In Nandurbar, Maharashtra’s largest tribal belt, many schoolchildren including teenage girls have no choice but to bathe in the open as several of the government-run ashram shalas have no toilets or bathrooms. At many of these residential tribal schools, children study and sleep in the same room. And for the meals they eat, the budget of some schools is as low as Rs 7 per plate.
This is after a strict set of guidelines was formulated for these ashram shalas after the Bombay High Court had pulled up the Maharashtra government in 2014 for the high number of deaths in these schools: 793 children died due to illness and reptile bites between 2001 and 2013.
Maharashtra has 1,108 ashramshalas: 552 government-run, the rest government-aided. For 2015-16, the government has allocated Rs 4,968 crore to the tribal development department, and roughly Rs 350 crore is pumped into the education sector.
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When The Indian Express visited a government-run ashram shala in Trishul village on the Satpuda mountain range, boys and girls were practising for Republic Day.
A few makeshift huts, about 300 sq ft each, serve as classrooms-cum-dormitories for the boarders. Three schoolboys sweep the broken floor. Small aluminum trunks are tacked to the four corners of the huts. A large blackboard hangs on one wall while students’ clothes hang from lines on the remaining walls.
In the cold, the children had no sweaters or even shoes. Their uniforms were torn. “What can we do? We haven’t received uniforms, sweaters and footwear this year,” said D N Sonawane, 27, the acting principal. There are 296 children at the school.
At night, each classroom crams in about 35 students, who sleep on the floors even in winter. “There are separate boarding facilities for girls and boys. But there are no mattresses for students,” said Sonawane.
Under government guidelines, an ashram shala should be housed in a proper building with spaces earmarked for classes and hostels. Toilets and bathing facilities have to be properly demarcated. But there are no bathrooms at this school. Rather, a couple of makeshift structures serve as toilets. “We bathe in the river,” said a Class VI girl, 14.
Pratibha Shinde, general secretary of tribal rights organisation Loksangharsh Morcha, alleged “there have been instances of girls facing sexual harassment from locals when they go to bathe in the rivers”.
For meals, the students are served watery dal, two chapatis and khichdi. “We are expected to feed meals at Rs 7 per plate. How can one cook nutritious meals at such a small sum?” said the cook.
The Trishul ashram shala is one of seven in Maharashtra, all in Nandurbar, where self-help groups controlled by local political heavyweights have bagged the food contracts. A child’s diet has been awarded for Rs 500 per child per month — it is Rs 900 in other places. Sonawane said, “Even the staff eats the same food. It is terrible, but there is nothing we can do.”
Nandurbar collector Pradeep P agreed the “flat rate” of Rs 500 was “unreasonable”. “We have proposed to the government that this flat rate be removed and competitive bids be called for.”
Rajgopal Deora, principal secretary (tribal development department), said, “I have been told some government schools on rented premises have been allotted food contracts at a flat rate of Rs 500 per child. We have called for a report. We have deputed some young IAS recruits and are pushing for improvement in infrastructure across schools.”
Tribal Development Minister Vishnu Sawara said, “I agree the facilities in tribal schools aren’t ideal. We have issued instructions to improve these.”
At the ashram shala in Telkhedi village, 10 km away, classrooms-cum-dorms once again greet visitors as does the sight of students studying in the light of a solar lamp.
In Gaman village, sarpanch Sheela Vasave said, “There is no water, no electricity. Our children go to the fields to relieve themselves and bathe in the open. The gram sabha has repeatedly requested the government for facilities, nothing has been done.” Here too, most teaching staff are temporary. “We work as daily wagers,” said Dilip Vasave, 32, who has been teaching for eight years.
Teachers complain they have not received their pay since September 2014. “The government-aided institutions, which are controlled by politicians, are minting crores with bogus audit reports submitted by conniving government staff,” said Pratibha Shinde.
Abhijeet Raut, project officer, Integrated Tribal Development Programme, said, “We are aware of the problems and working towards improving these. A special drive to build toilets will be taken up on a priority.”
Pradeep P added, “Several works for repairs and construction of new ashramshala buildings have been taken up this year. We will, hopefully, be able to shift some of those on rented premises to new buildings.”