Print edition : January 28, 2011

Adi Dravidar students in Chennai bring the city to a halt to highlight the abysmal conditions in their hostels.

in Chennai

Students residing in government-run Adi Dravidar hostels block the arterial Anna Salai in Chennai on December 21. The blockade continued for more than four hours.-V. GANESAN

HOW dare a bunch of students take the law into their own hands, block traffic for nearly five hours on Anna Salai and bring the vibrant city to a halt, just to highlight their plight? This was the initial response from commuters to the road blockade staged by hundreds of Dalit students in Chennai on December 21, 2010, which choked the entry points to the city's arterial road.

The students were demanding basic amenities at the hostels run by the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department of the Tamil Nadu government.

The stranded public's anger against the wildcat protest started to dissolve when stories about the plight of the Dalit students and the inhuman treatment meted out to them in these hostels began to spread, to a large extent helped by the electronic media.

The agitation has brought to the fore the sorry state of affairs in the hostels run by the government for Dalit students in the State. A vast majority of these hostellers in Chennai are first-generation learners from poor families, of farm workers, construction labourers, manual workers and small peasants. Most of them are mainly from villages in the industrially backward northern districts, including Villupuram, Kancheepuram, Cuddalore and Tiruvannamalai. They join government or government-aided colleges, dreaming about getting decent employment so that their families can come out of the debt trap in which they have been caught for generations. They undergo numerous ordeals. The hostels do not offer them the right environment. In fact, their hostel life is miserable.

Having exhausted every avenue to get their grievances redressed, several residents of the 17 hostels in the city meant for Dalit students assembled near the 50-year-old M.C. Raja Hostel at Saidapet and blocked peak-hour traffic from 9 a.m. An attempt by the police to disperse them by using force failed. The agitating students lifted the blockade around 12 p.m. after the Minister for Adi Dravidar Welfare, A. Tamilarasi, and senior officials reached the scene of protest and assured them of measures to solve their problems.

Stray dogs roam the corridors of the M.C. Raja Hostel at Saidapet.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

The hostellers raised slogans demanding immediate steps to supply quality food, improve the conditions of hygiene on the hostel premises, enhance basic facilities such as toilets and libraries, evict unauthorised persons staying in the hostels, and order an inquiry into the alleged financial irregularities in the running of the hostels. The Minister inspected the M.C. Raja Hostel subsequently.

It is not difficult to understand the problems encountered by boarders at the M.C. Raja Hostel, the oldest Adi Dravidar students' hostel, which has been named after the well-known Dalit leader M.C. Raja. Plaques on the portico announce that its foundation stone was laid on April 22, 1960, and that the sturdy building was dedicated to students by Chief Minister K. Kamaraj on December 15, 1961. Poor maintenance by successive governments has left the structure in bad shape. The stench of urine and faeces and decayed food hits the senses the moment one enters the premises. Leftover food is dumped in the corridors.

Overcrowding is a major problem. Around 1,600 persons stay in 52 rooms in the three-storey building against the sanctioned strength of 595 boarders.

The dining hall at the hostel is used to store construction materials.-

Some students spoke to Frontline, but were cautious while narrating their tale of woes as they did not want to incur the wrath of intimidating groups with political connections and the agents who enable them to get part-time jobs for a paltry wage.

They said they ate the rice served in the hostel mess but with vegetables and a side dish they prepared in their own rooms or bought from private canteens in the vicinity.

To meet these additional expenses, many students take up part-time jobs, which include serving food at events. They also allow themselves to be used by political parties for their demonstrations. They are occasionally used as co-stars in crowd scenes in films. These assignments, undertaken on weekly holidays, fetch them Rs.100 a day. Middlemen corner the lion's share.

Some students even travel to far-off places such as Madurai and Tirunelveli to be servers at marriage functions. These fetch them between Rs.400 and Rs.500. The conveyance is arranged by the catering agent. The job also enables them to eat palatable food.

One of the boarders pointed out that defecation on the nearby ground belonging to the Animal Husbandry Department is common as the number of toilets in the hostel was insufficient for so many boarders. An open space on the hostel premises serves as a bathroom.

The leftover food attracts pigs and stray dogs to the premises. Water supplied to the hostel for drinking and bathing is contaminated as the storage tanks are rarely cleaned, one student lamented. Despite these health hazards, no adequate medical facility has been made available to the boarders, students said.

Although a weekly menu is prescribed by the government, most of the time only rice is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Occasionally, the daily routine is broken when the students are provided variety rice for breakfast. As the authorities have stopped serving food in the dining hall, the boarders have to collect the food directly from the kitchen in plastic buckets. Both the dining hall and the gymnasium remain locked.

Students alleged on condition of anonymity that genuine residents were intimidated by armed gangs enjoying political patronage, who often instigated group rivalry. The gangs mercilessly snuff out any protest.

Agreeing with the boarders' charge that they have been herded like cattle, a top official in the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department told Frontline that overcrowding was the main problem in the Dalit students' hostels in Chennai. Some unauthorised persons had been staying in these hostels for up to 10 years, he said.

He said that among the 1,000-odd unauthorised inmates of the M.C. Raja Hostel were genuine students who did not get accommodation in any government-run hostel, educated but unemployed persons, and persons drawing meagre wages. These persons share the hostel space and food with the authorised boarders as they cannot afford private accommodation. (Social activists point out that landlords in Chennai and other major towns deny accommodation to Dalit students and families.) As many as 30 persons stay in rooms measuring 20 feet x 15 feet.

Students use buckets to carry food to their rooms as no vessels are provided.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Evicting the outsiders is an uphill task as unemployment is the main factor contributing to overcrowding in these hostels, a senior officer in the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department said. Most of the unauthorised inmates were also Dalits with a poor economic background. They returned to their native places on completion of their courses only to return to the cities for survival, he said.

Around 25 per cent of the 61.28 lakh job-seekers on the live registers in the employment exchanges of Tamil Nadu as on March 31, 2010, are Dalits (see Table 1). As on May 31, 2009, as many as 12.16 lakh Dalit job-seekers with different educational qualifications had registered their names with the employment exchanges (see Table 2).

According to official sources, 1,27,534 Dalit students have been accommodated in 1,565 hostels. There are 1,229 hostels benefiting 84,886 Adi Dravidar (Scheduled Caste) students and 40 hostels accommodating 2,040 students belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, apart from 296 government tribal residential school hostels benefitting 40,608 students. In addition to this, 36 non-governmental organisations have been running hostels with a total strength of 5,204 Dalit students. In contrast to the situation in the Dalit hostels in Chennai, the number of students in the Adi Dravidar hostels in the rural areas is lower than the sanctioned strength.

The policy note on the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department points out that the government allocates funds towards food charges for the hostellers at the rate of Rs.550 each for college students and Rs.450 for schoolchildren. Apart from this, every college student is given Rs.35 and a schoolchild Rs.25 every month to purchase soap and oil, it says.

The document also claims that wet grinders, colour televisions and water purifiers have been provided in all hostels, besides ensuring library facilities. Bedsheets are supplied to the boarders once in two years, it says. But to the great dismay of education activists, legislators, representatives of NGOs and functionaries of students' organisations, the ground reality is different.

Issues relating to the situation in the Dalit students' hostels were raised at the public hearing held by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in Chennai. Even the Petitions Committee of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, which inspected the Dalit students' hostels in different parts of the State in July 2010, found that most of these facilities were absent. Expressing anguish at the appalling conditions, the panel directed the authorities to take remedial measures on a priority basis.

However, reports indicate that little has been done to improve the conditions in the hostels both in urban areas and in rural pockets. The government initiated some maintenance work at the M.C. Raja Hostel only after the December 21 protest. It has formed a team of officials to look into the grievances of the students, according to sources in the department.

Referring to the hostellers' agitation in Chennai, K.S. Kanagaraj, president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Student Federation of India (SFI), said, The protest only showed that all is not well with the Dalit students' hostels not only in Chennai but in other parts of the State, too. He called for steps to ensure that all eligible applicants were given hostel accommodation.

He urged the government to increase the funds earmarked for food. The wardens should be asked to adhere strictly to the prescribed guidelines with regard to the menu, he said. He favoured the setting up of separate hostels in the city for working Dalit youth and job-seekers.

R. Krishnamurthy, convener of the South Chennai district unit of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, and T. Neethirajan, another activist of the front, who visited the M.C. Raja Hostel, referred to the State government's claim that the Budget allocation for the S.C. Sub-Plan had been increased from Rs.567 crore in 2005-06 to Rs.3,828 crore for 2010-11 forming 19 per cent of the total plan outlay. They called for immediate steps to modernise the Dalit students' hostels in the city and take disciplinary action against those involved in irregularities.

Education activist S.S. Rajagopalan said the plight of the physically challenged students staying in the M.C. Raja Hostel was pathetic. Even if the authorities could not provide nutritious food, they should at least ensure that the food served was hygienic, he said.

Funds earmarked under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (education for all) and the special component plan should be used to improve the conditions in these hostels, he added. The government should keep in mind that Article 21 of the Constitution reinforces equity and dignity of every citizen.

Social activist A. Narayanan, who had submitted a detailed memorandum to the State Human Rights Commission in December 2008 seeking its intervention to alleviate the problems of residents of the Dalit students' hostels, said the unrest should not be viewed merely as a law and order problem. The prevailing environment in the hostels was not conducive to academic activities, he opined.

The hostels do not have the minimum complementary infrastructure, such as libraries and recreation rooms, to help the students improve their mental and physical fitness without undesirable diversions, he observed. Also, there was no adequate security in the hostels and the wardens were not motivated to set things in order, he said.

Echoing similar sentiments, P.B. Martin, secretary of the Kancheepuram-based Social Action Movement, said the hostels were in fact hell away from home as none of their objectives providing safety and security, nutritious food and good ambience to study and play was achieved. These hostels had become safe havens for anti-social elements, he said, adding that even murders had been committed in them. He was alluding to the crime committed in the Adi Dravidar students' hostel at Thayarammankulam village in Kancheepuram district in October.

Stressing the need for sensitising the wardens, he said there were complaints that in some Adi Dravidar hostels, the attendance registers were not properly maintained and Dalit boarders were often asked to run errands for the wardens. In one hostel, it was reported in 2007, the boys were asked to graze cattle belonging to the warden, he said.

Corruption at the local level led to a situation where the actual number of students in the hostels in the districts was far smaller than the sanctioned strength. Most of the children who were withdrawn from the hostels became school dropouts, he said. This, he pointed out, was a cause for concern in a State where the dropout rate among Dalits was much higher than the overall dropout rate, and the literacy level among Dalits 63.19 per cent in the case of Adi Dravidars and 41.53 per cent in the case of S.Ts was far less than the State average of 73.45 per cent, according to the 2001 Census.

Steps such as ensuring a better monitoring mechanism, revamping of the Adi Dravidar Welfare panels at the district level and appointment of specially trained persons as wardens were needed immediately to improve the situation in the Dalit students' hostels, he opined.

Some educationists and NGOs have also suggested that in order to end the discrimination, all the schools and hostels run by the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department should be brought under the Education Department. The convention held by the State Platform for Common School System in Chennai on December 27 adopted a resolution to this effect.

A healthy sign, which no one can afford to ignore, is that around 10 per cent of the residents in these hostels are from the Most Backward Classes and they coexist with the Dalit students in peace and harmony, sharing the humiliation in a State where caste bias and untouchability are major social issues.

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