The lack of transportation facilities during the six-month lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic did not stop Mini Korman, the lone teacher in a school in Ambumala, a tribal settlement in Malappuram district. The school is among the 270 such single-teacher schools in Kerala.
The 44-year-old walks about 16 km from Agambadam (Malappuram) and treks another kilometre through a slippery forest road full of wild boars, tigers and elephants, and crosses a gushing river with a rickety bamboo bridge over it to reach Ambumala. And Mini has been doing this every day for the past six years.
The bridge was installed as a replacement to the bridge which was broken twice during the floods that hit the state in 2018 and 2019. Earlier, before the lockdown, there were a few local bus services till the 10th block stop in the area, but the infrequent schedule forced her to walk all the way.
āI have always resorted to walking even in my childhood. My āooruā (village) was in Vendakkampoyil and I did my lower primary schooling in Valamthode school, about 7 km from our village. Then I studied in MES College, Mambad. I had to walk till Agambadam which was 18 km from home to get a jeep till the college. So, this is nothing new for me,ā says Mini.
The forest path always poses an imminent threat from wild animals like boars, tigers and elephants.
āOnce I saw tiger cubs on the path. I thought they were kittens but later realized that they were tiger cubs. I turn back whenever I see pythons or tigers in my path,ā she says. The path is unreliable during the rains and she has often had to stay back in the Ambumala village as the river rises up during the rains and makes it impossible for her to cross the bridge.
Mini got a Trained Teachers Certificate (TTC) in 1993. She then worked as a domestic worker for several years to look after her family consisting of her husband and two children. She joined the Manjeri Court in 1999 and then shifted to the Commercial Tax office, Malappuram, in 2008 as Lower Division clerk. She also worked as a Village Extension Officer from 2010 to 2015.
All through these years, she also worked as a Scheduled Tribes promoter of the region, facilitating and extending the benefits of tribal development schemes to the community. However, she left the job after watching the news about an ailing family in Ambumala whose house was in a dilapidated state for eight years.
With an aspiration to do something for the community, Mini took the contract-based job in the single-teacher school of Ambumala in 2015.
āAt first, the students were reluctant to come. It took about six months for me to create a rapport with the children and the families living here,ā she says. Now she interacts with them as one of their own, often enquiring not just about the children but also about their parents and other family members. Their job, certificate issues and other problems are concerns of hers too.
Ambumala tribal village belongs to the Paniya (Kurinji) tribal community and Mini Korman belongs to the Muthuva tribal community. The people of Ambumala collect honey, gooseberries and other fruits and tubers for a living. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, popularly known as āThozhilurappuā also ensures employment. 16 students from 1st standard to 4th standard benefit from the school and 28 students go there for attending the online classes initiated by the State Education Department.
There was no electricity prior to Miniās arrival in the village. Drinking water scarcity was a prevalent issue that the villagers faced during summers. They depend mostly on the river water for their livelihood. Mini made electricity her first priority and the school now has an electric connection, and a television which broadcasts the online classes. The education sector is one of the worst hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The universities had to postpone and cancel their examinations and search for alternatives to resume their classes.
Almost all the academic institutions have turned to online education as the modus operandi for the coming semester because of the uncertainty of the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic. But, the unavailability of high speed internet connections and laptops or smartphones for accessing these online classes makes the transition difficult for students from underprivileged sections and particularly for students of tribal communities. The inequal education further expands the gulf of the digital divide. In such a scenario, the efforts of teachers like Mini Korman to bridge the gap despite hardships are vital to the education system.
However, irregular salary is yet another difficulty faced by not just Mini but every teacher of the single-teacher school system in the state. Last March, such a teacher from Agasthyarkoodam in Thiruvananthapuram district protested against the irregular salary which saw an immediate intervention from the Education Minister of the state. In spite of this, the plight of such teachers in single-teacher schools remains the same. Single-teacher school teachers are getting paid only twice in a year.
āIām worried about my children and thatās the only thing that makes me carry on,ā says Mini Korman, smiling.
Watch: Ushakumari teacher rows a boat, treks kilometres to teach a tribal school in Kerala
Sreekanth Sivadasan is a student of still photography and visual communication at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi