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.
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.”
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.”