The administration at the Centre, which is now in direct command of Leh and other regions of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, has forced the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV), a centrally-administered fully-residential school, to remain open in the freezing cold.
The home minister Amit Shah, who now lives in Delhi, probably does not know what it means to try and function in sub-zero temperatures.
The schools in Ladakh normally remain closed for the three most severe winter months, but because of new firmans issued by the administration, local people allege, the JNV at Choglamsar, a village around 3 kilometers from Leh and on the Leh-Keylong highway, was forced to remain open.
And the result is for all to see: A large number of students from this school in Choglamsar have taken ill, suffering from chilblains, which the local dermatologist has also confirmed. The Navodaya Vidyalaya scheme is supposed to be an experimental system crafted in order to cater to the needs of gifted and talented students in rural areas. They are administered by an autonomous body under the Department of School Education and Literacy, which falls under the ambit of the Ministry of Human Resources Development.
Chilblains are painful, red, itchy swellings that affect the extremities—fingers, toes, noses, earlobes—all the sensitive parts of a child’s body that they cannot but help exposing to the winds and the weather. Chilblains can turn into sores that are very painful, and can be made much worse in the desert conditions of Ladakh. They are the skin’s abnormal reaction to severe cold.
The parents of several children suffering from the cold reported these chilblains to Sachin Kumar Vaishya, the deputy commissioner of Leh, through the Parent-Teacher Association of the Navodaya Vidyalaya.
Dr Motup Dorje, Chief Medical Officer, the senior-most district health official in Leh, was rushed to the JNV at Choglamsar to provide emergency care to the students. He found that the hands of a large number of students had swelled up in the severe cold weather conditions. What is worse, this school has no heating arrangements—which means that the school and its hostels are virtually freezers from December through to January.
The absence of heating facilities should not surprise anybody, for normally this school remains closed after the first week of December. Some years, the school would not open in December at all, as the local administration would take a call on whether classes should be held based on the temperature and weather conditions.
But this year, after the transformation of Ladakh to a Union Territory, the region’s very first Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur, has been commanding the administration at the behest of the Centre.
The result is that the JNV school and hostel have remained open for so long in the winter season that children are suffering from inflammation of their fingers. In a normal year, by this time, the students would have vacated their hostel rooms and left the school to live with their parents in the villages. The website of the JNV itself says that its campus is “connected by steep and windy paths” and that the school itself is “surrounded by the mountains from all sides”. Without heating, such a building would be inhospitable even in the autumn weeks, forget winter months.
To grasp the weather conditions in Leh and around, recall that the town gets a heavy tourist inflow and a large number of hotels have opened up to meet the demand of lodging. Yet, 97% of Leh town’s hotels close down by the end of October every year. This is because only 3% of the hotels can afford to provide central heating, and they are the only ones that remain open. In fact, few tourists visit the town or the region despite the hotels that remain open, due to the harsh weather conditions.
But the tender schoolchildren were forced to bear the biting cold by the area’s administrators, who are clearly not accustomed to the region or its habitat.
Doctors are alarmed by the large number of affected students and have warned that in extreme cases the students may get gangrene, which can damage their fingers and hands permanently.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.