UP Election 2017: How Lucknow’s first-time voters are gearing up for the polls

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

After she passed her Class 12 exams with respectable marks, Nazia Khan, 24, wanted to pursue her graduation. However, hailing from a conservative Muslim family in Lucknow, she could not find any takers for her desire to study further. But in 2014, after applying for the Kanya Vidya Dhan scholarship scheme, she received Rs 30,000 and enrolled herself in a BA programme.

The scholarship scheme was first launched during the regime of Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2004 to help girl students from economically backward families, but there were questions raised about its implementation. When Mayawati came to power, she shelved it. In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav revived it after assuming chief ministership, and it has been a catalyst in sustaining his popularity among the youth here in Lucknow. With the scheme aiding economically backward families, it automatically ends up consolidating his Muslim vote share and cajoling Dalit colonies. Even though teachers at the Lucknow University say that the enforcement of the scheme has room for improvement considering its irregularities, it has been significantly better than what it was like during Mulayam’s tenure.

“I would not have been able to graduate without the state government scheme,” says Nazia, adding, “Akhilesh deserves another chance to consolidate the good work he started a couple of years ago.”

Lucknow’s nine constituencies went to the polls on Sunday, and the popularity of the incumbent chief minister among the first-time voters here is undisputed. Even the ones inclined towards the BJP are not overly critical of Akhilesh. They cite the examples of the Metro and express highway while speaking of his developmental work. He is young, they say, and he speaks “our language”. “We can easily identify with him,” Nazia’s words were echoed by almost every first-time voter.

Sudhir Kumar Yadav, 22, a philosophy student at Lucknow University put it more colorfully. “Jis taraf jawani chalti hai, usi taraf zamana chalta hai (Whichever way the youth go, that’s the way the generation goes),” he says.

Sudhir adds that the Samajwadi Party MLA in his constituency has been “useless”, but “We do not vote for the MLA,” he said. “We vote for the chief minister. His move to provide laptops has helped youngsters a great deal.”

Another scheme that is being hailed by the electorate is the nutrition mission program in alliance with Unicef, with which the state ensures the deprived are fed an all-round meal. It is monitored under the stewardship of Dimple Yadav, who has propelled the party’s face as a party of the young. With close to 25 lakh first-time voters across the state, parties have understandably made their moves accordingly to clinch the pivotal vote share, and the Samajwadi Party seems to have an edge courtesy Akhilesh.

Nonetheless, Lucknow is a place with its fair share of problems. One of the biggest challenges gnawing at the youth is unemployment. Nazia, who is currently in the middle of a vocational training program at Sanaktada NGO in the city, has been looking for a job for over a year. Living in a joint family of 11 in a cramped, dim-lit 500 square-foot apartment of Dali Ganj, Nazia’s conservative family would not allow her to move out of Lucknow for a better opportunity. However, most of the others plan to migrate to Delhi or Mumbai. Teachers at the Lucknow University complain they are not able to retain sharp students either.

However, the drawbacks of Lucknow, and of Uttar Pradesh, are largely blamed on the old guard by the electorate. Lucknow-based historian Saleem Kidwai said it reflects how astute Akhilesh is.

“He smartly turned the anti-incumbency, at least perceptibly, on his uncles and father during the family feud,” he says.

Along with unemployment, healthcare and security of women are the issues raised by the youth. This, and not religion or caste, is what influences their vote, insist everyone.

Senior journalist Sharat Pradhan says caste identities are being blurred in urban Lucknow and Akhilesh stands to gain from it. “If youngsters move beyond caste and religion, it means some of the upper caste Hindus may move towards Akhilesh,” he says, “But the Muslims won’t vote against Samajwadi Party.”

However, a teacher at the Lucknow University, requesting anonymity, says the students are merely being politically correct. “They won’t divulge that caste or religion plays a role if not the role. But behind closed doors, if you scratch the surface, it all comes out,” she says.

Indeed, the hints are there for those with a keen ear.

Aksa Hasan, 20, living in the same colony as Nazia, praised Akhilesh for the reasons mentioned earlier. But unwittingly says, “We would obviously vote for the party that would protect us.” Upon being probed further, she adds that the Hindutva narrative does make her nervous, and apart from the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, she does not have an option.

Interestingly, a significant chunk of the Shia vote in Lucknow traditionally went with the BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his protégé Lalji Tondon, enjoyed respect among the Shias. However, with the increasing paranoia under the Narendra Modi government, Shia Muslims are drifting away from the BJP. But with the Shia and Sunni Ulemas being at loggerheads with each other, Kidwai says the Shias are not likely to shift en masse towards the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. “The Shia Ulema has declared its support to Mayawati,” he says, “The devout Shias will listen to him. But the moderate ones and especially young, who are in larger numbers, will move towards Akhilesh.”

Amidst the interactions, the name of Rahul Gandhi hardly comes up. When specifically mentioned, youngsters say they hope he does not interfere with Akhilesh’s work. The sentiment within Akhilesh supporters regarding the alliance is similar to what avid Nitish Kumar followers said in Bihar. They did not like the idea of collaborating with Lalu Prasad Yadav, but were not angry enough to desert him.

Mayawati, on the other hand, is lagging behind in spite of a sizable 20 percent Dalit population in Lucknow because the urban Dalit, especially the youth, is not exactly homogeneous. While even the quintessential voters of Samajwadi Party saying the law and order had been better under Mayawati, they believe voting for her in the urban region would benefit the BJP considering the manner in which the elections appear to be panning out. In rural Lucknow, however, the Dalits, including youngsters, say their preferred choice is “hathi in the state and kamal at the Centre”.

With Shia votes and around 30 perct of the upper caste population, BJP has always done well in Lucknow. The party has held the Lok Sabha seat since 1991, and in 2014, the BJP won it hands down.

The Shias might be moving away, but the majority of upper castes side with the BJP. Their loyalty has been fortified after the arrival of Modi, who remains a charismatic personality among a section of the youth. Prerna Shrivastava, a 20-year-old commerce student, says it does not matter if the BJP has not revealed its chief ministerial candidate. “Whoever Modiji appoints, it will be for the best of Uttar Pradesh,” she says, “He is a gutsy leader. The way he took on the black money is commendable.”

Prerna says she is most impressed with BJP’s social media campaign that has played a role in influencing her. She adds that her family has been supporting BJP for generations. Mohit Trivedi, a cabbie in his mid-20s, is less cagey. After praising Akhilesh for around 15 minutes, he says he favours the BJP.

Upon being asked why, he simply says, “Hum Pandithain.”

UP Election 2017: Ahead of 4th phase, cracks appear in forced Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 23 February 2017.

“UP ko yeh saath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko haath pasand hai (UP likes the alliance but Unchahar likes the hand),” emanates from a car campaigning for the Congress in Raebareli’s Unchahar constituency, as 55-year-old Sharda Prasad Saini laughs while serving chhole-samosa on the Allahabad-Lucknow road.

“They cannot even manage their own internal problems and are promising to develop a huge state,” he says.

Unchahar is a constituency where the Congress and Samajwadi Party have both fielded candidates, bamboozling its voters. The sitting MLA is Manoj Pandey of the Samajwadi Party, and contesting from the Congress ticket, campaigning against Pandey is Ajai Pal Singh, who belongs to the noble Arkha family of Raebareli and is a former MLA (2007-12) of the same constituency as well.

“I voted for the Samajwadi Party in 2012,” says Saini. “Now, I wonder whom to vote for. The vote would clearly be divided and there is no point in wasting my vote on these two. I will vote for BJP instead. Modi has not been that bad after all.”

It had become clear during the initial phase of negotiation that Raebareli and Amethi would be a problem when it comes to seat sharing. The two districts are bastions of the Congress with the Gandhis ruling the two Lok Sabha constituencies for an overwhelmingly major part of independent India, but in 2012 Assembly elections, Samajwadi Party had done exceedingly well in the ten constituencies falling under the two districts. Congress, on the other hand, had managed to win only two of those ten. In Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli, the party did not win a single seat out of the six (in 2017, Raebareli has five as the seat in Salon comes under Amethi district).

With both parties claiming moral right to contest more seats, it has resulted in the defiance of the alliance. Out of the 10 seats in Amethi-Raebareli, in four of them, the partners are locked in a fight, clearly handing out advantage to BJP and BSP on a platter.

When asked, Ajai Pal Singh said the high command has his backing, without which he would not be able to contest on a Congress symbol. “I cannot comment on the issue,” he said. “The party leadership should be able to explain.”

Samajwadi Party candidate Manoj Pandey could not be reached. He did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

Zeeshan Haidar, Congress spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh, said it is a negligible issue and he is sure one of the two would win in the seats in question. “It is true the election is closely fought but we have managed to arrive at a common ground on over 400 seats,” he said. “There were other seats too where both parties had fielded candidates and we have sent show cause notices to some. But in some cases, by the time we could arrive at a conclusion, the last date of withdrawal had already passed.”

The party leadership may make it sound like a minor glitch but the sentiment of ground level workers, at least in Raebareli and Amethi, reflects how the alliance is a forced marriage.

“Even though we are campaigning individually here, we still have Akhilesh and Mulayam on our posters,” says a Congress worker in Unchahar. “But Samajwadi Party does not have Rahulji. Abhi Ajai ji toh raja hai, woh kaise nahi ladenge?”

Congress workers complain that Samajwadi Party has not given enough respect or importance considering the stature of the party, while SP cadre feels the Congress needed the alliance more than they did. A worker of the Samajwadi Party said the way Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi patronised Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in one of the earlier press conferences has not gone down well with the cadres. “He spoke of good niyat and room for better implementation,” he says. “Rahul is trying to be big brother in the alliance when clearly he needs Akhilesh more than Akhilesh needs him.”

Both the party workers, however, said they wonder what to say when dumbfounded electorate asks them about the dichotomy of being partners in the state but campaigning against each other in a constituency. Commentators believe it is indicative of how the alliance is a forced marriage and could raise concerns of its durability, if at all they form the government. “It is reflective of how messy and ill-planned the alliance is,” says Shivam Vij, journalist who is extensively travelling across the state for the elections. “These are not friendly but unfriendly fights. In most places, Samajwadi Party workers are not campaigning for Congress workers and vice-versa. This is only one of the many reasons why alliance was a bad idea.”

UP Election 2017: With caste identities blurring, social media influences are high among first-time voters

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 February 2017.

“The social media campaign is voluntarily conducted by our supporters. They are doing it on their own and they would not speak to the media,” said an office bearer of a regional political party. “Please take a look around our social media centre,” said one affiliated with another regional political party. “I will explain how our team works.”

For anyone who is following the high profile, tempestuous Uttar Pradesh elections, it is not difficult to figure out the two political parties in question here.

At the Samajwadi Party office in Lucknow’s Vikramaditya Marg, a section in the vicinity is dedicated to the social media team. Secluded from the bustling main campus of the party office, the social media team operates with their building being a good two minutes by foot. In four rooms on the first floor of the building, more than 50 people spend 18 hours of their day gazing at TVs or computer screens with earphones plugged in.

“The idea is to run a synchronised campaign, to drive home the message to the voters,” said Aashish Yadav, a former BBC employee, who is running the show. He is joined by Manoj Yadav, songwriter of films like Raees, Piku and Azhar, who has penned campaign songs. Gozoop CEO Ahmed Aftab Naqvi is the chief digital strategist and Anshuman Sharma, fellow from Harvard University, is handling research. “We reach around 25-30 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh on a daily basis through WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. WhatsApp gets most traction. It is the easiest to operate. Twitter is least penetrating.”

There are close to 10 people monitoring the news and social media to keep an eye on the prominent handles. “We counter the critical commentary with facts, depending on the stature of the leader,” said Aashish. “If Modi or Amit Shah say something, we respond. In case of Ravi Shankar Prasad, or say Shahnawaz Hussain, we let it go.”

On the other hand, Mayawati’s OSD Pawan Sagar was unwilling to accept the importance of social media. “Ours is a cadre based party and we believe in direct communication,” he said. “We do not need social media to form the government.”

When BSP workers first ran a seemingly synchronised campaign in November, it attracted a lot of eyeballs. Tweeting party statements, doing Facebook live on the speeches made by party leaders, propping pages on Facebook of the prominent members of the party…it seemed to indicate Mayawati is moving with time.

Behen ji ko aane do,” a slogan was made viral on social media along with Mayawati’s photograph. The slogans highlighted the problems of law and order, education and so on. The party even recorded a campaign song, which Kailash Kher sang. After the first phase of polling on 11 February, the party workers upped their game further. “Chor-chor mausere bhai”, a jibe at the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, “phisal gaye to har har gange”, highlighting the BJP’s return to Hindutva, and a few such attractive slogans went viral. Newspaper reports quoted Afzal Siddiqui, son of a senior BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui, as the mind behind the social media campaign. “We realised our mistake and after discussing it with behenji, we turned our focus to it,” he told The Times of India.

However, Sagar said the volunteers are doing their thing without Mayawati’s directives. It is no secret that Mayawati did not believe in social media, and if they are using it now, it suggests she has been forced to move on with times. But acknowledging that would mean conceding an error in judgment, perhaps the reason behind the BSP’s line of narrative.

Rajya Sabha member Ashok Siddharth, for example, reportedly said he does not operate his Facebook page with over 11,000 likes and it could be started and run by party supporters. Aashish Yadav, on the contrary, did not fail to mention that Akhilesh Yadav operates his Twitter and Facebook accounts himself, clearly indicating the difference in approach of the two regional parties towards social media.

There are close to 25 lakh first-time voters in Uttar Pradesh this time. With commentators saying the caste identities among the youth are being gradually blurred with education, the first-time voter could potentially swing the election. “Social media is a very effective tool to tap youngsters,” Aashish said. “We have managed to reach 90 percent of those with access to social media across the state.”

The BJP first used social media extremely effectively in 2014 general elections. It was a catalyst in the young voter gravitating towards Narendra Modi. The Samajwadi Party’s strategy seems to be inspired by the BJP’s success. However, Aashish denied it. “It is true the BJP used it efficiently in 2014,” he said. “But in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav had made “umeed ki cycle” viral on social media. Therefore, BJP could have been inspired by him.”

Then why did their campaign come alive only in late 2016? “When we thought we had done enough work to show for, we decided to go full-fledged. We do not indulge in negativity,” said Aashish, as he showed around their social media centre, or as they call it, war room. The team – most of which, Aashish said, is not charging a rupee including him – hardly looked up or moved their eyes away from the screen as the two of us engaged in a conversation. “Yeh ek tarah ka Yuddh hi hai. Sabki aahuti lag rahi hai yaha,” he said.

In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

With Factories Being Shut, Unemployment Echoes in Punjab’s Doaba

This story first appeared on The Quint on 1 February 2017.

To what extent can one go to avoid coming back to one’s own country? Prabjot Sood, 28, got married. After he completed his matriculation from Jalandhar, he headed to Canada on a two-year education visa to pursue mechanical engineering, which proved too arduous for his abilities. He dropped out and began driving a truck instead. “I realised I could make more money than what my friends did back home with their fancy degrees,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble after the visa expired. “The only way I could have remained in Canada was to get married,” Sood said. “And I did.”

‘Impossible to Find a Job in Punjab’

But Sood did not get along with his wife. The marriage ended, and so did the stay in Canada. In January last year, Sood was deported back to his hometown of Jalandhar, which falls in Punjab’s Doaba region that covers the area between Beas and Sutlej rivers.

However, Sood is not the only one to have been deported. In the last three years, 6000 residents of Doaba have been deported from US and Canada for entering illegally, forging documents or overstaying their visa. “It is impossible to find a job in Punjab,” said Sood. “Jalandhar, Ludhiana used to be hubs of industries and factories. They have all shut shops over the years. Where does one work now?”

Doaba Region Hit by Deindustrialisation

There are 23 crucial seats in Doaba, and when Punjab goes to polls on 4 February, unemployment of youngsters would be a critical factor on the electorate’s mind, for it has been ailing the whole state for a long time. The Congress has campaigned on the plank of promising a job per household. AAP’s 51-point manifesto is called “for the youth, of the youth and by the youth”.

Both the parties are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal, which has been governing the state for a decade, and has done nothing to stop the slide. In 2014, newspaper reports said 18,770 factories have shut down since the Akali government came to power. Observers say it is a conservative number, and many more have followed suit in the last two years.

While Majha and Malwa regions are overwhelmingly agrarian, the tremors of de-industrialisation have been most severe in Doaba, which consists of towns like Ludhiana – once known to be a steel hub and manufacturers of cycles – and Jalandhar, where sports goods industry used to prosper.

Mass Exodus of Factories

In a narrow lane running through the Lasudi mohalla in Jalandhar West constituency, families are busy weaving footballs for different factories that are still operational. The women weave, while the men do the coolie work. Raj Rani, 50, has been making footballs for the past 27 years. “I got married in December. Lived like a princess for a month. And since February, I have been making footballs,” she described her married life in three lines. “I used to make 200 rupees per day 20 years ago. Today, I still make 200 rupees.”

Rani said Jalandhar had close to 800 factories back then, but there are hardly 50 today. The sports industry has moved to Meerut and cycle-makers like Hero and Avon, for which Ludhiana used to be a den, have expanded elsewhere, creating a massive void of jobs.

“The amount of work has gone down drastically,” Rani said, while weaving the ball. Her hands worked in harmony, like a flight on an autopilot mode. “The whole mohalla was into it. Now we are all struggling to make our ends meet.”

Industrialists and businessmen lay the blame of this mass exodus by factories squarely on the Akali Dal government in alliance with the BJP, and more so on the CM’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the party and Deputy CM of Punjab.

Requesting anonymity, a businessman, who became a member of the Akali Dal ten years ago, said it is impossible to do business in Punjab if you are not close to the Badals. “Sukhbir is greedy,” he said, sitting in his office, which had a photograph of him and Sukhbir.

If a business is doing well, he (Sukhbir Badal) would ask for a cut. It reduces your margins significantly. And if you have a fallout with him, he makes your life miserable.

A businessman on conditions of anonymity

Further, activists say that since most of the state’s businesses that generate substantial revenue belong to Badals or their proxies, many do not pay taxes, resulting in the state being starved of funds, which is why it has to compensate from elsewhere.

Educated Youth Forced to Do Odd Jobs

While other states lure industries to set up their factories, Punjab charges Rs 8 per unit for electricity – other states charge around Rs 4-5. On power bills, Punjab charges Octroi and Cow Cess. It drastically increases the production cost, and has reduced the purchasing power of the people.

Lakhs of educated youngsters are thereby languishing, doing odd jobs. Anmol Gulathi, 18, a bright young college student, drives an auto at night.

A friend of mine has done B.Tech. He works as a delivery boy and earns Rs 6,000. I get Rs 9,000. There are so many like him as labour here has become dirt-cheap. We are all waiting for the opportunity to go abroad and settle down.

Anmol Gulathi, student

Consequently, English-speaking course, or IELTS, have proliferated across Punjab, which basically train the youngsters to get out of the state. Click a photograph of a random skyline and it will not be without the IELTS signboard.

The electorate holds the Badals accountable for the quagmire, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. The youth in Doaba is tilting towards the fresher because it does not carry any baggage. Anmol said Punjab needs a fresh face, which will enthuse voters.

The Congress is corrupt as well. They do not have the ability to expose the Akali scams. The Akalis will manage them. Only AAP can put the ones who are ruining the state behind bars.

Anmol Gulathi, student

AAP’s Charm Depends on Age Group

Rita Cheema, 31, residing in Kartarpur constituency on the outskirts of Jalandhar, said AAP speaks the language of the people. “They seem concerned about the people,” she said. “I cannot say the same thing about the Congress. Akalis are not even worth mentioning. AAP deserves a chance.”

Moreover, even though the unemployment has intensified during the last decade, situation prior to that, when Congress was in charge, was not hunky dory either, which AAP has harped upon, knowing Congress is their main opponent. In June 2006, Tribune India had written an editorial titled “Spectre of unemployment looms large in Doaba”.

However, as the age group changes, AAP’s charm wanes.

The pro-Khalistan chunk, which is disillusioned with the Akali Dal, and would never vote for Congress, are backing AAP. The NRIs are lobbying for them like never before. But commentators say these NRIs are the ones who fled Punjab during the militancy, and are now using AAP to regain significance. Doaba is the most politically aware and socially conscious region of the three, and the way AAP is entertaining radicals has not been received well here, raising concerns for the long run.

AAP Pandering to Radical Elements

Surjeet Kaur, 60, said she fears the Khalistan slogans would be heard again if AAP comes to power. “If Kejriwal is using them, they would expect something in return,” she said.

If he (Kejriwal) concedes the SGPC and Akal Takht, we might see the resurgence of radicals. Having lived through the period, I dread that. Captain Amrinder, on the other hand, is an experienced cog, who would know how to deal with all sections of the society. I wonder if AAP is capable of handling a complex state like Punjab. They are inexperienced.

Surjeet Kaur

Dalit Advantage for AAP

Doaba has over 40 percent Dalit votes with noticeable BSP followers. They are en-masse gravitating towards AAP, because they have recognised BSP as a spoiler. But the head of the dera of Ravidasa sect among the Dalits, which has a following of close to a million in Doaba, has tacitly extended its support to the Congress, which means the Congress has its nose ahead in the region.

Disillusioned Youth Flocking to Foreign Shores

Akin to Majha, AAP suffers from a brittle local cadre, and has relied on the face of Arvind Kejriwal, who is seen as a messiah in the all-important Malwa region with 69 seats. The reports of an AAP sweep in Malwa are spreading, which could influence voters from Majha and Doaba ahead of the polls. AAP has thrown all its might in Malwa and only has to ensure a respectable performance in the other two regions to scrape through to the halfway mark.

However, one person who is least bothered about Punjab and its future is Sood. After having failed to find a job in Jalandhar for the past year, he has fallen back on his tried and tested strategy to escape the misery of his home state. He got married in January this year. His wife is a 20-year old B.Com student, who wants to study abroad.

The pre-conditions of the wedding was simple. Sood’s parents from their savings will bear the expenses for the MBA the bride intends to pursue. And Sood will tag along on the back of his wife’s visa. It has worked out well. Both are set to fly to New Zealand in May.

In Punjab’s Majha Region, Anti-Incumbency Wave Favours Congress

This story first appeared on The Quint on 30 January 2017.

Harjeet Singh arrives at the Golden Temple. He walks through the divine passage, removes his chappals, picks out a handkerchief and wraps it around his head. He heads down the steps and bows down as the majestic monument appears. He looks at it with reverence and throws a disillusioned glance at the Akal Takht – located in the same complex.

Politics in the Name of Religion

While the Golden Temple stands for spiritual guidance, Akal Takht – the highest seat of authority among Sikhs – is the symbol of dispensing justice.

In October 2015, several instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, transpired, which triggered widespread protests across Punjab. Amritsar, being the religious capital, saw most intense protests, which spiralled into the Majha region of Punjab, covering the area between the Beas and Ravi Rivers.

In spite of the agitations, the state government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal in alliance with the BJP has not been able to nab the culprits, which still rankles the Sikhs here. Further, the fact that the Jathedar of the Akal Takht did not speak out against the failure of the Badals – the family in charge of the Akali Dal – deepens their scar.

It is shameful the way Jathedar sahib has become a pawn of the Badals. His stature is no less than that of the pope. There was a time in Punjab when Jathedar’s word would be gospel. Now, nobody takes him seriously.

Harjeet, a rickshaw-puller

Dilution of the Akal Takht’s Autonomy

Over the last decade of the Akali rule, the Badal family has prospered while driving the state to ruins. Parkash Singh Badal is the Chief Minister. His family members control important portfolios in the state cabinet. The family, locals say, has taken over the state. But among the orthodox Sikhs, who have been the Akali Dal’s traditional vote bank, the dilution of the autonomy of the Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is an unpardonable crime.

The SGPC – which is considered the custodian of Sikh religion and works towards promoting it while monitoring Gurudwaras and the schools and hospitals it runs across the country – also remained conspicuously silent during the sacrilege of 2015.

A member of the SGPC, requesting anonymity with folded hands, said, that out of the almost 200 members of the committee, 180 are Akali Dal stooges. “Our tongues are controlled by the SGPC president and Jathedar,” he said in a hushed voice at the fourth floor of a hotel room in Amritsar. “Both dance to the tune of Badals.”

Orthodox Sikhs Unhappy with Akali Dal

The politicisation, and thereby seizure, of revered religious posts has not gone down well with the orthodox Sikhs, or Garmkhayalis as they are called here, and it is apparent that they would express their anger at the ballot box. Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member, said they respected the president of Akali Dal even more than the CM of Punjab. “There was hardly any remorse from him,” he said, sitting at a haveli in front of which a lush green farmland spread out.

A true Sikh will not vote for the Akali Dal.

Baldev Singh, a former SGPC member

Allegations Related to Drug Cartel Will Backfire

Another reason why the electorate will ensure the Akali Dal does not get another term is the burgeoning drug trade. Bikram Singh Majithia, brother-in-law of Akali president Sukhbir Singh Badal and the revenue minister in the state cabinet, is named as one of those running the illicit trade.

However, the CM, president of Akali Dal and Narendra Modi, supremo of its ally BJP, have denied or downplayed the crisis, despite a whole generation being destroyed.

Anti-Incumbency Wave in Favour of Congress

In the corner of a remote village of Jhander in Amritsar’s Ajnala town, Gurumeet Kaur and her ailing husband Badkar Singh wonder whether to laugh or cry at these statements. Their son, Resham Singh, 32, has not returned home for a few days but they do not seem to be worried. “He does that every now and then,” said dark-coloured, wrinkled face Badkar, sitting on a khat with a blanket wrapped around his body to weather the chill in the air.

Gurumeet and Badkar found out their son was a drug addict when he was 24. “We got to know because a friend of his did it,” said Gurumeet, serving a hot cup of tea. “He started stealing money from the house, our jewellery disappeared. If his elder brother had not been working, we would have been sleeping on the road.”

There is not a single person in this state who is unaware of Majithia’s involvement, said Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant. “The reason Arun Jaitley lost the Lok Sabha elections even during the Modi wave is because Majithia was his campaign manager,” he said. “While the drug menace is decaying the whole of Punjab, the border areas in Majha are the villages through which it is smuggled.”

Riding on the anti-incumbency in Majha, where 25 out of the 117 seats fall, is the Congress with Navjot Singh Sidhu proving to be a star campaigner. Contesting from the East Amritsar constituency, Sidhu’s presence has propelled the Congress, along with Captain Amarinder as the CM candidate. “He is an honest man,” said a shopkeeper in East Amritsar. “We would have voted for him even if he had been in the BJP.”

AAP Should’ve Declared a CM Candidate

AAP, on the other hand, is lagging a bit behind, because of the lack of a credible Sikh face. The team of MLAs in Majha, say observers, does not invoke confidence. Upkar Singh Sandhu, who is now in the ranks of AAP, is a former Akali district president, seen to be close to Majithia.

There are a few more defectors who are dicey. If AAP had declared a CM candidate with Kejriwal resisting the urge to jump ships, they would have swept.

Sarabhjit Singh, a respected civil servant

Commentators believe that someone like HS Phoolka, who has been fighting for justice for 1984 riot victims, would have been an ideal choice, but insiders say he refuses to toe the line of the head command – the reason behind his marginalisation. If AAP had struck a deal with Sidhu, it would have increased their chances, as his popularity cuts across age groups.

Because AAP has not empowered its local leadership, “the party has not effectively influenced the religious votebank,” said Sarabhjit. “The interplay of politics and religion plays a crucial role here. I do not think we are still ready to have a non-Sikh CM.”

Even then, the radical Sikhs, who are disenchanted with Badals, will not vote Congress because of Indira Gandhi’s operation Blue Star and the 1984 riots that followed. “That vote will go to the AAP,” said Amrik Singh, head of Damdami Taksal, a radical Sikh group, who refers to Akali Dal as “Badal Dal”. Sitting in his office at Ajnala adorned with photographs of Bhindranwale, he said AAP deserves a chance, with the Congress and the Akalis having already been in power.

Congress Needs Momentum for a Comeback

But the radical voters are outnumbered by mellowed religious Sikhs who are likely to express their anger against the Akalis by voting for the Congress. Baldev Singh said the Captain is a trusted old school lieutenant who knows the state better than AAP. “He has worked in Punjab for so many years,” he said.

“He knows our culture and rituals. He would bring back rule of law in the state while preserving our ethos.” Badals, in the meantime, struggling to tackle the anti-incumbency, are hoping for a split in votes. Congress had lost out in Majha during the previous elections with 16 of the 25 seats going to the Akali Dal. AAP is reportedly well ahead in Malwa, which has 68 seats.

For the Congress to make a comeback in Punjab, it needs to further consolidate the momentum and ensure a remarkable performance in this region. However, one strata of society which it has failed to woo is the labour class. Harjeet, the cycle-rickshaw driver, said the Congress and the Akali are in cahoots with each other. “There is only one man who can ensure justice in this lawless state right now,” he concluded. “Arvind Kejriwal.”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 5: Students subjected to rampant political interference

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the concluding part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

It is 5 pm. The final bell goes off. The last lecture has concluded. Students gather their notebooks, pen and bags. Teachers head out of the classroom. Students change their uniforms and put on regular clothes. But just when an outsider would think the students are done for the day, another bell goes off. Boys and girls head out of the rooms in different directions within the school premise. Out on the ground, under the open sky, boys form queues and stand beside each other keeping exact distance from one another, as if getting ready for a PT class. Except it is not a PT class, but an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. Soon, a stick is placed in front of the stationary group and a saffron flag is meticulously unfolded and placed on the mounted stick.

The scene is from a state-aided tribal residential school with over 1,300 students in the Dadade village of Palghar’s Vikramgad taluka. Tribal welfare minister Vishnu Savara’s Arvind Smriti Sanstha runs the school, where the shakha is an integral part of the school curriculum.

Every evening, students at this school – boys and girls at separate venues of the school premises – pray in front of the saffron flag. Hands on their chest, two 16- year-old boys lead the prayers. A staff member of the school joins in. The two boys fluently recite the prayers in Sanskrit. Others follow their lead. It goes on for good five minutes or so, and concludes with the chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

“From where did you learn this prayer?” I ask the two boys. “Our RSS holds a shakha, which is attended by kids from Vikramgad taluka once in a while,” says Dhiraj Bhadange, 16, hair neatly combed, shirt tucked in. “We try to pass on whatever we learn at the shakha to our juniors at this school.”

Dhiraj is proud that he is passing on “wisdom” to his younger schoolmates. Upon asked the meaning of the prayer, Dhiraj says he does not know the entire translation as it is in Sanskrit but understands the crux of it. “What is the crux?” I ask him. “It is a prayer for the Hindu Rashtra,” he promptly says. “We pay our respects to the saffron flag. We pledge to take the Hindu Rashtra to utmost heights.”

The shakha concludes immediately after the prayers. “Exams are going on,” explains a staff member. “Otherwise, we follow up the prayer with games and physical exercises. Kids need to get back to their studies. But it would not be prudent to skip the shakha altogether.”

Another staff member at the school, requesting anonymity, says the government subsidy is merely Rs 900 per month behind every student, in which it is impossible to cover the cost of their meals, breakfast, medicines, blankets and stationery. “We get a fair amount of donation through the RSS,” he says. “Those donations have played a huge role in the development of the school. And attending shakha cannot hurt the students. They are learning the importance of discipline.”

There are 1,109 tribal residential schools across 16 tribal concentrated districts of Maharashtra – half of the schools are aided by the state, which are run by various NGOs. Most of the NGOs either belong to a politician or someone close to a politician, thereby tribal schools are often subjected to political interference which cuts across political parties.

Senior educationist Herambh Kulkarni points out that the interference of Congress and NCP has been more prolonged and acute over the years. “The ashram schools run by Congress and NCP members are used to conceal their corruption,” he said. “If an officer notices any wrongdoing, he is reluctant to act against the school because of the political might. Many of their schools show more number of students than what actually exists, enabling them to get more donations.”

In September last year, a Rs 67-crore scam had inadvertently come to light, when over 8,000 tribal students in the region of Jalgaon appeared to be non-existent during a drive to promote Aadhaar. Activists believe the phenomena is statewide and around 30 percent of the entries out of the 2.4 lakh students enrolled in the state-aided ashram schools could be fake. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

The politicians and headmasters understandably deny political interference, and teachers refuse to speak about it, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Former MLA Vivek Pandit says the term political interference does not convey the gravity of the practice. “It is political control,” he says.

Bandu Sane, an activist who has been working with tribals in Vidarbha for the longest time, says the placements at ashram schools often go to the relatives or friends of the politician whose NGO is running the school. “Tribal schools get a lot of donation, and it is hardly monitored. Precisely why most of the tribal politicians own one,” he says. “I have seen teachers and non-teaching staff campaign for political leaders who employ them. They cannot say no even when they are used like donkeys.”

A teacher, requesting anonymity, says as the elections approach, workload increases, as he has to double up as a teacher as well as a cadre. “We are asked to campaign, distribute money, maintain accounts, prepare posters and everything that is done ahead of the elections,” he says. “It is a given that we have to work during the elections. It is an unsaid rule that we cannot question.”

While no political ideology or stream is immune to it, the indoctrination of tribal students at the Arvind Smriti Ashram School is quite
blatant. Tribals have traditionally not had a religion, and this appears to be a drive to bring them into the Hindu fold.

Dhiraj teaches his younger colleagues to maneuver lathi and martial arts, or Niyuddhi, as he likes to call it. “We need to be equipped enough to protect the Hindu Rashtra from any danger,” he says. Danger from whom? He smiles unsurely and says, “Outsiders.” Upon probed further, he seems clueless.

On special occasions, the RSS ideologues from the nearby shakha visit the school, says Dhiraj, and address the students. “We are taught the importance of our festivals,” he says. “We pay our respects to Shivaji on Shivjayanti, we salute the saffron flag on Gurupurnima, we also celebrate Dr. Hegdewar’s birth anniversary.”

On Raksha Bandhan, students of the school travel to various villages in their locality and tie a rakhi to an elder member of every house they visit, Dhiraj says. “It is a token gesture and a reminder of our pledge to protect the Hindu Rashtra,” he says, at which point the headmaster comes and stands beside him, encumbering his flow. He is suddenly reluctant to speak. I thank him for his time. The headmaster shakes my hand and leaves, and I go after Dhiraj again. “Are you not taught about Christmas or Eid?” I ask him.

“No,” he gives me a sarcastic smile. “They are not our festivals. Not in Hindu Rashtra.”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 4: With poor infrastructure, underqualified teachers, education takes a backseat

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 19 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the fourth part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

The room is about an inch or two wider than the space occupied by two double bunk beds lined up one after another. One has to walk sideways to pass through the space in between the beds. Bed sheets are sullied. There is no ventilation and the light hardly comes through even at noon. The caretaker has to turn on the tubelight to get a good look of the dingy room, where clothes are hanging above the eye level. This is the state of girls hostel in Nashik’s Devgaon tribal residential school. With over 350 residing students here, almost 45-50 of them are cramped into one room, where they spend the night. They do not have separate cupboards, privacy to concentrate on their studies or even a respectable space to keep their clothes.

As one spares a thought for the appalling infrastructural facilities doled out to the students in Devgaon, but as you visit more such tribal schools in Maharashtra, the cramped room appears to be a luxury. Most of the students do not even have a separate space to go to after the conclusion of the last lecture. The room in which they spend their night becomes their classroom during the day.

Maharashtra is the only state that allocates budget for tribal development in proportion of its tribal population, which leaves no scope for shortfall, even though the state runs 555 ashram schools and aids 554 of them. For the year 2016-17, Rs 7,644 crores had been allotted for tribal development.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The tribal ministry is often accused of malpractices and the ground reality of ashram schools makes one wonder where the money goes. In 2008, the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive report to the then ruling dispensation, which highlighted similar infrastructural fallacies to what TISS did to this government in August 2015.

According to the findings, almost half the schools would have to be derecognised, considering the codebook of Maharashtra Ashram Schools mandates the campus of the school be minimum 2 hectares to create a conducive atmosphere for the kids to study and play, which is part of the all-round growth of the students. However, 64 percent of aided and 38 percent of government tribal schools had a campus that did not measure up to the codebook, as per TISS findings.

The report further exposed the state, for it found only 9 percent of the aided and 12 percent of the government-run schools could provide a living space of 40 square feet per student at the girl’s hostel. The boy’s hostel did not fare much better.

With the kind of infrastructure the state provides, it cannot hope to expect the quality of education to be impressive. Only 60 percent aided and 50 percent government schools had classrooms with maps and charts. Moreover, merely 58 percent aided and 55 percent government schools provided tubes/bulbs and fans, making it worse for students to study.

Milind Thatte, an activist in the Jawahar tribal belt, said the concept of tribal schools has become outdated. “Residential schools were conceptualised because there was hardly any access to most of the tribal villages,” he said. “Today, a lot of those villages have become easily accessible. Let the students live with their parents and the state can save up what it spends on the hostel and use it for their books, meals etc. Ashram schools should be limited to places where it is a task for the kids to head out of the villages.”

In December 2015, the Maharashtra government had mooted the idea to rope in the private sector to run the ashram schools, which was an admission in itself of being incapable of running them well in spite of spending thousands of crores.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Former MLA Vivek Pandit, whose organisation works with tribals in the area of Palghar, Thane and Dahanu, said the tribal welfare department depends on contractors, which is marred with rampant corruption. When TISS paid a visit to 1,076 schools across Maharashtra in 2015, it encountered around 75,000 students less than what they had been told, which is astounding considering these are residential schools. Last year, a corollary scam had come to light, where thousands of students enrolled in the schools were found to be non-existent. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

TISS also found the number of posts at the ashram schools had been unoccupied. Including the headmaster, teacher, male and female warden, cook, peon, lab attendant, helper and others, 976 posts had been vacant in aided schools, while in government schools, the number was 3,469.

Instead of filling up important posts like those of a trained teacher, permanent employees, many of the schools have hired teachers on a contract basis, where they are used as cheap labour. While a permanent teacher would have to be paid a salary of at least Rs 35,000, the contract teachers, who teach primary students, are hired at Rs 15 an hour. They are mostly graduates in their mid-20s, hoping to get a permanent job. The secondary and higher secondary teachers get Rs 54 and Rs 72 per hour respectively. One of the teachers, at the request of not being named, expressed his frustration. “I have been working as a contract teacher for 15 years,” he lamented. “Rs 15 an hour fetches me around Rs 2,000 a month. It is humiliating.”

As a result, the student-teacher ratio remains dismal and pupils spill out of the classrooms. Better trained teachers do not take up the job and many who do leave midway through the term.

When TISS submitted its report in 2008, some of its major suggestions included “Provide guidance on academic and co-curricular activities”, “Better training for better teachers” and “Prepare infrastructure budget and check on the structures”. Seven years later, the study by the same organisation did not come up with very dissimilar suggestions. In all likelihood, TISS might be commissioned another study in 2020 and it would probably not matter if the institute merely updates the date and submits the same report it submitted a year and a half ago.

Despite the conditions in which the tribal students study, records show more than 95 percent of the students pass their board exams. But before one is misled into thinking about a positive story amid adversities, activists call it a scam. Most of the students, they say, struggle to read, and yet go on to pass the exams. Interactions with students at various schools indicated there is much truth to it. Students laboured to solve basic math problems at the age of 14 and 15. Many of the schools did not have a laboratory or a teacher for science, yet students over there have passed the subject.

Activist Bandu Sane, who works extensively with the tribals in Vidarbha, asked if the tribal schools produce toppers, where do the students go after they graduate. “If all the students are passing their board exams, why do they struggle so much once they are out of the tribal schools?” He asked. “It has been five decades since the inception of ashram schools. Why have they not been able to emancipate the tribal society? Why have the tribals remained the way they were a few decades ago?”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 3: Abysmal security, sexual assault cases remain an alarming concern

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 18 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the third part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

When the rest of India was ready to welcome 2017, tribal students at the state-run ashram school in Aswali village of Palghar – about 120 kilometres from Mumbai – were in for an unpleasant shock. At around 11 pm on 31 December, the principal of the school, Yashwant Wagh, barged into the hostel in a drunken state and physically abused the students.

A nine-year-old boy, when asked about the incident, stood up and positioned himself on the floor as if getting ready to do push-ups. But he soon touched the floor with his tiny elbows and arduously pushed himself forward on the ground. Around 30 students were made to do this on the rough, stone cold floor. The boy then said the principal even kicked some of the students and stood on them. They were being “punished” for not doing their homework.

When the local media took up the issue, the principal apologised, but the petrified students said they have seldom felt safe around him. He was later suspended.

Tribal students in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Tribal students in a school in Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

In Maharashtra, over 5 lakh tribal students are enrolled in 1,109 tribal residential schools – 554 state-run and 555 state-aided – spread across 16 tribal-populated districts. While the conditions in which these tribal students live are repugnant, security of the students, or rather the lack of it, has remained an alarming concern. Apart from being beaten up and ill treated, the cases of sexual exploitation are rampant and it is merely a tip of the iceberg, believe activists.

In November last year, the whole state of Maharashtra woke up to a horror — a tribal school in Buldhana was derecognised after reports emerged that girl students are being sexually assaulted there. The incidence only came to light after a girl, who was visiting her parents, complained of stomachache and was later found to be pregnant. As the episode unfolded, several other girls came forward complaining of sexual harassment, and at least three of them were pregnant. Eleven people were arrested, including school trustees, the headmaster and a few teachers.

Incidentally, a report led by the former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe, was submitted to the Maharashtra governor a month before the Buldhana incident, warning of sexual crimes at tribal ashram schools across the state. The report noted that an alarming 1,077 deaths had transpired in 15 years at the tribal schools, 493 of them were girls. Sexual assaults, suicide, lack of medical help, malnutrition and negligence were cited as major causes for the deaths.

“In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” states the report, adding that schools could not produce any data regarding 12 percent deaths while vague descriptions like “unknown cause”, “severe illness” and “sudden death” were the other reasons. “We had a feeling that the girls were being sexually exploited, but it was obvious they were under pressure from teachers and the management and would not open up to us,” Salunkhe had reportedly said. “Since death certificates in most cases were vague, missing most crucial details, reason of their deaths cannot be ascertained. Sexual exploitation angle cannot be ruled out.”

An ashram school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

An ashram school in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The report suggested the setting up of an internal committee that would address the issue of gender violation according to the Vishaka guidelines. It further stressed the need for teachers and the staff to be appropriately sensitised to gender violations and child rights. The governor wrote a letter to the chief minister asking for lady officers to periodically visit the tribal schools.

After the findings of the report, the Maharashtra government towards the end of 2016, promised to take corrective measures, including a woman’s squad for the safety of girls, ambulances and posting of auxiliary nursing and midwife. However, the promises did not have a deadline, casting aspersions on the sincerity of the move, for all those years, even the most basic security measures had been palpably missing.

The Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive study to the government on ashram schools, which noted only 25 percent of the aided and 46 percent of the government-run schools actually had a concrete compound wall marking the premise of the school. With many of the schools located along the road, lack of concrete fencing magnifies the chance of an accident. The state-run ashram school at Thane’s Aaine village presents an amusing and disturbing example. It takes a while to differentiate the school from the village as the houses used for the school are some of the rented apartments of villagers living in the neighbouring houses. The classes function sans any privacy or silence with locals going about their day outside. Building a compound wall for the school would practically cordon off the whole, or at least a part, of Aaine.

TISS further highlighted that only 31 percent aided and 39 percent government schools had a security guard. More shockingly, the post of female warden is vacant in almost 80 percent aided schools and 42 percent of the government schools.

At the government-run ashram school in Palghar’s Sakhre village, the principal, SS Sooryavanshi, said he uses the cook as a security guard at night. “There is only one security guard for 352 students staying here,” he said. “I use him to guard the girl’s hostel. The cook is deployed where the boys live.”

The ground reality at the moment indicates the callousness with which the delicate issue of security is handled by the state. With lack of female wardens, inadequate number of security guards and no compound walls, the schools provide an easy access to any outsider to merely stroll into its premises without being scrutinised. As a result, cases of sexual harassment and assaults on tribal students often crop up every now and then, which activists say are more acute than what the citizenry finds out.

“Tribal families are poor and police do not take them seriously,” said activist Bandu Sane. “Moreover, the fear of dishonour intimidates them against filing a complaint. Other times, the families are paid off to remain silent. And when they conquer all adversities and decide to fight the case, they often find out that the perpetrators have better contacts and their might overwhelms the tribals.”

 

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 2: Students stare at malnutrition due to poor food, filthy kitchens

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 17 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the second part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

A month and a half back, tribal students at the state-run Ashram School in Thane’s Aaine village finally got what they had wanted for months: A bit more rice. Priyanka Kinnar, 13, standing on the street with no lights that passes through the school, meticulously looked here and there and sheepishly made a small cup with her right palm to show the amount of rice the students were served, along with one chapati and vegetables. When students asked for more food, their request was turned down.

Priyanka said she would overhear the kids asking each other for leftover food to pacify their hunger. When students gathered courage and complained to the headmaster, it fell on deaf ears, according to the students. Around two months back, the headmaster was missing when activists of former MLA Vivek Pandit’s Shramjeevi Sanghatana that works in the tribal belt of Palghar, Dahanu and Thane paid a visit to the Aaine school. It gave the students an opportunity to divulge their gripe.

“We found out that the students were served half the amount of rice they are supposed to get at a time,” said Santosh Dhinda, one of the activists who then took up the issue with the local media. “After the cameras arrived in this remote village, the quantity of rice has increased.”

kitchen-listice

The kitchens in the tribal schools are mostly unhygienic. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

In June 2015, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had pronounced there would be no compromise on the quality of food served to the tribal children. To avoid the monotony of khichdi, the state had planned “nutritious meals” that would include roti, pulao, mixed vegetables, aloo matar and aloo jeera, while fruits, eggs, poha and upma would be served for breakfast.

A pilot project of central kitchens was launched in Palghar and Nasik districts the following month, and it was supposed to be replicated throughout the state covering over 5 lakh tribal students by December 2015. “It is my dream project that has come true after 12 years. Nutritious food in ashram shalas will lead to a major socio-economic change,” Fadnavis had said.

More than a year down the line, the socio-economic change seems to be far from achieved, with only a handful of schools being covered by the central kitchens. “The quality of food is relatively better wherever they have central kitchens serving food to a selected schools,” said Vivek Pandit. “But majority of the schools receive ration and food is cooked at the school. The vegetables are rotten, pulses are adulterated. At times, the quality of food is so bad; it makes the food served in jails look good.”

food-listicle

Poor quality food and inadequate variety remain a concern in tribal schools of Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

The NCP has accused the current ruling dispensation of serving banned, expired food, but interactions with staff members at various schools, while validating the accusations, indicate the situation had been no better under the earlier regime. The staff is keen on sharing details of the deteriorated food quality and lack of adequate variety on the menu, but the moment one asks their name, they stop. “We intend to keep our jobs,” they say.

Upon assuring their identities would be protected, the teachers as well as the non-teaching staff resume, “We also eat the same food. Human beings don’t deserve this kind of food. For very student, the aided school gets Rs 900 a month and government schools get Rs 2500 a month. How is it possible to serve two all-round meals and breakfast in that amount?”

When Shramjeevi Sanghatana surveyed schools in their area, it transpired that the gap between two meals at certain places was as wide as 13 hours.

In August 2015, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a report in which it noted that out of all the schools across Maharashtra – just over 1,100 with half of them being aided and other half state-run – merely 6 percent aided and 3.6 percent of the government tribal schools served breakfast according to the menu. Further, 33 percent of the schools has their gas facility and utensils in good conditions but the kitchens were unhygienic.

At the Arvind Smruti Ashram School in Palghar’s Vikramgad, which is tribal minister Vishnu Savara’s school, an open space marked under a tin roof held on a few bamboo sticks serves as a kitchen that makes food for more than 1,300 students. The kitchen is open on two sides and lined with bricks on the other two. Two cooks are in charge of three large vessels, as they prepare food in the company of constant stench.

It has been over five decades since the establishment of ashram schools for tribal students in Maharashtra. Even after all these years, it turns out the tribal kids cannot even take the basic necessities for granted.

The students across Maharashtra received raincoats in October, when the monsoons begin in June. Upon questioned, Savara had said the rainy season is still going on. The Opposition had also alleged the purchase orders for raincoats had been done in violation of norms, without calling for tenders.

Pandit said the whole tribal department runs on contractors, where contracts of crores of rupees are given for various purchases, in which there is rampant corruption. When the department decided to provide sweaters to students during winters, it said the cost of each sweater was Rs 2,100, while its market price was estimated at Rs 500. After a lot of clamour, the idea was amended and the government decided to give the amount directly to students, bypassing contractors and middlemen.

When food and clothing – two of the most fundamental requirements – are predicated on the whims and fancies of the state, it is a fair reflection on the holistic conditions the tribal students across the state are subjected to. In 2014, 40 students in a tribal school of Gondia district had walked out after they found glass and plastic in their food. In October 2016, when former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe submitted his committee’s detailed probe into the deaths at tribal schools in Maharashtra, it cited malnutrition as one of the major causes.

Activists believe the students do not protest as fiercely or frequently over food because they are not aware of what they are entitled to, and their needs are indeed innocently basic. Back in Aaine, Priyanka said the situation is better for the past one and a half months. The cup made from her right palm widened a bit. “They have started serving non-vegetarian food once a month,” she said with a smile. “At times, we also get eggs and bananas.”