Uddin, education officer for the district of Rajshahi, nearly 30 per cent of students (from fifth grade to senior secondary age) have dropped out of school in Rajshahi in the past five years. Among these, the child marriage rate is over 20 per cent.

report released this August by Bangladesh’s Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education revealed that in 2021, Rajshahi had the highest rate in the country of girls dropping out of school to get married, at 15.82 per cent.

“There are only two high schools on the 15 climate-vulnerable chars [river islands] in the Padma [river] and about 35-40 girl students of the two schools get married off each year since the char dwellers live in extreme poverty,” says Abdus Sattar, headteacher of Chakrajpur High School in Rajshahi.

Rajshahi is a hot, drought-prone region. Golam Rabbani, a researcher and head of the Climate Bridge Fund Secretariat at international development organisation BRAC, says that between 1981 and 2020, the city of Rajshahi experienced seven instances of the temperature reaching 38-42 degrees Celsius for 30 days or longer. Three of these were in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

The rising temperature itself creates a barrier to girls’ education. Over the last few decades, the average temperature in the Rajshahi region has risen by around one degree Celsius, says Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a think tank in Dhaka. “Girls traditionally wear many clothes,” he says, even during summer. This discomfort this causes “accelerates their suffering while attending schools, which ultimately forces them to drop out”, says Rahman.

Then there is the indirect impact of rising temperatures. Most people in the district depend on agriculture and are severely impacted by extreme weather. Heatwaves, made more intense and frequent by climate change, lead to areas becoming water-stressed. Floods, which are also increasing in severity, adversely affect crop production.

As families fall into poverty, they look for ways to ease their financial pressures. Rabbani says that this prompts parents to pull their children out of school: girls are married off so there is one less mouth to feed and boys are sent out to work.

Rajshahi has the highest rate of school-age children (19 per cent) involved in child labour in Bangladesh, according to the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education’s August report.

With climate change, vulnerability in the delta will increase

50-year-old Sheikh Abdullah, a resident of Baliara, is one of the many farmers on Mousuni who have lost coastal land. In 2016, a 4.5-hectare chunk of his family’s ancestral land – the equivalent of about nine football fields – was claimed in a single event by the sea.

“If it were not for the money sent by my two sons working in Kerala and Kolkata, we would have died of hunger,” says Abdullah, who lives with his wife and two daughters-in-law, who also married young. This year, he tried to grow paddy in the small piece of remaining land, but the brackish water from last year’s cyclone ruined the crop.

The island is only three metres above the high-water mark, and is frequently inundated with saltwater.

Between 1968-69 and 2012, 16 per cent of land on Mousuni was lost. Over the same period, the Indian Sundarbans shrank by nearly 260 square kilometres, at an average rate of 6 sq km a year. Erosion was most significant in the 10 years from 2001 to 2012: about 90 sq km disappeared at a rate of around 8 sq km per year.

Sugata Hazra, head of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and an expert on the Sundarbans, says that the sea level at Diamond Harbour on the edge of the Sundarbans is rising by more than 5 millimetres a year. In comparison, more than 2,000 kilometres away on the Kerala coast, annual sea level rise is 1.8 mm.

“The Indian Ocean is warming up,” says Hazra, explaining that as this hot air above the surface of the sea moves north it gets “trapped in the Sundarbans delta”. “This accumulated heat increases the intensity and frequency of cyclones and the rate of sea level rise.”

As long as global emissions continue to rise, young people’s education will be one of the many casualties of climate change, says Hazra, stressing: “These islanders are not even the emitters, they are the sufferers.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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