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.
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.
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?”