Malappuram: On May 23, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated 97 school buildings across the state. The inaugurstal function was a virtual event streamed live to all 97 schools. Though it was the fag end of their summer vacation, school parents and students of Government Upper Primary School at Malappuram's Mundothparamba -- around 350 km from the Secretariat -- came to the campus to watch the inaugural function on the big screen. Their school is, after all, getting a two-storey block built at a cost of Rs 1 crore, funded by the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB).
At 11.30 am, when chief minister Vijayan started his inaugural speech, local Vengara MLA and Indian Union Muslim League's top leader P K Kunhalikutty, who was supposed to unveil the commemorative plaque, had not turned up. Parappur grama panchayat president and IUML member Saleema 'teacher' (61), who was supposed to preside over the function in the school, was also absent. The UDF members of the panchayat also skipped the event.
The school's head teacher Shahina R M and PTA president Shareef A K salvaged the situation by making the school leader Liya Jasmine unveil the plaque.
PTA president Shareef, an IUML leader from a neighbouring ward, told a vernacular media outfit that he had invited all the panchayat members and the president and did not know why they boycotted the event.
UDF convenor and Congress Parappur 'mandalam' president Moosa Edappanat told Onmanorama that it was a 'local' issue with the PTA and would be resolved soon. He insisted that Kunhalikutty could not make it to the event because he was invited by three other schools in the constituency.
Children kept in 'inhuman' conditions
But the truth is darker and inhuman. The UDF panchayat members stayed away from the event because of the way the school ill-treats the children of the anganwadi on the school campus, said Mundothparamba ward member Amjatha Jasmin T of the Congress.
Eight months ago, the school disconnected the power supply to the anganwadi; last month, it stopped the water supply. The school also dumped broken benches, chairs, water pump sets, and pipes in the anganwadi's kitchen-cum-dining room just before the panchayat's assistant engineer came for the fitness test of the building.
"We have written multiple times to the Chief Minister, to the minister for Women and Child Development, Director of Education, to the Malappuram District Collector, to the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Officials visit the school but no one does anything to help the children," said Jasmin.
Anganwadi teacher Shiny said 18 children aged between three and six years had enrolled in 2022-2023. "But only four to six children come every day. Children cannot sit in the sweltering classroom or take a midday nap without a fan," she said.
Fathima, a mother of two, said she stopped sending her four-year-old son to anganwadi because the school disconnected the power supply. "How can little children sit in the classroom without a fan?" she said. Her 10-year-old daughter, who is now in class 4, went to the same anganwadi.
Saleena, another mother who still drops her son at the anganwadi, said that the school was routinely creating trouble for the children. "The school PTA removed the back gate and is building a wall there. Earlier, I walked my son for 10 minutes. Now, we walk for 20 minutes to reach the anganwadi," said Saleena.
The children are also denied nutritious food because of the lack of power supply. Children of other anganwadi get dosa and idli for breakfast. But children of Mundothparamba anganwadi eat roasted groundnuts. "We have a mixer and grinder but without power, we cannot grind the batter," said Shiny.
PTA president Shareef said the power to the anganwadi was disconnected last rainy season when a short circuit tripped the supply to the main school. "The building was leaking," he said.
But after that, Parappur grama panchayat relaid the rafters and roof tiles. It initiated steps to get a new power connection for the anganwadi, said Jasmin. "But the PTA president wrote to KSEB that power connection should not be given without the consent of the headmistress because she is the custodian of the building. And the headmistress did not give her consent," she said.
The hostility is so high that when the panchayat conducted a grama sabha in the anganwadi, the HM filed a police complaint, and 35 persons were charged with trespassing, said UDF leaders.
How proposal for smart anganwadi was killed
The anganwadi was run from a rented building in Gandhi Nagar at Mundothparamba. In 2017, the grama panchayat shifted it to the school campus. "There was a government order asking panchayats to check if anganwadis run from rented buildings can be accommodated in government schools," said Rasheed A A, a former PTA member, and Congress mandalam vice-president.
The anganwadi is now run from a three-room tiled-roof building which was built in 1974.
A section of teachers and the PTA president started creating trouble when the grama panchayat tried to construct a new building for the anganwadi on the front side of the school.
"Last year, the district panchayat set aside Rs 10 lakh to build a smart anganwadi on three cents on the school premises," said Rasheed. The school has 1.75 acres of land.
When the layout was marked, the PTA and teachers pulled out the posts and disrupted the work, he said. The fund lapsed.
PTA president Shareef agreed. "Initially, we were inclined to allow the panchayat to construct the anganwadi on the school compound. But the panchayat president insisted that it should come up on the front side which we cannot agree to," he said.
Now, the PTA has prepared a master plan for the school and there is no space for an anganwadi.
The upper primary school has 630 students in classes 5, 6, and 7, with seven to eight divisions for each class. "The masterplan has a football ground, basketball court, new buildings, office, library, and lab. Old buildings will be demolished and new ones will be constructed," Shareef said.
The PTA raised Rs 50,000 and built a volleyball court. "We will raise more money and submit new proposals to the government for funds to execute the masterplan," he said.
But the panchayat members said they did not insist on any particular area in the school.
CPM's independent panchayat member A P Hameed attributed the entire conflict to distrust between the PTA and the panchayat board. When asked what the CPM wanted, he said: "We want the power to be restored before the new academic session begins".
He said the CPM leaders held talks with the PTA and the headmistress. "They gave in writing that the power will be restored before May 30," he said.
Rasheed alleged that the CPM was behind troubles created for the children. "We made multiple representations to the HM and the officials. There was no action because they were taking cues from the CPM," he said.
Meanwhile, anganwadi teacher Shiny said a smart anganwadi was too much to hope for. "I only pray they restore the power supply. It is unbearable and is affecting children's mental wellbeing," she said.