“We are sneaking out to watch Ajith’s new film today,” says Sunil* with no attempt to hide the grin on his face. “All the degree students”.
Behind him, a commotion breaks out in the courtyard of the Scheduled Tribe Boys Hostel in Agali as at least twenty students kick-start an impromptu game of football, with a blue plastic ball. From first standard children to final year degree students, children of all ages are housed under the same roof in the hostel, all of whom hail from tribal settlement oorus (hamlet) of the Attapady region in Palakkad district of Kerala.
Sunil (22) has lived in hostels all his life, just as everyone else from his ooru Anawai – a Kurumba community hamlet. Children from the three tribal communities – the Irulas, Mudugas and Kurumbas – live in hostels away from home during their school life, starting as early as the first standard.
A rigorous warden, called Unni Sir by the students, keeps a close watch on his wards at the Boys Hostel in Agali but he admits that he needs help. “We have primary, upper primary, high school, college students and degree students all living here. We have to deal with each one in a different manner,” bemoans the warden, who not only manages the students but is also tasked with recording and securing purchases of ration, school uniforms, medicine supplies for the hostel among a host of other day-to-day duties. He ends his shift in the evening by bringing the game of plastic-ball to a halt and overseeing a headcount, after which he dismisses the gathering and hands over the keys to the watchman for the night.
The sixteen Scheduled Tribe hostels in Attapady are managed by the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP), run by the Kerala state government. A solitary warden, in most cases working on daily wages, is supported only by a watchman, a handful of cooks and a part-time sweeper. Only four Scheduled Tribe hostels in Attapady have a permanent warden. A state-appointed counsellor is required to visit the hostels every week but Unni sir is yet to meet him in the one month he has been in charge of the hostel in Agali.
Hostels in Attapady are overcrowded with students like Sunil, often beyond the capacity they are built for. Even though the sanctioned strength of Scheduled Tribe Hostels in Attapady is 790, it is home to over 2000 children. The disparity is especially evident in the girls hostel in Agali which houses 206 students when the sanctioned strength of the hostel is 90. “We are forced to take them in. They want residential facilities and are forced to live like this in order to go to school,” says Krishna Prakash, Project Officer at the ITDP that oversees all hostels.
With the hostels quickly filling up, PV Radhakrishnan, former Project Officer at the ITDP, sent proposals to both the centre and state government in 2014 requesting more hostels to be built, all to no avail. “We need more hostels and we need more personnel managing them,” says the now retired Project Officer.
The current project officer Krishna Prakash reiterated the demand for hostels and personnel to move closer to UNICEF recommended standards of one cook for every 20 students and a bathroom for every ten students. However, he confirmed that no new hostels are under construction as the state government have not yet approved any of the proposals put forward. “For building a hostel, the government does not have land and prising land away is difficult due to the contentious land-ownership history of Attapady,” he adds.
Adivasis have endured a fractious relationship with settlers, accusing them of alienating them from their rightful land. A 1975 Act for restoration of alienated land in Attapady back to adivasis was reversed in 1999, in an amendment that earned the then President’s approval.
Besides the lack of infrastructure, there is an absence of coordination between the teachers who teach in school and the tutors who teach in the hostel, adding to the disjointed learning experience of children living in hostels. Several adivasi children dropout of schools and later join bridge schools to continue their education. Thankaraj, a teacher at Agali Government High School advocates for teachers in the school and tutors in the hostel should work together in teaching children. “Teachers and tutors should also motivate children to study on their own. Adivasi children who study in lower primary schools in their oorus do not learn to read and write until they join fifth standard. They struggle to keep up with the teaching in class and lose interest in studies,” he says with a tone of resignation.
Apart from the warden, there is no other guardian figure residing in the hostels, leaving the primary and upper primary school children in the blase care of the ring-leaders of hostel life, often a gang of college or degree students. Even though the older degree students have separate rooms for themselves, they eat, bathe and play with school-going children thereby introducing them to new habits. “We help them with their homework, encourage them to speak in Malayalam and also, play football with them. We don’t have a field or a ball here but we hope to buy one for the hostel soon,” says Manikya, a final year degree student. Brazilian football star Neymar is a ubiquitous name in the hostels of Attapady with torn posters and newspaper cuttings of the footballer adorning the rooms of the hostels.
However, it is not just the love for football that is picked up by the children. Emulating their seniors, children are seen chewing hans, smoking beedis, talking in foul language and fiddling with mobile phones. Manikkan, a professor and tribal activist who hails from Edawani ooru, decided to remove his son from the hostel in Pudur when he started using abusive language, a habit he believes that his son picked up from his seniors. Without the presence of a guardian keeping a watch on the children, they risk slipping into a cycle of unchecked misdemeanour.
But the lure of the comforts of hostel life is irresistible for the children and their parents. “I get everything here that I don’t have at home – food, dress, soap, all of it for free,” says Prakash. Parents are happy to send their children off to far away schools rather than hold them back in the oorus but in the process, the children don’t hear the songs of life, harvest and death sung by the women in the oorus. They don’t learn how to cultivate raagi (finger millet) or chaama (millet), or how to collect wild honey from the forests. These children have become expatriates in their own adivasi way of life, altering their diet, dressing and identity along the way. ”Children are here for three months and away in hostels for nine months, so obviously there is a change in their behaviour. When they come here, they have to adapt to home,” says Kali, the moopan (community leader) of Edawani ooru.
Young men, regardless of completing their education, take up menial jobs like driving trucks, doing coolie work or idle their time away at home, occasionally working in the fields. They watch television, graze goats, talk to neighbours or sit and think about the life they wish they were living. Women stick to the confines of their house, wait in line for water, wash dishes and carry out household duties. “I took up a job at a gas agency in Thrissur,” says Rangan, from Edawani ooru. He hopes to apply for a job in the school in Pudur, around 10 kms away from his ooru. In a bitter-sweet way, the benevolence of the government in providing services that have little or no connection to adivasi culture, imposes on the adivasis a sense of uselessness.
This sense of uselessness begins at an early age when adivasi children isolate themselves from activities in the school. “I used to see the same students enrolled in Science club, Math club and representing the school in competitions. Adivasi children would not share anything with the teachers and in turn, they do not get special attention from the teachers. Anyone sitting in the classroom would love it if the teacher took an interest in them, wouldn’t they? I noticed that was not happening, especially with adivasi students, ” explains Sindhu Sajan, a teacher at Agali High School. This isolation only escalates as the children grow older.
Sunil and his friends, oblivious to the problems that weigh on their caretakers’ minds, huddle together in the courtyard, the scene of the impromptu football match, to discuss how they will sneak out to watch Ajith’s Vivegam and what they plan to do in the Onam holidays.
All Photographs Courtesy: Rahul Menon
*Name changed on request
A version of the story first appeared in The News Minute, a digital news platform based in Bengaluru. We thank them for supporting rural journalism.