The struggle of Girija Tukaram, daughter of illiterate tribal parents, began the day she joined a government-run school.
Girija studies in an ashram, or residential, school in Wanjri village of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, western India. The school is among 500 similar schools set up by the state under the Integrated Tribal Development Project that provides free education and room and board to impoverished tribal children.
But despite a government budget of US$667 million, the schools have substandard facilities and many students remain malnourished. Girija’s school, for example, has 300 boys and girls from first to 10th grades. But their diet on most days fails to meet the minimum standards set by the Indian government.
Many students have a high iron deficiency, are anemic and underweight, said Kishor Tiwari, an activist who fights for tribal rights.
The students also are supposed to receive a balanced and nutritious diet that includes pulses, vegetables, rice, eggs, milk, meat and fruit. But one student says they’re never given fruit. “We get milk and meat once in a while,” he said.
“These schools are supposed to spend [US$58] on the diet of a child each month. But that is not the case. They are only getting the basic pulses, rice and vegetables, which is not sufficient for the wholesome development of a child. Also, the quality of food these students are served is not good. The pulses have too much water and the rice is not properly cooked,” Tiwari told ucanews.com.
The Indian government’s budget for tribal areas represents nine percent of the nation’s annual budget and is supposed to support the upkeep of these schools and other development works for Maharashtra’s 10 million tribal people. But activists have called into questions how that money is being spent.
Tribal rights activists say corruption is a major issue as millions meant for tribal welfare seem to disappear. For their part, state officials say that all the money is utilized and spent on the welfare of the tribal community.
“Where is all the money going? Millions of rupees are allocated for the welfare of tribals and they are still the most deprived lot,” Tiwari said.
“How can a student focus on studies when daily needs like going to the toilet become a struggle?” he said.
Meanwhile, in March the Bombay High Court ordered an inquiry into alleged financial irregularities in tribal welfare schemes from 2004 to 2009.
The poverty of facilities is a common thread in other residential schools too; the lack of toilet facilities is one of the major problems. In Wanjri, the school lacks adequate bathroom facilities, forcing students to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.
This is not uncommon. A school in Matharjun village, Yavatmal, which was constructed in 1985 is now in need of major repair, school officials said. There is only one toilet for 50 girls, and even that toilet is in such poor condition that it is barely usable. Indian government policy states that there should be one toilet for every 20 students in residential schools.
At Wanjri, 50 students sleep, study and keep their belongings in one large room. The students sleep on mattresses, which they keep on the ground. “It gets congested. There is no privacy,” says student Jaya Gangaram.
The school administrators agree about the poor condition of the school’s facilities.
“We have written to the higher authorities several times about the lack of toilet facilities and other problems but there is not much action,” said K.D. Bahade, warden of the boys’ residencel.
Government authorities say the state is committed to bringing the tribal community into the mainstream but many of the problems are attributed to bureaucracy.
“The administrative process is too long. Even for a small pipe repair, a lot of paperwork and permission from the higher authorities is required. Still, we are trying our best,” says Prashant Rumale, project officer of Integrated Tribal Development Project.
Meanwhile, the state’s tribal development department says that they have formed monitoring teams to keep a check on the situation in these schools.
“There is neglect. People are not vigilant at the local level. Also we do not have enough manpower to periodically check any discrepancies,” says Mukesh Khullar, principal secretary of the tribal development department.
He said that the department has now formed monitoring teams to increase its supervision of schools in remote areas that can take timely action to repair any irregularities.