Editor’s Note: This is the third 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, second part here
Ashwathy’s Class 11 examination will begin on September 6, but she has not decided whether to appear for it. “Why should I write the examination? I have not learned anything in the last one year. I will definitely fail if I attend it,”says the 17-year-old.
Her friend Anjana too is worried about the examinations. “We are not ready for it. We are ‘powerless’ students,” she says.
What the students try to articulate is not just their poverty but the lack of power supply, which has been affecting studies of 31 students in Madamkunnu tribal hamlet in Wayanad district ever since the schools shifted to online and digital education mode in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all students own mobile phones or digital learning devices here. The handful who own them, however, do not have the facility to recharge. When the phone battery goes dry, they step out of their colony and walk to the grocery shop some one-and-a-half kilometres away for a recharge. But it is not offered for free. They have to pay Rs 3 each time.
The battery dries quicker because multiple people use phones for different purposes.
Ashwathy’s mother Sheeba owns a mobile phone. She carries it while accompanying her father to hospital for cancer treatment. When she is not using it, Ashwathy and two of her siblings - Class 10 student Aleena and Class 7 student Anupama - will watch online lessons. “The phone will go to sleep when I get my turn. I could not even take down notes from my teachers,” she said.
Displaced & ‘unauthorised’ residents
Lying on the banks of Karappuzha reservoir in Muttil gram panchayat, the Madamkunnu tribal hamlet is 15km east of the Wayanad district headquarters of Kalpetta.
The works of the Karappuzha dam began in 1978 and was commissioned in 2005. The project displaced 168 families, but only half of them have been relocated so far. The remaining families still live in the catchment area of the dam.
The government has in principle agreed to allot land to them in Madamkunnu but the process is moving at a slow pace. The irrigation department considers the residents as unauthorised residents and this hampers providing electricity to the colony.
All the tiny houses in the colony are built of mud and covered with tarpaulin sheets. Three years ago, the tribal department installed solar panels over the tarpaulin sheets to light just one lamp. The panels, however, do not function now.
The executive engineer of the Karappuzha irrigation project, after considering a request from Muttil gram panchayat in July this year, had allowed electricity connection only ‘for education purpose’. Two months have passed since the electrification was sanctioned, but power supply still remains a dream for the residents.
“We have given permission to electrify the colony only for educational purposes. The onus is on Muttil panchayat to follow it up,” says executive engineer.
The gram panchayat council member from Madankunnu, PV Sajeev hopes the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) will speed up the process. “I don’t know why they are delaying it.”
Study centre at a far place
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.
In the absence of such basic learning facilities, students have to go to a study centre where they can watch the classes on television and attend classes by teachers. However, a majority of the students give the classes a miss because the place is far away.
Prior to the launch of study centres, teachers hired by the tribal department - they are known as mentor teachers - used to visit all the tribal hamlets in Wayanad district. They used to give personal attention to the students. The teacher, who was deputed at Madamkunnu, used to bring fully recharged mobile phones for the students.
“Children never missed classes when the mentor teacher used to visit our hamlet. She used to help them complete homework and solve their doubts. The tribal department stopped their colony visits because of the rapid spread of COVID-19. It is a huge loss for us,” said Sheeba, mother of three girl students.
Clamour for power
The residents feel that their lives will become better if the government provides electricity to the hamlet.
Sixty-year-old Ammini, who cultivates ginger and tapioca for a living, knows the benefits of electricity. “It will bring lights to our homes. Students can charge their mobile phones and we can watch television if we get it,” she said.
Sheeba said children in the colony will have to depend on Thozhilurappu scheme - a lingo for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme - like her if the government fails to provide them basic facilities. “What we need now is electricity. It can change the lives of a generation of people,” she said.
The Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP), which aims at reducing poverty and improving educational status among tribals, officials say, faces a lot of issues since education turned digital.
ITDP’s District Project Officer TC Cheriyan says Wayanad district has 26,000 tribal students from Class 1 to 12. “Of this, 23,000 students do not have devices, such as tablets and laptops. We do not count mobile phones as learning devices. Around 30 tribal hamlets in Wayanad district do not have internet access,” he says.
He says lack of electricity too is another major issue, but he hopes students in Madamkunnu will get power soon. “The process is on, and I hope they will get power soon,” he said.
(to be continued)
Next: How students in a jungle in Malappuram district got internet access