A 67-km-long journey by 23 tribal schoolchildren in a Maharashtra village to lodge a complaint about the state of their school has paid off.
AN ashramshala, a residential school for tribal children, at Raite village in Peth taluk of Nashik district, Maharashtra, came into media attention following a three-day trek by 23 tribal students to lodge their grievances with the Tribal Commissioner. The incident brought into focus the appalling conditions in which tribal schools in the State function and the activities that go on in the name of tribal welfare.
The unique protest action, which began on February 13, was carried out by 13 boys and 10 girls of the school. They walked 35 km of the 67 km to Nashik to complain about the state of their school to the Tribal Commissioner. The complaints, written by hand by a Standard VII pupil named Shankar, were mainly against the headmaster, who was not only absent most of the time, but allegedly appropriated their rations; a watchman who treated them harshly; an absentee teacher; adulterated food; a non-functional tubewell; and the non-distribution of uniforms.
The administration reacted swiftly to the children's protest. The headmaster, S.N. More, was suspended pending investigation and a new headmaster, who was avoiding the posting for more than a month, took charge. The watchman was suspended and another person was appointed in his place. As regards the missing teacher, Additional Tribal Commissioner R.B. Kulkarni said that the Government was unable to appoint a new teacher until the elections were over. A teacher would be appointed soon, he said.
The quality of the food has improved dramatically. Meera, one of the protestors, said: "The rice is now clean and we are getting vegetables." The tubewell has been repaired and drinking water is once again made available. However, as regards their uniforms, the girls of Standard VII said that they were yet to receive them. One fallout of the furore was that the State Transport bus service to the place, which had ceased operating last April, was resumed. This was not on the list of the children's complaints.
Reacting to his suspension, More said that he had been maligned ever since he took charge as headmaster a year ago. One of the allegations against More is that he sent to his home in Dhulia district the oil, dal and rice meant for the children. Hira, one of the protestors, said: "He would come to the school for two days in a month and then make the boys carry quantities of ration down to the bus stop." More denied this and said that he was being victimised.
THE Tribal Commissionerate, which acted swiftly on the complaints, is now channelling its energy into proving that the children were guided by an interested party. The administration's determination to identify the person who supposedly motivated the children is so strong that it is threatening to eclipse the real issue of rectifying the drawbacks in long-term planning for tribal education.
Kulkarni describes the protest march as "unparalleled and extraordinary". However, he has doubts about its spontaneity. He said: "These are 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds. It is unlikely that they will have the ability to think of a plan like this and carry it through." Kulkarni affirms that the ongoing inquiry into the incident is "concentrating on finding out who motivated the children."
An informed source told Frontline that the children and their complaints were apparently used by two panchayat officials, Deoram Kirari and Bhowar, to settle their own personal rivalries.
Kirari, a panchayat official of Bhutmokhada village, earlier had the contract to supply tiles for the ashramshala. The source said there had been allegations that Kirari supplied inferior quality tiles. Bhowar, who was the sarpanch of Raite, informed the authorities about this, and action was taken agianst Kirari. Besides, the children of Kirari's relatives, who studied in the Raite ashramshala, were allegedly singled out for unfair treatment by Bhowar. Kirari retaliated by working against the contract that Bhowar held to supply vegetables to the ashramshala, the source said. Hence the line of inquiry points to a possibility that Kirari instigated the children to complain about the poor food and the lack of vegetables in their diet.
The children, on their part, have denied that they were instigated by anyone. But their story varied when they narrated it on different occasions, further convincing the authorities that it is only a matter of time before they admit that they were guided by someone.
The 10 girls who went to Nashik told Frontline that they got the idea of the protest action on the same day that they carried out their plan. "We went down to the stream at 7 a.m. to wash and then decided to do this. We told some boys and they said they would also come. At 8 a.m. we left the school and walked until 5 p.m. when we reached Kone (approximately 35 km away). There we stayed at Hira's (one of the girls) uncle's house and on the morning of February 16, we paid Rs.100 and travelled by a van up to Girnare. Then we took a bus to Nashik. We reached Nashik at 12.30 in the afternoon."
However, certain elements of the story indicate that it was a planned journey. For one, how did 23 children evade the watchman? Or why was no alarm raised when the children were found missing and did not return for three nights? The teachers said they presumed that the children had gone home. But Kulkarni feels that it is highly unlikely that they would have done so without permission from the authorities.
Additional evidence that the protest was planned by someone other than the children seems to come from the fact that Kirari was already at the Tribal Welfare Office when the children arrived. Besides this, Kulkarni told Frontline that the children had identified the van driver - an indication that the van had been hired and it was not a casual hitch-hike that the children had.
Vikram Gaikwad, general secretary of the Tribal Welfare Department Employees Union, says the children's complaints were genuine. However, he added: "The reason behind the morcha was political... it was to serve someone else's interests."
RAITE is merely a manifestation of the larger problems faced by ashramshalas all over the State. Vikram Gaikwad said that one of the main problems the department faces is lack of qualified staff. "We are supposed to look after tribal education but there is not a single person here who has any qualification in the field of education." Kulkarni does not dispute this.
Tribal welfare is handled by two departments, both coming under the Ministry of Tribal Welfare. The Tribal Development Department was established in 1983 and is in charge of the overall welfare of the tribal people in matters such as employment and health. The office of the Tribal Commissioner was established in 1992 with its headquarters in Nashik. One of the main purposes of the Commissionerate is to oversee tribal education. However, apart from the advantage of having a separate budget, the Commissionerate is, by its own admission, poorly equipped to do its job. Kulkarni said: "We depend a lot on other departments such as the Public Works Department, the Education Department and the zilla parishad to assist us. We have the authority but lack the capacity."
Vikram Gaikwad said that Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had assured the workers' union on January 13 last year that a separate education wing would be set up, but that nothing had been done so far.
There are not enough inspectors to oversee the ashramshalas. Kulkarni said: "One inspector has to oversee 120 villages and for the 32 ashramshalas in Nashik district, there are only five inspectors." P.S. Gaikwad, an inspector of ashramshalas, put it more succintly when he described the area under his jurisdiction. "In Peth taluk, this school in Raite is 67 km to the south of Nashik and one other school in Ambe village is 85 km to the north of Nashik. Apart from these, I have 11 more schools to oversee."
THE incident brought to the fore the pathetic situation in the area of providing education for the tribal people. Like many other ashramshalas in the State, the one in Raite village is a model in inferior quality construction. Seven brick-and-plaster sheds covered with asbestos sheets serve as classrooms, dining halls and dormitories for the 280 pupils. Each pupil has a regulation-size tin trunk to keep his or her possessions. The children wash at a stream that is about 100 metres down the hill from the schoolyard. During the monsoon, the stream becomes a raging river that cuts Raite off from the rest of the world. Surrounding the school are hills that once must have had thick forest cover.
Since ashramshalas are primarily meant for the tribal people, they are usually located in remote areas. The Raite school is deep in the Sahyadri hills and is approachable only by a dirt track dotted with rocks. To reach the village, one has to negotiate three curves of the Daman Ganga river, known as the Wagh river in Raite. In the dry season, the river-bed lies exposed, covered with boulders.
Adding to the ashramshala's woes is an undercurrent of resentment against it from the local people. Most villages welcome a school in their midst since they believe that conveniences such as electricity, water and roads will follow it. When the people of Raite made their demand for an ashramshala in the mid-1970s, they believed they would get these basic facilities. The ashramshala was established in 1978, but apart from a daily State transport bus service, the other expected conveniences did not come.
While this correspondent was in Raite, stones were hurled with regular frequency on the roof of the school building. The schoolgirls told Frontline that village boys (who attend a nearby school) threw stones at them when they went to the stream to wash or fetch water. The residents of the village, who were reluctant to answer questions, now seem to want the ashramshala moved. E.G. Bhalerao, Assistant Project Officer at the Tribal Development Department, says: "They assume that they will be denied development in the form of light and water if the ashramshala is removed but yet for some reason they seem to want it to go." The children, however, welcome the idea of moving the school to Borpada, which is a more accessible place.
And as far as their protest action is concerned, the pupils are adamant in denying that they were guided and are unanimous about a positive outcome. "We did the right thing. We have no regrets," they say.