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.”


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.”


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.”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 1: State of neglect endangers student health

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 first part of a series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

On 7 October last year, 12-year-old Kaushalya Bharsat complained of loose motions at around 6.30 am to the female superintendent of the government-run tribal school where she lived. The principal, SS Sooryavanshi, ordered her to be taken to the nearest hospital in Vikramgad, which is a 25-minute ride from her school in Sakhre village of Palghar district, about 120 kilometres from Mumbai. According to hospital records, Kaushalya was brought to the hospital at 7.35 am, where she was declared dead on arrival.

Sooryavanshi said she had been feeling uneasy the day before, and was taken to the hospital where the doctors prescribed medicines. “She was feeling better in the afternoon,” he said. “She even attended classes that day. We made sure she took her pills after dinner.”

Hospital records, though, told a different story. She had been keeping ill for the past three days. On the morning of 6 October, doctors had advised her to take a blood test. “But she left without doing so,” the report stated. The superintendent, who has since left the job, had reportedly said the doctors did not mention the blood test.

Kaushalya’s distraught father Kusa said he was not even informed of his daughter’s illness. While the doctors verbally told Sooryavanshi that Kaushalya died of food poisoning, the report does not mention the cause of death. Sooryavanshi said if food poisoning had been the reason, she would not be the only victim. Further reports that would ascertain the cause are still awaited from the JJ Hospital in Mumbai.

There are just over 1,100 tribal residential schools in Maharashtra – half of them state-run while others aided by the state. With more than 5 lakh tribal students enrolled in these schools, Kaushalya is not the first whose health has so dramatically and mysteriously deteriorated. According to the high-level probe by Salunkhe Committee, which submitted its report to the Maharashtra governor in October last year, 1,077 deaths have transpired over the last 15 years in the state-run tribal residential schools. “In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” the report noted. Vague descriptions like “severe illness” and “sudden death” dominated the ‘cause of death’ column while malnutrition, lack of medical help, negligence were other reasons, casting serious aspersions on the healthcare, hygiene and sanitation facilities available in these schools across Maharashtra.

In August 2015, Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) submitted a comprehensive report to the current ruling dispensation after examining 1,076 schools, in which it came up with some embarrassing findings regarding healthcare and sanitation facilities at the ashram schools.

Only half the schools actually had a first aid kit. Menstrual cycles of the girl students were not monitored appropriately, which could lead to Reproductive Tract Infection. Around 54 percent of the aided schools and 61 percent of the government-run schools provided sanitary napkins, while others did not even do that.

In case of an emergency, most of the schools would be frazzled, as hardly anywhere is there a trained doctor to offer immediate treatment. At a government ashram school for girls in Nashik’s Devgaon village, the staff dreads an emergency. “The Primary Health Centre is 12 kilometres from here,” said a staff member, requesting anonymity. “The civil hospital is 70 kilometres. How do we deal with a crisis? We would have to live with perpetual guilt if something goes wrong with the girls.”

An open space surrounded by different one-room constructions occupies the complex of Devgaon’s tribal school. Three years back, another construction came up: The health centre. Except it has been closed from the day it was inaugurated, and the staff said no health official or doctor has even paid a visit. Because of these inadequacies, activists say the proactive medicinal measures seldom transpire and often, the staff wakes up to a health emergency that could have well been avoided. TISS also noted that merely 29 percent aided and 20 percent government ashram schools had good drainage facilities. The rest being average or worse, magnifying the chances of water-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, etc.

Sooryavanshi, whose school in Sakhre moved to a newly constructed complex in the same vicinity at the end of 2016, said he is glad the students would now live in clean, hygienic conditions. “Earlier premise was too small, where students would live, sleep, eat and study in the same room,” he said.

The freshly painted two-storey buildings have a separate residential building for girl students. A huge banyan tree extends its shadow enabling pleasant breeze around the school. However, it appears to be the same medicine in a new bottle. Within days of its move, the school ran into problems with water supply, forcing boys to bathe under the open sky at a nearby lake, which is freezing early in the morning. “The amount of water we have at our disposal is not enough for all the 352 students,” said Sooryavanshi. “We have to prioritise girls over boys.”

The school in Sakhre might have run into problems now, but bathing in the open is a norm in most of the schools. TISS study revealed that only 30 percent of the residential school hostels – aided and state-run – provided a bathroom behind every 20-girl students, while 27 percent aided and 30 percent government schools provided a toilet behind every 20 students. The rest had one toilet behind 50 students or more, compelling students to defecate in the open. Around 10 percent aided and 23 percent government schools did not have toilets at all.

Just six kilometres from the Devgaon Ashram School, is a a state-run school along the river Vaitarna, where every monsoon almost 30-40 students suffer from diarrhea or loose motions, said a staff member. Fortunately, girls here do not live at the school. The toilets are non-functional and boys go to the riverside or in the nearby farm fields to relieve themselves. A few open taps are supposed to serve as bathrooms, needless to say, insufficient for over 300 residing boys.

Gajanan Pingle of Rayambe village, a few kilometres from the Vaitarna School, still remembers the fateful day of September 2004, when a staff member of the school came to his village and said a boy from Rayambe has drowned while bathing in the Vaitarna reservoir. Gajanan rushed to the site along with his neighbours and collapsed when he saw the recovered body of his nine-year old son Deepak. He was his only son. It has been 12 years since the tragedy. A solar panel, which does not work, has been installed at the school since then. But the bathrooms are still inadequate. And students still bathe in the Vaitarna reservoir.

Ashes to ashes: Matang women sift through funeral pyres to earn their livelihood; it’s killing them

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 25 September 2016.

The mourners gather around the dead body. One of them sets the pyre on fire. The rituals of the funeral conclude, and one by one, people head out of the graveyard. But Lata Sathe, 52, stays put. She waits for the pyre to cool down. She inspects the ash accumulated under the pyre, and with the help of a few other women, starts the search for a saleable item in it.

Sathe hails from the Matang community, a subsection within Dalits, but the most deprived one. While Dalits aim to break away from the work assigned to them by tradition, Matang women are still making their ends meet by segregating ashes in the graveyard. There are close to 300 of them in Nasik city, 150 kilometers from Mumbai; they have divided the 20 graveyards here among themselves.

Sathe frequents one of them. A pile of bamboos stacked near the gate, Sathe, along with 10 other women, arrives here at eight in the morning. A smoky rectangular concrete structure with a peculiar smell — space enough for 10 pyres — has been her life, she says. “I do not remember doing anything else,” says Sathe, draped in a worn out sari. “My mother and mother-in-law would do it. Now my daughter and daughter-in law have joined in.”

Hindus generally keep a metal or a bit of gold in the dead body’s mouth. The challenge is to find that in the ash. In case of a woman, Sathe is on the lookout for earrings or bangles as well.

A couple of women fill up a few buckets of water and pour it in the pit under the pyre. Hunched over, Sathe crawls under the pyre, ankles dipped into the water full of the burnt body’s ash. She cleans up the pit, fills her buckets and vessels with the ash water and then strains the water out before proceeding to the Godavari River just across the graveyard to clean up the ash, in which she hopes to find something worth selling. Whatever they find, is split among the women. “I end up making 80-100 rupees a day,” says Sathe, who has two unemployed sons, and a paralysed husband. Her daughter is married. “If nothing else, we pick up wood for the stove or clothes left at the graveyard. The sari I am wearing is from this very place.”

Sathe’s friend Sangeeta Ranshinge says when her eight-year old boy cries for a chocolate, she gives him the offering of the funeral. “What else can I do?” she asks. “That is the only way I can get something sweet for him.”
Generally, people tend to have a bath after visiting a graveyard, which is why Sathe, who spends most of her day there, is treated like an untouchable by the society. “I feel the humiliation at every juncture,” she says. “Even some of my relatives do not accept water from my hands.”

Cast away from the society, they even have their separate colonies, Matangwada. A kilometer’s distance from the graveyard, Sathe’s Matangwada is densely populated with 500 people. Cramped, poorly lit one-room houses clutter the society, as kids optimise the gaps running between the houses to play hide and seek. One has to bend the head to enter a house, where clothes hang at eye level. The house is damp, for there has been a sustained drizzle in the morning and the roof is leaking.

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The men in Matang community are engaged in casual labour or make money by washing cars. The average educational level is no higher than Class Four. “I do not think I have ever purchased rations sufficient for even a week (at a time),” Sathe says. “With the money we make, education for our kids is a long shot.”

Activists have been demanding rehabilitation and alternative employment for Matang women. Vishwas Kamble of the Maharashtra Matang Social Organisation has conducted protest marches in Nasik and elsewhere. “It is a tragedy people have to earn a living like this in the 21st century,” he says. “All the talks of development are cosmetic. Real development cannot happen if we keep neglecting the deprived.”

In February 2014, the previous Maharashtra State Government had assured in a letter that a meeting had been held regarding the rehabilitation of Matangs — whose numbers are just under 30 lakhs as per the 2011 census — and the decision to employ them as sweepers or cleaners at government offices, gardens and so on had been taken. The expected time of enforcement was estimated at one month.

Just before that, through Annabhau Sathe Economic Development Corporation, the state had provided 30 Matang women with a loan of 50,000 rupees each. It was a pilot project. But due to miscommunication, the women thought it was financial aid, not a loan. They only realised they were expected to repay the money after receiving notices for defaulting on payments.

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When Kamble briefly met the current chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, he was assured that the matter of the Matangs’ rehabilitation would be looked into. Rajkumar Badole, cabinet minister for Social Justice and Special Assistance, said he has chaired a few meetings regarding this issue and the GR for the same would be released soon.

In the meantime, Sathe is waiting for the night of the new moon. One of the other modes of income for Matang women: They beg once a month, on the night of the new moon, a superstition prevalent in rural Maharashtra.
According to the superstition, family members of any person who is sick, not doing well in life, or supposedly possessed by negative powers, give away food, oil, cereals, grains etc by mixing it with the person’s nails, hair and so on, to Matang women. The belief is that the supposedly cursed person would be rid of it and the negative forces would be transferred to the Matangs, through the nails or hair, along with the food.

Sathe says she segregates the food material and washes it before the family consumes it. But there is a huge hygiene issue here, for the food mixed with body hair or nails can only be cleaned to an extent. Many a time, the food given away by villagers is rotten.

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A doctor advised Sathe to avoid it when she was down with stomach upset, and asked her to stay away from the graveyard as well. Constantly inhaling the smoke is dangerous, she was told.

But, Sathe says, she would not even make the paltry sum of money that she now does, if she renounces her “job”. “If I continue, I will die of a disease,” she says. “But if I do not, I will die of hunger.”