The fate of around 16,000 students at 228 primary schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts hangs in the balance, as the process of nationalising these institutions remains stuck due to land registration complicacy.
These non-government schools in some remotest parts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban were set up by locals at different times. But they could not run those due to financial constraints.
In 2009, international development partners started funding the schools through the UNDP under its Support to Basic Education in CHT project, a component of the UN body's programme in the hill districts.
The funding will expire in December. And if the UNDP does not extend it and the government does not nationalise the schools, those will be closed, said teachers and project officials.
One official, seeking anonymity, official told this correspondent that the project period has already been extended once, and chances of further extension are slim.
Of the 228 schools, 86 are in Rangamati, 83 in Bandarban and 59 in Khagrachhari. Students of 157 schools took the primary terminal exams last year.
In January last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced nationalisation of 26,193 non-government primary schools across the country and jobs of more than 1.04 lakh teachers in three phases.
In the second phase, five schools in the CHT were included in the nationalisation scheme. The third phase is underway, with the ministry scrutinising documents of different schools.
One of the criteria for nationalisation is that each school must have 30 decimals of land registered before May 24, 2012.
But the 228 schools, managed by the hill district councils, could not do that before the deadline due to the complicated and lengthy registration process in the region.
These schools, however, fulfilled all other criteria and began the process of land registration long before the cut-off date, education ministry officials said.
Teachers say access to education in the hill districts is very limited. And if these schools do not come under the nationalisation scheme before the UNDP funding ends, then education in the hills will be at stake.
"We have 57 students from pre-primary to class five. There is no school in around seven kilometres. The students will be deprived of education if our school is not nationalised," said Sattabi Tanchanga, a teacher at Shilchhari Non-government Primary School in Rajasthali upazila of Rangamati.
"People are very poor here as they are mostly day labourers. Parents will not be able to send their children to other schools in the district if the school is closed," she told The Daily Star over the phone.
Paran Chakma, chairman of the managing committee of Retkaba Non-government Primary School in Sajek union in Rangamati, echoed her view.
"We will have to shut our school if the project ends," he said.
Currently, 95 children are studying in the school, set up by locals at the Sajek valley in 2001.
Development partners held a series of meetings with the primary and mass education ministry officials, who assured them of bringing the schools under the nationalisation scheme.
According to a decision of an inter-ministerial meeting on February 5 last year, these schools would be brought under the nationalisation scheme, considering them as special, sources said.
At the meeting, the CHT affairs ministry was asked to submit detailed information required for nationalisation to the primary and mass education ministry. Accordingly, the CHT affairs ministry submitted the documents.
Another meeting in August last year discussed whether the rules for nationalisation could be relaxed so that the schools could be included in the scheme.
However, some officials of the primary and mass education ministry showed reluctance to nationalise them. They think the institutions are some sort of learning centres, not proper schools, added the sources.
In October last year, the then primary and mass education and CHT affairs ministers at an informal meeting agreed that the primary and mass education ministry would send a summary to the prime minister, and request her to relax the land registration condition for the schools.
But it could not be done because of the volatile political situation ahead of the 10th parliamentary elections.
After taking office in January, Mostafizur Rahman, new primary and mass education minister, last month asked the CHT affairs ministry to come up with a fresh proposal for nationalisation of the 228 schools.
On receiving it, the primary and mass education ministry will send the proposal to the Prime Minister's Office, and make strong recommendation for approval, according to the sources.
The CHT affairs ministry has sent the required information to the primary and mass education ministry on February 24. But things have not progressed much since.
Contacted, Khagrachhari Primary Education Officer Ramendra Nath Poddar said, "These schools might not have some documents, but they are essential in these remote areas."
"We have sent a recommendation to the ministry to include the schools in the nationalisation process," he said, adding that a ministry team inspected the schools on March 5.
Ashraful Islam, additional secretary of the primary and mass education ministry, said these schools were not on the list when the nationalisation of 26,193 schools was declared.
"It is a new proposal and we have to consider it separately," he added.