Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series that probes the troubles faced by Adivasi students due to poor mobile connectivity in Kerala.
Around 70 students at Panniyode tribal hamlet in Kannur district are in shock.
On August 26, they saw their friend Ananthu Babu being carried to the hospital with serious injuries after he fell from the top of a tree. The 17-year old didn't climb the tree for fun. He wanted to check the status of his online application for admission to Class 11 and download online study materials of his sister Ansha. Unfortunately, the trunk he was sitting in broke and fell down from a height of 20metres. Ananthu broke his legs and suffered minor injuries to his spine. He is being treated at the Government Medical College in Kannur.
Panniyode tribal hamlet is inside the Kannavam Forest in Chittaripparambu gram panchayat that lies 40 km north east of the district headquarters of Kannur.
The accident brought to light the issue of lack of mobile connectivity at tribal hamlets and the struggles Adivasi students are facing with schools migrating to online mode of education due to COVID-19.
Despite the accident, many students in the Payyanode hamlet were seen climbing the lofts (huts on tree tops) on Monday too.
“We don’t have any other option. We have to climb the lofts to get a mobile signal,” said Ananthu’s younger brother and Class 10 student Anoosh.
He said his friends have been missing out on homework ever since the schools closed due to COVID-19 in June 2020. “We have to either walk a few kilometres to reach the periphery of the forest or scale the tree tops to get the mobile signal. Even then, it takes hours to download a five-minute video sent by teachers,” he said.
In the digital education mode, students have to watch classes televised on the Education Department’s Kite-Victers Channel following which they have to complete homework given by teachers through social media platforms, such as WhatsApp.
Not a new issue
Parents and students at Panniyode colony have been raising the mobile connectivity issue since 2020.
Sajitha P, a Kudumbashree animator who lives in the colony, said the residents and students had submitted a memorandum to the Kannur district collector to provide mobile connectivity in 2020 itself. “Our plea elicited no response. But the government officials rushed to the colony when they heard about Ananthu’s accident,” she said.
With the authorities turning a blind eye to their demands, students were forced to scale trees to get the feeble mobile signal. And they used to spend hours there to download their study materials.
“We may get a feeble signal if the weather is pleasant. There won't be any signal on rainy days,” said Sreenish, a Class 11 student.
Such attempts ended up in mishaps too.
In June this year, Class 8 student Nikhil came face to face with a venomous snake while climbing a tree.
“He screamed aloud when he spotted a snake above his head. He jumped down and suffered injuries to his head. But the issue did not make headlines at that time,” said his neighbour Sajeevan.
“This issue could be resolved only if the government initiated measures to provide us 4G mobile connectivity,” he said.
Sister recounts the incident
Ananthu’s younger sister and Class 5 student Ansha is yet to recover from the shock of watching her brother falling from the tree.
“He went up to download my assignments. I was sitting in the loft. I looked down when I heard a thud. And I was shocked to see him lying near a rock,” she said.
Sajitha said Ananthu was lucky to survive the fall. “It would have been fatal had his head hit the nearby rock. He had a close shave,” she said.
What government officials say
According to official figures, Kannur district has 440 tribal hamlets and 5,666 students have been enrolled this year from Class 1 to 12. Mobile network coverage is not available in 137 tribal hamlets.
An ITDP official said mobile connectivity has been provided in 20 hamlets using the district collector’s fund this year.
“District panchayat has earmarked Rs 30 lakh to install wireless networks in remote tribal hamlets. Mobile companies are working to boost mobile strength,” said an ITDP official and said that connectivity issues could be resolved in two months.
On Monday, mobile service providers - Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Kerala Vision - were busy installing a couple of wireless internet connections at the colony.
Injured Aanthu is following all the developments from his hospital bed at the Government Medical College Hospital in Kannur.
“I am happy to know that my fall has forced government officials to act quickly. I am sure that I will recover soon. I hope I don’t have to climb the tree again,” he said.
(To be continued.)
Part - 2: Searching for coverage daring elephants and wild boars