In an early blog post, I mentioned the concept of the Darjeeling economy divided into three areas called the three T’s: tea, timber, and tourism. But throughout my time here, I have come to the conclusion that there should probably be a fourth T added to this formula: teaching. Since the British first settled the area, they started building schools for the children of British officers and government officials. Over the years, these schools became famous and British leaders and wealthy Indians started sending their children to board at the schools here. After independence, this tradition continued, leading to a large number of (mostly male) boarding schools students descending on the town at the beginning of each school year. These students are from not only all over India, but all over South Asia and sometimes beyond. In my interactions with the boarding schools, I have met students from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and even a couple from Kenya and Uganda. The African students ended up here because their families heard about the amazing schools in Darjeeling from Indian immigrants in their home countries. When you tell people throughout India that you live in Darjeeling, you generally get two responses: “Is it really cold there?” and “There are great schools there.” Primary and secondary education is something that the area is known for and takes pride in.
However, there are a couple of caveats that have to be discussed related to the Darjeeling education system. While the boarding schools here are often ranked as some of the best in India and the region, if you are a student at a non-boarding school, the quality of your education is questionable at best. There are a limited number of seats at the boarding schools for local students. Most of the rest of the local children end up in local private or government schools. Within town, the private schools are generally of fairly good quality, but the government schools have lower standards. When you travel outside of town into the districts, as I do on a regular basis for my work, you quickly realize that the great schools you hear so much about are a privilege specifically located in town and not available for most children who live throughout the district. At the private schools we work with, the teachers are generally passionate about their work, but are not always qualified for it. There are a few supposedly English medium schools that we work with through CHHIP where the teachers can only kind of speak English themselves and therefore their ability to teach it is doubtful. At the government schools, we often see situations where there are many more students recorded on the register than actually attend so that the school will get more funds and teachers don’t show up for work on a regular basis. This is because they will receive their salary regardless of how often they appear at work and since the schools are so remote, no one comes to check on their attendance so they can pretty much get away with not really working. Often we come to these government schools and the kids are just outside playing all day and the only lessons they receive that day are the health lessons our CHHIP School Health Activists teach. Clearly these are not educational conditions Darjeeling would be made famous for.
There is another issue that needs to be addressed regarding education in Darjeeling: there are no top tier universities here. You would think with this amazing, top ranked primary and secondary school system, there would be tertiary schools these well educated students could be funneled into. However, this is not the case. There are a couple of universities in town, only one of which I have ever heard good things about. The students that come here to board in Darjeeling during high school leave as soon as they graduate to pursue a college education in a larger city. Even most locals who are college graduates end up leaving the city to receive their education. The majority of the people I work with or have met in the NGO world in Darjeeling went to college outside of Darjeeling. Many go somewhere fairly close to home such as Kolkata, Gangtok, Delhi and Kathmandu. Others go as far as Bangalore, Mumbai, or leave India all together. According to my friends here, most of the students never come back once they have left for college. This has lead to a huge brain drain issue in Darjeeling. Part of this is because there is not a large number of jobs for people with college educations in Darjeeling, but I can’t help but think that if they were able to go to college here in Darjeeling maybe young people would not be leaving in droves. If there was a high quality university here, not only would more locals probably stay, but some of the boarding school students might choose to stay as well.
In conclusion, education in Darjeeling is a mixed bag. They have some of the best schools in the country here, but there are other schools that don’t even fulfill their basic function. But still, the boarding schools students bring a large amount of money into the economy here should be considered a part of the major industries that supports the economy of this region.