On March 31 this year, all the existing 271 multi-grade learning centres (MGLCs) or single-teacher schools that were started 25 years ago in the remotest and poorest regions of Kerala were shut down. The 344 teachers who ran these schools were then redesignated as 'Full-time Contingent Menial' or 'Part-Time Contingent Menial', which in short meant sweepers or part-time sweepers.
When the MGLC system began in 1992 under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), its teachers were given perhaps the toughest of assignments. They had to initiate into learning children from the poorest of homes located in areas abandoned by civilisation. And for two decades, these men and women climbed rocky mountains, cut through forbidding forests and waded through deep waters to reach these modest learning centres deep inside a forest or on top of a hill.
One such school usually had just one teacher, and she taught all the subjects from classes I to IV. She was not just a teacher, she was also the school's only peon, clerk and cook.
Loss of dignity
These teachers have now been redeployed as sweepers in regular government schools. Take for instance K R Ushakumari, who had been the teacher of a single-teacher school deep inside the Agasthyamala forest near Amboori in Thiruvananthapuram. She has been appointed as sweeper of PSNM Government Higher Secondary School, Peroorkada, Thiruvananthapuram.
June 1 was school reopening day and this is what Ushakumari told a journalist, Varun Ramesh, who had first told the world of her inspiring work as a teacher. “Thankfully it was raining heavily. No one heard me cry,” she told Varun. This is a teacher who has won innumerable accolades for her work.
“I have nothing against the work of a sweeper but will the people who had praised my work till now think that I was not worth any of it. My children are also unable to accept this,” Ushakumari said.
She fears there will be an unbearable loss of dignity. “Another teacher who has just one more year left asked me how our students would address us from now on. She asked me whether they will call us teacher the next time they see us,” Ushakumari said, trying hard to keep her emotions in check.
She said she is only happy to clean the school but wants the government to rename their post as 'senior assistant'. She also wants her pension to reflect all the years she had worked as a teacher, which is over 20 years. Now, she would get benefits for only the remaining six years of her service.
Gloom swept aside
However, not all MGLC teachers who have been redeployed as sweepers are as crestfallen. “Of course, we are sad. But we also need to face the reality,” said Sheeja who was a teacher of an MGLC in Idukki's most backward tribal settlement of Idamalakkudi. “We are not qualified to be teachers. Now parents and students want teachers with MA and BEd. Most of us have gone only up to the degree level. Some of us, like me, are just pre-degree holders,” Sheeja said.
A top source in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan said that even Ushakumari's request to rename their post as 'senior assistant' was administratively impossible. “Even a last grade post is recruited through the Public Service Commission,” the source said.
Further, PSC rank holders are waiting for vacancies to be reported. “Any attempt to offer us a post higher than a sweeper will only end up in the courts. We will then be deprived of even this job,” said George, who was the single-teacher of an MGLC in Wayanad's Kadachikkunnu tribal settlement.
Half empty is also half full
According to Sheeja, a government job for an MGLC teacher like her is a big relief even if it is only a sweeper's job. “At least, we will get our salary before the 10th of every month. As an MLGC teacher, our salaries were consistently late. There were times when our salaries were late by even six months,” Sheeja said.
Also, their salary has increased. From a consolidated honorarium of Rs 18,500, these teacher-turned-sweepers will now fall in the 23,000-50,200 salary bracket, and would be recipients of all government employee benefits like provident fund, TA and DA. “In addition to our poor salary that came many months late, I had to shell out Rs 250 a day to reach my school at Kadachikkunnu. Me and my family were virtually pushed into poverty,” George said.
Another teacher, Anil Kumar, said the government job, even a sweeper, was empowering. “As an MGLC teacher we were just volunteers on a yearly contract and had to give an undertaking every year saying we were not entitled to any extra benefits,” he said.
Road to perdition
It is also a fact that MGLCs were becoming increasingly redundant. When Anil Kumar began functioning as the single-teacher in the Moonnamkadavu MGLC in Kasaragod 17 years ago, the nearest road from the tribal settlement was six kilometres away. Then, the school had 65 children and the government had to provide a second teacher for the 'single-teacher' school. In the second half of 2000s, new roads were cut through the forest and in 2009 bus service began.
It was now easy for parents to send their kids to regular government schools. Improved rural infrastructure also allowed the government to start the 'Gothra Sarathi' scheme to transport tribal children living in remote areas to schools. The student strength in Anilkumar's MGLC fell to 20 at the blink of an eye. It fell further down to seven two years ago. With road connectivity, new schools also sprang up.
Development has undermined the MGLC system. Near the MGLC at Marayur in Palakkad, for instance, there are now three schools; two private and one government. “Given such a choice, which parent is going to send their kid to an MGLC,” Sheeja said. The total number of children in MGLCs had shrunk to below 5000 from a high of nearly 12,000 in 2012.
RTE's sucker punch
The introduction of the Right to Education (RTE) Act also reduced the MGLCs into insignificance. “The material conditions of our MGLCs fell far below the standards set by the RTE Act,” Anil Kumar said. “Most of these schools were in two or three cents, and maintenance was unheard of. Worse, none of us were given any training,” Anil Kumar said.
A study conducted by the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) way back in 2015 had found that the majority of MGLCs in Kerala were deprived of even basic facilities. It found that most of them functioned in fragile sheds. The RTE's requirements of spacious classrooms, ventilation, fresh air, lights, drinking water, and adequate toilet facilities were difficult to achieve in these thatched or asbestos-roofed buildings.
“If the government had not provided us this new job, these MGLTCs would have died a natural death and we would have been left with nothing,” Sheeja said.