Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final part of a series that probes the troubles faced by Adivasi students due to poor mobile connectivity in Kerala. Read the first part here, second part here and third part here.
Fourteen-year-old Nandan has not seen his textbooks or learnt any lessons after COVID-19 forced the closure of schools in Kerala in March, 2020. When his teachers at the Eranhimangad Higher Secondary School offered online classes, the Class 9 student would be playing with his friends at the Vettilakkolly tribal hamlet inside the Nilambur forest in Kerala’s Malappuram district. He could not attend the classes for two reasons. He did not possess a mobile device and there was no internet connection at his colony.
Like Nandan, 141 other students living in three different tribal hamlets inside the forest - Ambumala, Vettilakkolly and Palakayam - too lost one-and-a-half years of education because they lived in ‘out of internet coverage area’.
But their lives changed for good in the last week of August when they got the internet, tablets and smart television sets. Now they are taking baby steps to adapt to the online and digital modes of learning.
A week’s training has changed Nandan’s perspective about online learning. “I am watching the classes on my tablet. I have learnt how to handle the device and join classes,” Nandan told this correspondent during a video conference on Friday.
Forty-year-old Mundan from Vettilakkolly and father of Class 4 student Ammukkutty says the internet has brought in a lot of changes in his colony. “Our children have begun learning after one-and-a-half years. It is a great relief to see them studying together,” he said.
Ambumala, Vettilakkolly and Palakkayam tribal settlements inside Nilambur forest are part of Chaliyar gram panchayat that lie 60km north of the district headquarters of Malappuram.
Twenty five families each (158 members) belonging to Paniya tribe live in Ambumala and Vettilakkolly colonies, while 34 families from Muthuvan tribe and 16 families from Kattunaika tribe (154 people) live in Palakkayam hamlet. Only four-wheel drive vehicles can pass through the dangerous forest track often frequented by elephants and wild boars. Before the pandemic, the tribal development department used to ferry students to the school.
Long distance internet
Adivasi students are reaping the benefits of a project launched by the Malappuram district chapter of Jan Shikshan Sansthan (JSS), an Indian government initiative to provide skill training to the rural population, in the three tribal hamlets.
“The JSS decided to provide internet access to the three hamlets after we heard about lack of internet connectivity there. We then partnered with Wayanad-based technology company, C4S, to provide long distance wifi connectivity. We faced many obstacles but we are happy to complete the project quickly,” said V Ummer Koya, Jan Shikshan Sansthan project director in Malappuram district.
JSS spent Rs 7 lakh to complete the project of which the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) contributed Rs 5 lakh while the Jan Shikshan Sansthan footed the remaining Rs 2 lakh. Rajya Sabha member and chairman of JSS in Malappuram district P V Abdul Wahab contributed 50 tablets while Malabar Gold supplied 10, which the students are now using to access online classes.
C4S, the technology partner of the project, installed five towers to enable the long distance wifi connection. The base station is located at Indira Gandhi Model Residential Higher Secondary School in Nilambur some 25km away from the hamlets. The base station has a 100 mbps (megabits per second) wifi connection, which is being transmitted to the colonies without packet loss.
“The uniqueness of the long distance wifi connection is that it ensures 100 mbps connectivity in all three colonies. We have installed enough solar panels to ensure uninterrupted power supply and internet access,” said Roshy T Falgunan, managing director of C4S.
The installation of the towers inside the forest was an uphill task. Construction materials, including cement, were carried on the head as the tower locations could not be accessed even by four-wheel drive vehicles. “We got great support from the residents of the hamlets without which we could not have completed the project. Even C4S offered their manpower for free,” said Ummer Koya.
JSS has roped in a field coordinator from within the tribal community to ensure that students get access to uninterrupted internet coverage and online classes.
Sunil P, a graduate in economics who hails from Palakkayam colony, visits all the three colonies regularly. He says the internet connectivity has brought in a lot of changes in the tribal hamlets within a short period. “I can see the enthusiasm among the students after getting the internet and the devices. What impresses them most is the quicker downloads because of the 100 mbps speed,” he said during the videoconference.
Undergraduate computer science students at the Amal College of Advanced Studies in Nilambur have been helping the Jan Shikshan Sansthan to install the specific software to access the internet in the students’ devices. “Our students have installed the software and trained tribal students on how to operate mobile phones and access classes,” said Niloofer S, who teaches computer Science at the college.
Issues in Vettilakkolly
Vettilakkolly is a poor hamlet compared to the other two Adivasi settlements.
All the 25 families here live in dilapidated houses covered with tarpaulin sheets. Children are undernourished as they eat only one meal a day.
Field coordinator Sunil said children eat rice gruel with green chillies only once a day. The Jan Shikshan Sansthan is now planning to provide breakfast to the children. Project director Ummer Koya said the free breakfast scheme will make students more healthy and help them concentrate in their studies.
While Ambumala and Palakkayam colonies have community halls to facilitate television screening, Vettilakkolly did not have such a facility before the arrival of the smart television. But they built a bamboo hut using raw materials from the forest. “All the residents in the hamlet chipped in the construction. They brought in bamboo from the forest and built it for their children. It is the result of great teamwork. It shows their enthusiasm for education,” said field coordinator Sunil.
But hamlet’s chieftain Cheriyapalan said the bamboo hut is not safe for the students and they need a concrete structure. “The hamlet is frequented by elephants and wild boars, so it is not safe to sit in the huts. We need a concrete community hall,” he said.
The successful launch of internet in the three tribal hamlets appears to have emboldened Jan Shikshan Sansthan’s plan to provide internet connectivity to 81 remaining tribal hamlets scattered in different parts of the district. Thirteen of them do not have any internet connectivity while the remaining 68 have poor access. “We have already discussed the plan with the State government’s Information Technology secretary. We hope it will happen soon,” said Jan Shikshan Sansthan project director Ummer Koya.
“Plans to introduce telemedicine services and an online platform to market honey and medicinal plants collected from the forest in the colonies are also in the pipeline,” he said.