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.”
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.”
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.”