22-year-old Janani*, had come to Villupuram district in the summer of 2017 with her mother and brother. That's when she first heard of the Sathya Institute Of Paramedical Sciences in Sanakarapuram. After her father's death, she had been forced to discontinue her studies after the 12th standard due to the lack of funds.
But when she saw former students of the paramedical institute campaigning for admissions and offering free education, she fought with her family to stay back to Tamil Nadu and continue her studies.
But six months after she joined the course, Janani became one amongst the seven students responsible for ensuring the institute was sealed. On October 10, she led the group to the collectorate to expose how the institute was physically, mentally and sexually harassing its students.
"Poor girls were being sexually abused in this institute under the promise of free education," she tells TNM. "We felt like we were in a brothel not a college hostel," she adds.
The institute offers impoverished students from rural backgrounds a diploma in medical assistance (DMA) and provided hostel facilities. But instead of concentrating on classes everyday, students allege they were trying to fend off a sexual predator. It has been functioning for 8 years and had 150 students enrolled in the two year course.
"Kalaimani who is the correspondent of the college is the main culprit," accuses Janani. "He would keep interrupting our classes in an inebriated condition. Then he will ask any girl to come sit next to him and grope her in front of the whole class. He would pull our hands, tell us to dress better so that he can ogle at us. If we tried to fight back, he would say the most disgusting things to us," she adds, her voice breaking.
What about the other teachers at the institute?
"They would all merely watch as we got sexually harassed," alleges Janani. "Infact his wife was also a teacher and when he comes drunk to the class, she would let him in. If any of us objected to his presence, she would hit us," she adds.
Janani would later come to know that former students campaigned for the institute because the authorities threatened to not award them their certificates if they refused.
For the 50 students in Janani's class, education and a means of living that it would provide became more important than fighting back. They bore the torment silently for six months. But it soon it became apparent that the 'diploma' and training was just an eyewash.
"They claim that it is a Diploma in nursing assistance but the certificate that we finally get is Patient caring" says Janani. "And in addition to this, the internship that they put us through is another gateway for abuse," she adds.
According to her complaint, the girls are made to pay for the journey to Chennai where they are then sent to houses of private individuals. Here, there are used as domestic servants and made to clean houses and wash clothes. "Several of the girl were even sexually harassed in these houses. We were taken nowhere even near a hospital," adds Janani, who came to Chennai in August.
This turned out to be the last straw. She then filed a complaint online with the Tamil Nadu Nursing Council. She was then told to approach the Chief Minister's special cell about the matter. "But we have got no reply yet to our mail. That is when I convinced the others that we need to go to the Collector," she explains.
Their complaints shocked the district, the institute was immediately sealed but Kalaimani, the correspondent is still absconding. "We have filed an FIR in the case and Kalaimani's wife has been arrested. He is however still missing," confirms the Collector.
For the women who joined this institute however, a larger question now looms. "Several of us fought for this chance to be educated. I had students from tribes in my class who came because the course was free. Now our parents will never let us get out of the house," worries Janani. "The government has to help us find another seat in a nursing college," she adds.
When the district collector L Subramanian was contacted, he remained skeptical about alternative arrangements.
"Admissions are already over in all colleges. We are not sure we can help," he explains.
But when TNM pointed that the government is at fault for allowing an institute to function without following required guidelines of conduct, the Collector conceded. "We will see what we can do for them. Meanwhile, I have directed the RDO and health department to survey private institutions in the district and to ensure that all legal procedures are being followed," he claims.
Janani meanwhile, dreads her family's reaction to the entire episode. "If the government does not help us, I can never study. A year of my life will be wasted and everybody in my village will look down upon me because I was in an institute that sexually harassed its students," she says, her voice breaking.
(Name changed to protect identity)