LIKE ANY of the 70 lakh-odd students in government and government-aided schools between Classes 1 and 12 in Tamil Nadu, K Hariharan is entitled to a spree of government benefits. The state government provides free textbooks, uniforms, mid-day meals and bus passes to all students up to Class 8, free bicycles and laptops for those in higher secondary, extra financial assistance for children of manual scavengers and sweepers, and scholarships too if you are a girl student.
Hariharan, now in Class 12 in a government-aided school in Chennai, says one benefit has been a sore point: the government-provided free sandals every year. They never last beyond two months, and mostly come in only three sizes, irrespective of the age of the student, he says.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu government announced that they would replace the sandals with free shoes and socks from next academic year. While some have questioned whether a shoe would be comfortable given Chennai’s humid weather and torrential rains, Hariharan shrugs, “A shoe will be decent, nice-looking.”
Growing up, the 16-year-old says, he owned a pair of shoes as a child, and now has another at home. “I wear it only for functions.”
While Hariharan’s father Kannan drives an autorickshaw, his mother works as domestic help. Of their combined income of around Rs 15,000 per month, Rs 6,000 goes towards rent for their single-room home in a housing board’s slum settlement, and
Rs 1,500 for Hariharan’s private tuitions. He is the only child.
Hariharan, who is yet to get his pair of sandals for this academic year, says the one he received last year broke in two months. “If we use it regularly, it breaks within a month. I am using an ordinary chappal now, which is the best,” he says, showing his blue slippers worth Rs 100. Some of his friends, who wear sizes 9 and 10, have no use at all for what the government mostly provides — sizes 6, 7 and 8.
So, Hariharan has his concerns regarding the shoes. “Can we play wearing the shoes the government gives? Can we wash them? What if we use them in the rains? Won’t the socks smell if we don’t wash them every day?”
The government has not given out any details regarding the kind and number of shoes/socks they are going to provide. The policy note of the Tamil Nadu School Education Department sets a budget of Rs 28,957 crore for 2019-20, of which Rs 2,578 crore is exclusively for welfare schemes for students.
Still, Hariharan adds, with his family’s meagre resources, he is grateful for every little bit. “Not that we cannot survive without these things,” he says, “but they make life easier”.
While he doesn’t come to school on it because of the distance, he rides the bicycle he got last year to his tuitions. He is excited these days about the laptop he is set to get, something his father could never afford. “We are not allowed to bring laptops to school, but I will keep it at home. I can learn speed-typing on it, read books. While my mother has a basic phone, I hardly get to use my father’s touch phone. On the laptop, I can use the Internet… I have lots of plans for it.”
Those plans include using the laptop to “study well”, do a Bachelor’s in Commerce from one of the city colleges, and get a job. “I will work in an office. Something like a manager?… Not my parents’ jobs.”