The morning is warm and pleasant, with a blue, blue sky and no wind. The landscape is vast, flat in all directions and broken only by a few scraggly trees and makeshift huts. The desert is grey – dusty, sandy and stony.
During the monsoons this desert becomes a lake. Now it is cracked and drying mud that we travelled across in a 4WD to be dropped of in this unforgiving spot.
A few children walk out of the shimmer to the school and together we plan ballgames until the teacher and other students arrive. Most are barefoot and the ball is firm but this doesn’t deter them. An 11 year-old girl is amongst them, she is caring for her baby sister. In between, she is a tenacious player and doesn’t submit to the usual imposed constraints of her gender that affect many girls here.
The school is a hut. It is about 2.0 m x 3.0 metres maybe, and constructed of bamboo and recycled hessian sacks sewn together by hand and string. The floor is rocky, earthen and hard; a few sacks are scattered across it in a minimal concession to comfort. At the entrance, a sign tells us that this is an official government school for the salt children. Yet inside there are none of the resources that should be provided to it. There is one blackboard; the rest, we understand, has been siphoned off by corrupt officials.
There are no toilets. The girls go to the bushes to the right and the boys to the left. As you can see, it is quite some distance to walk.
We see one of the drawings created in our earlier workshop at a salt maker’s hut displayed between slats of bamboo. A couple of white Chinese-style lanterns hang from the ceiling along with a couple of lemons. A sack containing a ball and skipping rope hangs from the wall.
Students arrive at the hut school on foot, on cycle and on motorbike. The teacher, who earns 4000 rupees per month ($80 approx), cycles 10km each way. His gentleness and dedication towards his students is evident.
By mid-morning the temperature outside is blazing hot, but inside this little hut it is surprisingly cool and the warm light filtering through the bags is very lovely. With 22 people in the space, we were clambering over the students to reach them and guide their drawing and almost, but not quite impossible to work on mime and role play. Students don’t seem to notice, but it is extremely difficult for people of our size to move around within it.
Like most children we have met in this district, the students here are desperate to learn, practise and please. The opportunities for them are few and the resources that should support a rudimentary education are stolen. However, on the day we were here, a troupe of officials arrived with a small water tank. Such fanfare for this presentation! Photos taken, then they were off. I don’t think they stepped inside the school to witness its deficiencies. This school, these children, that teacher – are all at the bottom of the pile.
Tourists, from India and beyond, are now being brought to the salt pans as part of a wildlife tour, to see the life of these communities – an awkward situation. They hop off the jeep, click photos of the surrounds and the people, then leave. With astonishing irony and in blindness to what they were just looking at, a couple of very well-fed tourists erupted in outrage when they were asked to move along a bit in the truck to make some space for us to travel back to the village. Shouting at the driver, they were complaining they would be uncomfortable throughout the 30-minute drive.