The gloss of the PR has done nothing to remove the grim reality of rural Maharashtra’s tribal boarding schools, which remain death-traps for children, reports Prateek Goyal

Photos: Prateek Goyal

The façade is impressive: A group of smiling children, smartly dressed in pink-and-green school uniforms play on a lush green ground, while in the backdrop is a beautifully designed green-and-white building with a board that says ‘Shasakiya Prathmik va Madhyamik Ashramshala’. This is the cover picture of an information booklet brought out by the Maharashtra government’s tribal development department. However, the reality of the ashramshalas, or boarding schools for tribal children, in the state is a far cry from what the image depicts.

Consider this: Between 2001 and 2013, 793 children died in these schools due to minor illnesses and reptile bites, primarily because medical aid was unavailable. Tribal rights activists allege that the schools, which have an annual budget of around 300 crore, are plagued by poor infrastructure; the food provided is substandard and incidents of sexual exploitation are rampant.

In July 2012, a snake bit six children while they were sleeping on the floor of an ashramshala at Makkadghoda in Gondia district. Two of them succumbed to death. The students had no option but to sleep on the floor due to the non-availability of beds at the ashramshala. The total strength of the ashramshala was reported to be 384 children and 150 of them had to sleep on the floor.

In December 2012, an 18-year-old tribal girl was allegedly gangraped in the premises of an ashramshala in Nashik district. Fifteen staff members, including the superintendent, were suspended for neglecting rules and being absent from the school on the day. As per rules, the superintendent has to stay in the school premises all the time for the safety of the children.

In January 2009, a 15-year-old student became pregnant at the ashramshala of Govade village in Palghar district. There were allegations that the superintendent of the tribal residential school had sexually exploited her on the pretext of helping her resolve some family issues.

TEHELKA visited Nandurbar to find out how the crores of rupees allotted to these schools are actually spent and whether the ashramshalas are indeed making any real difference in the lives of the tribal children. Nandurbar has the largest number of tribals in the state, who belong to the Bhil, Tadvi and Pawara communities.

Wrong focus The state pumps in money to build new ashramshalas rather than repairing old ones, Photo: Prateek Goyal

On 14 November, at the government-run ashramshala in Dahel village of Akkalkuwa taluka, nestled in the Satpura mountain range, two 12-year-old girls are sweeping the broken floor of a 350-sq ft room inside a hut with wooden walls. Small steel trunks have been kept in the corners of the room and there are maps of the district and the state on the wall, besides a painting of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and a logo of the tribal development department. Two blackboards have been hung from the outer wall. Boys in torn clothes, some of which are uniforms, are chatting in the nearby hut. In another hut, some young men in their 20s are sitting on plastic chairs and a cot made of knotted ropes.

“We are waiting for the headmaster. We will celebrate Children’s Day once he is here,” says Ramnya Vasave, 29, who works as a temporary teacher in the ashramshala.

Akkalkuwa, incidentally, has the lowest literacy rate among all the talukas in Maharashtra. Of the 340 students at the Dahel ashramshala, which provides education from Class I to VII, 280 are boarders and the rest are day scholars who live in the village.

“We have separate boarding facilities for girls and boys. There are 190 girls and 90 boys, who live in two girls’ hostels and one boys’ hostel, respectively,” says Vasave.

In fact, the ashramshala comprises four huts, three of which serve as classrooms-cum-hostels and the fourth houses the kitchen. The biggest hut has three rooms and also doubles as the school office and storeroom. The 280 boarders are accommodated in five rooms, each no more than 350 sq ft. Thus, 50-60 students in the 6-14 age group are crammed into a single dorm in this ashramshala. This is the scenario not just in Dahel, but in almost all the ashramshalas across the state.

The conditions in the boarding schools fly in the face of the rules laid down by the tribal development department. According to the rules, an ashramshala should be housed in a proper building with adequate space for classes and hostels. There should also be separate toilets for boys and girls. At the Dahel ashramshala, however, there is only a roofless structure that is supposed to be the toilet, but it is unusable.

“We go to the nearby river in the morning for bathing and other daily chores,” says Sunita (name changed), a Class VI student.

The rules stipulate that there should be a computer centre in every ashramshala, but the one in Dahel does not even have the basic facilities of electricity and water supply. The students are supposed to get a nutritious diet comprising eggs, fruit, vegetable, milk, nuts, bread, rice and chapatti, but that remains only on paper.

“Thrice every day, we are served the same meal of poha and khichdi. We are never given milk or tea, and get eggs and fruit only twice a month,” says 13-year-old Kapil (name changed), a Class VII student who stays at the ashramshala.

The rule that stipulates quarterly medical check-ups for the students is also flouted brazenly. The students at Dahel inform that there are no such check-ups, nor does the school provide any form of medical aid.

Raising a stink Most of the toilets are in a bad condition, forcing students to venture out in the wild, Photo: Prateek Goyal

The superintendent or warden appointed to take care of the children is supposed to reside permanently at the ashramshala and take responsibility for their safety. But the warden of the Dahel ashramshala, students point out, leaves for his home every evening. Even the headmaster has not been seen at the school for nearly a month.

So, who takes care of the children at night? “The superintendent has hired a watchman for that,” says another teacher on the condition of anonymity.

The four temporary teachers present at the school express helplessness in the face of the apathy of the headmaster and the superintendent. “What can we do? After all, they are permanent employees who are paid salaries of more than Rs 35,000 per month, while we are daily-wage workers and are paid only Rs 56 per hour,” says a teacher. “Moreover, we can be thrown out any time.”

Asha Walvi, who prepares food for the children at the ashramshala, complains that she has not been paid anything since being hired in June. “We were not even told how much we would be paid,” she says.

The conditions at other ashramshalas are no different. “Everything is a problem here,” says KP Tadvi, headmaster of the ashramshala at Sari village in the same taluka. “There is neither electricity, nor water. The children have to walk at least 1 km to access drinking water. The roads are in disrepair. Politicians come here only when there are elections. I am a tribal and have been living here since my birth, but I have never seen any development.”

Nearly 400 children are enrolled at the Sari ashramshala, which provides education from Class I to X. The children live in dingy rooms with no electricity or water.

“I joined during monsoon. The conditions are the worst during that season,” says Anita Vasave, the superintendent. “With these leaky roofs, surviving the monsoon is a nightmare for both students and teachers.”

Vasave points out that there are no toilets and the children have to go to the nearby streams for their daily chores. “It is not safe, but they have no option,” she says.

The permanent teachers are absent on most days. “They have three-year tenures, but they quit after a year or so,” says a temporary employee, who has been working here for the past eight years. “This is not good for the education of these tribal children.”

Hunger pangs The students are supposed to get a nutritious diet, but that remains only on paper, Photo: Prateek Goyal

The Paschim Khandesh Bhil Seva Mandal Primary and Secondary Ashramshala in Molgi village, which is run by a private trust owned by Suhas Natawadkar, a prominent local politician, has a better office and a computer centre as well. But, for the 504 students enrolled here, the living conditions are no better than in the Dahel and Sari ashramshalas.

“On an average, the government grants us an aid of Rs 33 lakh per year, but that is not enough. We need more funds for the smooth running of school,” says VH Chowdhary, the headmaster. “We are planning to construct a new building, but that is getting delayed due to some legal issues.”

The conditions are no better at the ashramshala in Shahada taluka. There are dumps of garbage near the school kitchen, the toilets are dirty and the rooms small and unkempt. Class X students are unable to read even simple English words like sugar and elephant.

“We are operating out of a rented place now. That’s why the conditions are so bad,” says RO Bharari, the headmaster. “In fact, we haven’t paid the rent for the past six months due to unavailability of funds. A new building is being constructed on land allotted for the school and hopefully we will move there soon.”

Loksangharsh Morcha general secretary Pratibha Shinde, who has been working for the past 21 years in Nandurbar district on the issues of tribal rights and development, points out that there are serious problems with both the government-run and the government-aided ashramshalas.

“While the former lack necessary infrastructure and permanent teachers are absent most of the time, the latter are run by politicians and their kin,” says Shinde. “The aided ashramshalas have become a business for them. They show inflated enrolment figures to get funds from the government.”

Shinde adds that the superintendents often lock up the children at night and leave. “Sometimes, the children defecate in the rooms as they cannot go out,” she says. “When the superintendent returns the next morning, he scolds the children and makes them clean the place. There have also been instances of girls facing sexual harassment from local boys when they go to bathe at the rivers or streams.”

Citing a survey done by the Morcha, Shinde says, “Akkalhuwa, Taloda and Dhadgaon talukas of Nandurbar district come under the category of malnourished areas. Every year, 70 percent of the population, including children, from the villages in these talukas migrates to urban areas in search of food and work. They stay there for at least six months. Then, how is it possible that 400-500 students study in the ashramshalas throughout the year? The school authorities are taking grants in the name of non-existent students. There is rampant corruption in the system. We are planning a protest to demand the closing down of all the ashramshalas in north Maharashtra.”

Last year, not a single student from the Roshmal ashramshala in Dhadgaon taluka passed the Class X examination. “The ashramshala is surrounded by liquor dens,” says local tribal activist Sumitra Vasave. “Sometimes, the teachers turn up in school drunk. There are no inspections by officials and so the teachers do as they please.”

TEHELKA spoke to tribal development project officer Shukracharya Dudhad at his office in Taloda. “Out of 62 ashramshalas in Taloda, 40 are government-aided and 22 are private. On an average, Rs 1 crore is spent on each ashramshala,” he informs. “The department is trying to improve the condition of the ashramshalas. In fact, we are doing better than the other states.”

In Maharashtra, the tribal development department runs 24 projects, of which 11 have been declared sensitive. They are the projects at Taloda, Jawahar, Pandhavkawda, Aheri, Gadchiroli, Bhamragad, Nashik, Kalwan, Dahanu, Dharni and Kinwat. According to the department rules, the project officers should be from the IAS and have a three-year tenure. But, as per the report of a committee led by Jayant Patil, a former member of the Planning Commission, five IAS officers have been posted in these sensitive areas since 1982 and their cumulative tenure is less than three years. In fact, no IAS officer has worked for more than a year in any of these 11 projects.

The apathy towards tribal welfare is reflected in the dropout rates among tribal children in the state. The Patil committee reported that of the 19 percent of tribal children (6-14 age group) who drop out of school across the country, seven percent are from Maharashtra.

Given the deplorable state of the ashramshalas, some activists are demanding that they should be closed down. “Politicians are minting crores in the name of tribal boarding schools, while the children get nothing,” says Kishore Tiwari of the Nagpur-based Vidarbh Jan Andolan Samiti. “They should be closed and the government should instead invest in opening hostels for tribal children at the taluka level. Tribal children should be enrolled in regular schools so that they can study with children from other backgrounds and have a better future.”

Tiwari points out that the main problem lies in the utilisation of funds. “Funds allocated for tribal development gets diverted into other departments,” he alleges. In 2012, Tiwari wrote to Chief Justice MS Shah of the Bombay High Court on the plight of ashramshalas in the state. His letter became a petition on the basis of which the court issued a notice to the Maharashtra government, asking it to file an affidavit on the condition of ashramshalas in the state.

“Of the 1,108 ashramshalas in the state, 552 are government-run and the rest are government-aided,” says Sanjeev Kumar, commissioner for tribal development, Maharashtra. “We are aware of the problems and are trying to solve them. Take the shortage of teachers. The recruitment process is in the final stages and, over the next two weeks, 647 teachers will be hired for ashramshalas across the state.”

Cramped In some of the boarding schools, 50-60 children are forced to reside in a single dorm, Photo: Prateek Goyal

According to Kumar, although the budget for ashramshalas is huge (nearly Rs 300 crore), most of it (around two-third) is spent on building new boarding schools. This means new ashramshalas are being built even as the existing ones are in a pitiable shape.

As per the tribal development department, the total budget for tribal development under the tribal sub-plan is Rs 4,968 crore. Six percent of this is supposed to be spent on tribal education, including ashramshalas.

In February, the Hemanand Biswal-led standing committee on social justice and empowerment in the Lok Sabha, constituted during the UPA-2 regime, submitted its report in Parliament. According to the report, between 2001 and 2013, 793 tribal students in ashramshalas across Maharashtra died due to snakebites, scorpion bites and minor ailments. Nashik division alone witnessed 393 deaths, the highest in the state. Of these 393 children, 166 died in Taloda taluka.

According to the rules under the ashramshala scheme, the parents of each deceased child should be given a compensation of Rs 15,000. The committee noted that no compensation was paid in 340 of the cases in Maharashtra.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 2013 points out shortfalls in the inspection of ashramshalas and arrears in their audit. The report of a previous performance audit, conducted in 2005 for the period 1999-2004, stated that the government had not done any evaluation of the ashramshala scheme ever since it was launched in 1953-54.

The 2005 report also mentions that no medical check-ups were conducted between 1999 and 2004 even though they are supposed be done four times every year. Moreover, despite Rs 10 crore approved by the Centre for the purchase of 1,794 computers, 299 printers and 299 tables, only 166 computers were bought for the ashramshalas.

“The conditions at the ashramshalas are the same everywhere,” says Lalsu Soma, a tribal activist from Gadchiroli district. “The teachers don’t want to come here to teach the tribal children. Often, just one person teaches all the subjects. In the interior areas where malnourishment is rampant, the children go to the ashramshalas just to get something to eat.”

Speaking to TEHELKA, Tribal Development Minister Vishnu Savra asserted that he is taking stock of the situation and will soon take “suitable action to sort out the problems”. Incidentally, this is Savra’s second stint as the tribal development minster.

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