Savitribai Phule memorial school a nightmare for Kasaragod's Adivasi children

  • School run from a pre-matric hostel for 100 students has 207 tribe children
  • Nearly 15% of students have scabies, with severe itching and sores but there is no sick room to isolate them
  • Parents say staff do not do laundry properly, and mix up clothes and underwear of students, causing skin diseases
  • In August first week, 80 students fell ill after borewell was contaminated with E. Coli
  • Government sat on the proposal for school building for four years; the new building will not be ready till March 2025
  • School run by the Department of Tribal Development has no recognition for Classes V, VI, and VII; teachers, temp staff
In 2019, the government built a 100-bed pre-matric hostel for students from tribe communities. It is now running a residential school with 200 students from the building. Photo: Special Arrangement

Kasaragod: Every time Adarsh (9), a Class III student, came home from his residential school, he created a fuss not to go back. Behind the fuss was fear. "He was afraid of an ayah (caretaker). She used to make children stand on one leg for more than an hour at night, or make them kneel on the ground," said Adarsh's mother Seena Ravi, a homemaker. "I can understand teachers punishing kids to bring some order in the hostel because there are many children. But this was unacceptable," said the homemaker.

It was not just Adarsh. Many students of Savitribai Phule Memorial Ashram School, run by the Scheduled Tribes Development Department (STDD), loathed returning to their hostel-cum-school at Kundamkuzhi in Kasaragod's Bedadka panchayat.

Two weeks ago, the Scheduled Tribes Development Department repatriated the caretaker to a pre-matric hostel in Kuttikol, her home institution.

But the nightmare of the students of Savitribai Phule school is far from over. A deviant caretaker was only the symptom. The State government's shabby management of the school is the disease.

Many children have scabies, an itchy skin condition caused by mites. "There is no hygiene and proper laundering of clothes," said Bhaskaran, a rubber tapper whose daughter is a Class III student of the school. "Her underwear gets mixed up when they come back from the laundry. She got rashes and itching because of that," he said. Bhaskaran, a native of Kuttikol panchayat, said he brought his daughter home when the rashes turned into sores because of intense itching.

Seena said her son and nephew, a class V student, too had scabies. "The doctor advised us to steam their clothes and blankets used in school to get rid of the mites," she said.

A crowded school-cum-hostel

In 2017, the Scheduled Tribes Development Department (STDD) started a residential school in a rented building in Kundamkuzhi. It began with Class I to cater to children from low-income tribal families. ST Promoters, the link between the government and beneficiaries, spread the word about the school.

Every year, the department would add a new class, with a capacity of 35 students per class.

In 2019-2020, when the school had three classes with 105 students, the department moved the institution to a newly built pre-matric hostel in Kundamkuzhi. In January 2022, the Scheduled Tribe Development Department changed the name of the school from Government Ashram School to Savitribai Phule Memorial Ashram School.

But the change of name did not help the students. The three-storey pre-matric hostel could accommodate only 100 students. "The department was running a school and a hostel from there," said a staffer. Today, the school has up to Class VII with 207 students, more than double the capacity of the hostel. The students are accommodated in four dormitories, which do not have space for 200 beds. "The staff put together two or three beds and asked five to six children to share them," said Bhaskaran.

Apart from the 207 students, there are 25 staffers, including 11 teachers, two caretakers, and cooks. They also stay in the hostel. "There is no spare room to accommodate even sick children," said the staffer.

Of the 207 students, around 30 children have scabies. "We partitioned two dormitories along the aisles to put up the children with scabies," said the staffer. That has further cramped the space for the remaining students. Children of the school have been complaining about itching for the past three years.

Wet clothes dumped in sacks, footwears in a heap

Around three months ago, Seena's son called her to say he did not have clothes to wear in the hostel. She was livid. Seena and her husband Ravi, a timber loading worker, had given him clothes worth Rs 5,000 before sending him to the hostel. "So I decided to go and check for myself where the clothes were," she said.

What Seena saw appalled her. The footwears of the children were in a heap in the hostel. There were no shoe racks.

The wet dirty clothes were dumped in several sacks on the terrace. "I pulled out the clothes from the sacks. They were stinking. I found my son's clothes in the bottom of a sack. Mounds had formed on the new clothes," she said.

The school does not have washing machines and the clothes of the 200-odd children are washed manually. "The sacks had the uniforms, nightdress, and innerwear all dumped together," she said. "No wonder children's clothes get mixed up and they have skin diseases," she said.

A top official of the Scheduled Tribe Development Department said mix-ups of innerwear were not uncommon in hostels. "We number the clothes to avoid that." The official, who is responsible for running the residential school, was not aware if inner wears and other clothes were washed separately.

The no-priority proposal

On July 31, Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Tribes K Radhakrishnan laid the foundation stone for a new school building on a 10-acre plot at Valliapara, 5km from the pre-matric hostel in Kundamkuzhi.

It is a Rs 32-crore project. In the first phase, the PWD is building 35 classrooms at a cost of Rs 7.5 crore.

Minister unveiling the plaque after laying the foundation stone for the school at Veliapara on July 31, 2023. Photo: Special Arrangement

Officials said they would shift the classes there once the classrooms are ready. It won't be anytime before March 2025. "PWD has set a deadline of 18 months. By then, the school would get Class VIII and another 35 little children would join the school," said a staffer. Worse, PWD is not known to stick to deadlines in the Kasaragod district.

An official of the Scheduled Tribe Development Department said they sent the proposal for the school in 2017, the same year the government started Class I from a rented building. The PWD, the agency implementing the project, gave the estimate to the government in 2018.

But the government gave administrative sanction to the project only in November 2022, said the official. "The government transferred the money to PWD in February. But the work will start only in September. I don't think PWD will stick to the deadline of 18 months," said the official.

Borewell contaminated, 80 students fall ill

While the government takes its sweet time to build the school, every day is torture for students in the school.

On the day Minister Radhakrishnan laid the foundation stone for the school, a few students fell ill. They had loose motion, vomiting, and fever. "We thought it was food poisoning from the ladoo they had during the function," said another staffer.

But more children started falling sick in the subsequent days. In all, 80 students fell ill, and 26 were admitted to the District Hospital in Kanhangad and Bedakam Taluk Hospital.

Seena said her son was taken to the District Hospital on August 3. The same evening, her nephew was also brought in and was admitted to the ICU of the hospital. The boy made it after three days in the intensive care unit.

The Kerala Water Authority tested the water in the borewell, the source of drinking water for the hostel-cum-school. The water had a high level of E. coli, a bacteria found in the lower intestines. "Sewage water had seeped into the borewell," said the staffer quoted in the first instance.

The top department official said the school's tank is being chlorinated multiple times and the borewell is also being superchlorinated. "For the time being, 15,000 litres of water is being brought in a tanker every day for the school," the official said.

Bhaskaran and Seena said they would not have sent their children back if not for the Onam exams.

No recognition, no regular teachers

In the seven-year-old school, the government has not appointed even a single regular teacher. Worse, Class V, VI, and VII do not have recognition either. "We have been writing to the government every year for recognition and appointment of regular teachers. But there is no response," said the official of the Scheduled Tribe Development Department.

Teachers of the school said they are not able to update the information of their students in Class V to VII on the government's school management portal Sampoorna. "Because of that, our students are not able to take part in interschool sports and cultural events. They just don't exist," said a teacher.

The state government had made Sampoorna mandatory from Classes I to XII for all recognised schools in Kerala, irrespective of their affiliations.

Parents said there are no specialist teachers in Classes V, VI, and VII. "The English teacher teaches maths and Malayalam, too," said Bhaskaran. From Class I to IV, one teacher handles one class.

Of the 25 staffers of the school, only three are regular employees: the manager, a clerk, and a caretaker.

But parents said they did not have complaints against teachers. "They teach well and care for students," said Seena.

Bhaskaran said he is happy his daughter speaks English. "But she told me that some teachers give instructions in Malayalam though the school is an English medium school," he said.

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