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.

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