An astounding 684 children died in Maharashtra alone during this period, ET has found out through applications filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act in August 2015 in all the 10 states with tribal-dominated areas under Schedule V of the Constitution.
Odisha, some of whose districts are yet to send across the data, reported 155 deaths. Gujarat was next, with 30 deaths, and Andhra Pradesh reported 13 deaths for the period. Rajasthan, Telangana and Jharkhand did not report any deaths. Odisha tops the list on sexual abuse, with 16 cases against students in schools, followed by Maharashtra which reported 13.
The applications were filed to find out the number of deaths of children, reasons of deaths, compensation given to parents, number of parents still not compensated and cases of sexual abuse in the state-run residential schools, which are called ashram schools and Eklavya Model residential schools.
The applications were filed in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan.
All states, barring HP and Chhattisgarh, replied to the applications, albeit after numerous phone calls and reminders. In Odisha, the application had to be filed again to elicit a response. The causes of deaths stated by the governments include suicide, blood cancer, jaundice, brain TB, rabies, snake bites, malaria, cerebral malaria, meningitis, typhoid and scorpion bites.
But these are not all. The stated reasons also include train accident, attack by wasps, aspiration of food, tractor accident, normal death, sui cide, death at night i n s l e e p, s evere headache, heavy in tra-abdominal bleeding due to rup ture of spleen due to blunt trauma, elec blunt trauma, electric shock and “sleep on the floor and fell down“.
In at least three cases, one dating back to 2011, Odisha reported that viscera have been preserved for expert opinion and the post-mortem report has not been received.
Union tribal affairs minister Jual Oram said, “We do not have any mechanism at the Centre by which we can monitor these deaths. This is a state subject. We give funds to the states to construct residential schools, but their management is done by the states. When we hear of any death or sexual abuse cases, we ask for a report and also send out advisories.“
A spokesperson of Maharashtra’s tribal development department said the state government is aware of the problem and has initiated a massive programme WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene. This involves constructing toilets in schools and providing drinking water facilities, for which small repairs of up to `1 lakh can be sanctioned by the school committees themselves.
“The collector can sanction big repair works and they need not come to the state government. We have also asked for a dedicated cell in the public works department to only look at residential school construction and maintenance work,“ the spokesperson said.
National Dalit Movement for Justice general secretary V Ramesh Nathan said the residential schools for tribal children lack basic facilities. “We have also visited several schools across the states and have been appalled by the lack of drinking water facility, toilets and even beds for the children,“ he said.
In one school in Andhra Pradesh, Nathan said the organisation found a school that had a classroom which doubled up as a dining room and later a bedroom for the children. “There was no toilet and the girls would go to the nearby river to bathe. It is because of such a state of schools that children drown or get bitten by snakes and scorpions,“ he said.
Nathan suggested that a central monitoring mechanism where the states report deaths and cases of sexual abuse could go a long way in checking these incidents.
Even after the tribal parents lose their children, the ordeal does not end. Some of the families have been waiting for ex-gratia payments for years. Maharashtra has not paid 145 bereaved families any compensation due to lack of funds. As per informa tion received from Maharashtra, the state government has not paid exgratia payments in at least 10 cases dating back to 2013-14 and 82 to 2014-15.
The spokesperson said the state government has also initiated a detailed analysis for every school to understand the reasons for deaths and why treatment could not be provided in time. “We will now maintain data centrally. Any school which reports repeated deaths will be derecognised,“ he said. As for non-payment of compensation, he said, “There are insufficient funds under `Non-Plan’ head.Now we are also holding meetings to rope in insurance companies for this.But till then, `Plan’ funds will be used.“
There are similar cases of non-payment in Odisha and Gujarat. About 43 families in Odisha and 19 in Gujarat have not received ex-gratia payments.
As per the replies to RTI applications, Andhra Pradesh pays just `5,000 to a bereaved family -`3,000 as ex-gratia and `2,000 for funeral charges -while other states pay between `50,000 and `1 lakh per family .
Odisha Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste development secretary Surendra Kumar Sukant said, “We have been very proactive in addressing the problems in our ashram schools. There have been cases of sexual abuse. We have developed stringent protocols which make it absolutely impossible for a male to enter a hostel facility for girls.“
Sukant said the instances of sexual abuse have come down substantially .As for the deaths, he said, “Several cases of deaths are because of diseases these tribal children carry from their homes.“ The secretary said that the government has taken stringent action of dismissing guilty teachers.“There was a case where a teacher sent a tribal girl student to his sisterin-law’s place for household chores.We dismissed the teacher,“ he said.
Gujarat’s tribal development secretary RC Meena and Andhra’s special chief secretary tribal welfare department Solomon Arokia Raj remained unavailable for comments despite repeated phone calls and emails.
Former tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo termed the statistics “appalling“ and blamed the states for the poor administration of the schools, but said the Centre can intervene in the matter. “I do not agree that the Centre cannot do anything about this. States listen to the Centre if a carrot-and-stick policy is employed. If the ministry works out a system which is linked to funds transfer and puts certain conditions before the states to shape up else no money would come to them, this problem can be tackled,“ Deo said.