Students in Uzbekistan's western Khorazm Province must meet a new requirement this year -- helping to keep their schools heated.
Parents have already been asked to pay for the stoves used to heat classrooms and now, on a rotating basis, their children are bringing dried twigs and branches along with their schoolbooks.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, first heard the story via School #5 in the Shavot district.
Upon investigating a bit further, however, Ozodlik was able to determine that the situation at School #5 was typical of the situation at many schools in the Khorazm Province. (NOTE:
Given the nature of Uzbekistan’s regime and of the topic, which could be seen to reflect badly on Uzbek government policy, none of the people who spoke with Ozodlik wished to be identified.)
Ozodlik spoke with parents of some of the children. They claimed they were asked to pay 20,000 soms (about $12) as a contribution toward the school stove and its fuel. But it did not end there. Every day, one child from each class is assigned to bring in two bundles of dried-up stalks from the last cotton crop. (It’s quite possible some of these children actually picked the cotton from the now desiccated plants -- see RFE/RL's reporting on forced labor
in the cotton fields.).
As is true of so many things in Uzbekistan, exemptions are possible.
Parents said a child could be exempted from "wood gathering" upon paying another 20,000 soms.
Although parents are paying for the stove and fuel with their initial 20,000-som payment, the branches and twigs are not the main fuel for the stoves, only the material to ignite the coal.
Officials at various schools around Khorazm confirmed the existence of the stoves, but gave conflicting answers when asked who paid for them.
Some were willing to admit that parents had been urged, on orders from above, to contribute to the cost of the stoves; others said the stoves were provided by the state.
The provincial education administration denied any parents were being asked for money for the stoves or coal.
Curiously, one official said the switch to coal-burning stoves was necessary due to cut-offs in natural gas and that stoves had been installed in about 40 percent of the province’s schools.
The official did not say what happened in the remaining 60 percent of schools.
-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Alisher Sidikov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service