At Pal village in Goa’s Sattari taluka, a family is distraught. The pandemic and its aftereffects — reduced earnings, an uncertain future — had already put them through great hardship. A broken mobile phone was seemingly the last straw. On October 15, their 16-year-old son was found hanging in the house.
The father, who drives a private bus, says his son, a Class 10 student of a government school in the village, used a smartphone to attend his online classes. On October 11, the phone screen broke, but the boy kept it to himself, telling his mother only a couple of days later.
“We had been struggling for months so everyone was in a bad mood. When he told his mother about the phone, she said it can’t be repaired immediately, and he threw a tantrum. When I came back from work, he got into an argument with me and I held him by his collar. He stopped me saying, ‘I have only one nice shirt’. He removed his shirt, put it on a hanger and told me I could beat him. By then, I just couldn’t,” says the father.
“I then told him I only have Rs 500 with me and need it to buy rice. I asked him to wait for four days for me to arrange the Rs 2,000 he needed to repair the screen,” he adds.
Since the pandemic began, money has been tight — the father used to earn up to Rs 700 a day, but the lockdown had left him with no income for four months. Since July, he is back at work, but only earns Rs 500, that too on good days.
The mother, a beneficiary of the Griha Aadhar Scheme, a welfare scheme for homemakers, said she hadn’t received any money since the lockdown, except for a one-time payment of Rs 1,500 during Ganesh Chaturthi. The grandmother, a beneficiary of the Dayanand Social Security Scheme for widows, too hadn’t got any money for months.
A government officer confirmed the payment has been stalled due to the state’s depleted coffers. On Tuesday, however, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant tweeted that “despite financial constraints”, the government has decided to release Rs 45.29 crore to over 1.7 lakh beneficiaries of both the schemes.
North Goa SP Utkrisht Prasoon said, “The suicide is related to a mobile phone that was not repaired. The boy was 16 years old. We first determined the cause of death — asphyxia caused due to hanging. We are also inquiring with his school teachers and others to ensure the circumstances. Statements of parents have already been taken.”
The school headmaster confirmed to The Indian Express that classes were being held online.
His class teacher is still in shock. Of his 59 students, more than half attend classes on their phones — and the 16-year-old was one of them. “He was a friendly child… completed his homework and was responding to online lessons. He even got good marks in a test we conducted recently,” he says.
Students were allowed to visit school if they had doubts to clear or needed help with worksheets given during online hours. The boy, the teacher said, had visited school to pick a book the week he died. “He would come to school if he had doubts to clear, but he never told us about his mobile phone. If we had known, we would have told him it was ok,” the teacher says.
Back at the 16-year-old’s home, the father says that despite their hardships, he never cut corners when it came to his children’s education. “But we hardly have any income now… the expenses have only increased after the lockdown. Still, we have been trying our best because education is very important. My younger son hasn’t attended any classes since we only had one phone between the two boys and their classes clashed.”
He now worries for his other two children — an 18-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. The daughter had enrolled for a nursing course before the lockdown. “Her total course fee is Rs 5 lakh, of which the Education Department gives Rs 2 lakh. Tomorrow if her education gets stalled due to lack of money, what will happen? What if she does something similar? What do I do then?” he says.
The mother says she lost a “good son”. “He never asked us for anything. He only spoke of how he will become a ‘big man’ some day and help us.”
The father adds, “I have an elbow injury and a severe back problem. He used to tell me to quit driving, that he will join ITI and work after Class 12.”
He says he knows of several families who are going through a similar situation. “The government says study online, but can poor people afford phones? The government should pause schooling for a year if they cannot help the poor.”
He says his heart aches when he thinks of his son’s last words. “When I was leaving for work the next morning, he said, ‘Hit me now if you want, you may not get a chance in the evening.’”
Around mid-day, the father emptied his bus at Bicholim bus stop and returned home, after someone in the family called to inform him of his son’s death.
“Please mention the plight of us poor people. This has to become a “challwall” (movement). Politicians only come to us asking for votes. Not a single person except the police and the school teacher has come since Thursday. We are from Dhangar Community. When in need, there is no help”, he adds, “I tried to gain a government job, even went to MLAs. There are families here with four to five people in government jobs but the needy have no help,” says the father.