Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series that probes the troubles faced by Adivasi students due to poor mobile connectivity in Kerala. Read the first part here
Raju trudges through the Kannavam Reserve Forest every morning carrying his five-year-old daughter, Priyananda, on his back.
The short trip from home ends at a huge rock where he and other parents at the Parakkad tribal hamlet built a temporary shed covered with tarpaulin sheets.
Priyananda spends a few hours there keeping her father’s smartphone on a specially designed wooden holder. She listens to the lessons from her teachers and completes her homework of the day.
The rock where Priyananda sits is the learning centre for 10 other students too. In between listening to the classes, they have to regularly pick leeches that threaten to suck blood from their bodies. Elephants and wild boars often pass through the place. So parents will form a protective cover around them. and will quickly take their wards to the safety of their homes when they spot animals.
This has been a routine for all the 22 students and their parents who live deep inside the forest. They have to set out from their homes in the morning and find vantage points in the woods to get the elusive internet signals ever since schools switched to online mode of education in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. They spent hours downloading Whatsapp messages and videos from their teachers.
No road, no internet
Parakkad tribal hamlet is in Kolayad gram panchayat, which is 45km east of the district headquarters of Kannur, and falls under the Mattannur Assembly constituency represented by former health minister K K Shailaja Teacher.
One hundred and twenty people from 30 families live in this hamlet. Lack of internet availability has made the lives of parents and students miserable.
Reaching Parakkad colony itself is an onerous task. Only four-wheel drive vehicles can pass through the dangerous 6.5km forest stretch from the entry point at Chembukkavu to the hamlet. Drivers often take pit stops to allow the passage of wild elephants. According to rough estimates, around 40 elephants live inside the forest.
“The government did not give us a decent road. Now they are denying us the internet too,” lamented 45-year-old Balan, whose son Abhinand is planning to pursue a diploma in engineering after passing Class 12 exam this year. His daughter Abhina is in Class 9.
Abhinand attended online classes from a forest watch tower inside the forest last year. Elephants had scared him many times at that time. “I was lucky to escape elephant attacks. When I spotted them, I hid inside the watchtower,” he said.
Demands fall on deaf ears
Residents have been demanding free wifi connection to all students since last year.
They had submitted a memorandum to the Kannur district collector in May 2020, but the pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
“Only free wifi internet coverage can solve our problems,” said Abhina who often misses her classes on google meet. “Parents of children here work as daily wage labourers. They are finding it hard to recharge their mobile internet every month. My father is spending Rs 400 for me and my brother. We have to cut down many of our essential requirements to buy the internet. That is why we demand free wifi connectivity,” she said.
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.
Recently the district administration provided internet connectivity at 20 hamlets using the district collector’s fund while the district panchayat has earmarked Rs 30 lakh to install wireless networks in remote tribal hamlets. But nothing has reached Parkkad so far.
Leaving jobs to protect children
With the onus of providing protection to children during the online classes, many parents are unable to go to work these days.
Priyananda’s father Raju is one among them. “How can I go to work while leaving my daughter out in the forest?” he asked.
Roy Paulose, who represents the hamlet (Ward No. 13) in Kolayad gram panchayat council, said parents are sacrificing jobs to protect their children. “Wild elephants and boars are a common sight here. Children will be scared when they spot them. So these parents provide a protection cover to them,” he said.
Though they miss out on the online classes, residents hailed the recent appointment of a tutor, to help students in their studies.
Sreejina, a graduate in business studies and a resident at the hamlet, now helps students read and write.
“Students who miss out on online lessons are happy to attend her classes. It is a huge relief for us,” said Shiji, mother of Class 5 student Devaj Krishna.
The tutor helps them watch classes televised on the Education Department’s Kite-Victers Channel and answers questions raised by the students.
“The tutor’s appointment has made a huge difference in students' attitude. Imagine what will happen if they are given uninterrupted internet coverage. Hope the powers-that-be will listen to our pleas,” said ward member Roy.
(To be continued)
Next: No electricity, no mobile charging points in this Wayanad tribal colony