Experts say reopening Model Residential School hostels is the only practical way for students from Kerala’s primitive tribal communities to attend virtual classes.

A teacher crossing river to reach tribal hamlets in Kerala to make virtual learning resources to tribal studentsA teacher crossing bridge destroyed in flood to reach Ambumala colony in Nilambur
Coronavirus Digital divide Tuesday, June 09, 2020 - 14:40

If not for the COVID-19 induced lockdown and the resulting shutdown of schools, the past few days would have been busy for Chithra Nilambur, a tribal activist based in Kerala’s Malappuram district. Prior to the starting of a new academic year, she would be engaged in giving directions to parents of tribal hamlets in and around Nilambur – from the school admission procedures for their children to filling the admission forms and, most importantly, making sure that no student drops out.

But with the current academic year starting via virtual classes through the government’s ‘First Bell’ – a first of its kind initiative in the state – Chithra has been frantically trekking up and down a few of Kerala’s Adivasi colonies belonging to primitive tribal groups only to find students either loitering or going to collect forest products with their parents. Lacking even basic resources that can help them access the virtual classes, the students of these communities are at the receiving end of the digital divide.

Though the state government has started local learning centres to bridge the digital divide faced by students from marginalised communities, experts, including Chithra, say that even this alternative is not effective for students hailing from primitive tribal groups.

Among the recognised 36 Adivasi communities in Kerala, five of them – Cholanaikkans, Kurumbas, Kattunaikans, Kadars and Koragas – are known as primitive tribes. These tribes, which have a diminishing population, are primarily food gatherers. It is also recorded that the institutionalised literacy rates among the population is very low.


Chithra with students of Mathilmoola colony in Nilambur

The colonies of these tribal communities are located in dense forest regions. The primitive tribal groups, which are a minority among the tribes in Kerala, constitute only 5% of the total tribal population in the state. And it is the students hailing from these communities who are now suffering as schools resume digitally.

“The students from these communities were earlier staying in residential tribal schools. This was because as they live in deep forest regions it was almost impossible for them to trek daily to schools located on the outer forest belts. Now with the virtual classes starting, they are facing the same problem. In most of the colonies of these primitive tribes, local learning centres have not yet started as announced. And in regions where they are available, students are finding it difficult to reach these learning centres. There are even students who hail from colonies who live in caves that are deep inside the forest,” says Chithra.

She adds that the only solution is to reopen hostels of the Model Residential Schools where the children were staying earlier.

“There is no need to open the schools. If the students are at least permitted to stay in the hostels after necessary screening for COVID-19, the government can easily arrange facilities for virtual classes there. It will be much easier than trying to arrange these facilities in colonies that don’t even have electricity,” Chithra adds.

According to officials of the Education department, in Malappuram’s Nilambur alone 680 students are yet to access virtual classes that started on June 1 across the state. As per the officials, most of these students belong to the primitive tribal groups. Similarly in Palakkad district’s Attapadi, home to the Kurumbas, 650 students are yet to get access to digital learning.

“Often when officials say resources have been made available to tribal colonies, the 5% population, who are the minority of minorities, are not talked about. Even the media doesn’t tend to talk about students from primitive tribes,” adds Chithra.

Facilitators too face difficulty

The Education department is primarily trying to create local learning centres in tribal colonies, with the help of Multi Grade Learning Centres (MGLC) or single teacher schools. But even facilitators who are given charge of these learning centres have trouble reaching the colonies inside forests.

“It is very difficult to arrange facilities for digital learning in the colonies of primitive tribal groups. Teachers or volunteers have to trek several kilometres to reach the colonies, and in some places the journey is very dangerous,” TP Mohandas, Assistant Education Officer (AEO) of Nilambur, told TNM, sharing a picture of a teacher walking across a bridge that had been destroyed in last year’s floods.

“This teacher – Mini K – has to walk 6 km to reach Ambumala colony in Nilambur. She has to walk back the same distance. What she is crossing is a makeshift bamboo bridge built after the original one was destroyed in the floods last year. The condition is similar in other tribal hamlets located in deep forests. Though the COVID-19 situation is still prevailing, the tribal students can be admitted back to the hostels with necessary precautions. It is the only practical way to make sure the students get to attend their classes,” Mohandas added.

He also added that he has intimated the top officials of Kerala’s Education department about the ground situation in a video conference that was held a day back.

More likelihood of students dropping out

It is years of continued efforts from people like Chithra that has enabled more students from tribal colonies, especially from primitive tribes, to come out and access school education.

She says that 494 tribal students were studying at the Model Residential School in Nilambur the last academic year. “This year it should have been 600 with new kids joining the school, but as schools did not open, they are going with their parents to collect forest produce. The present situation might increase the chance of school dropouts,” says Chithra with concern.

Raghu, who teaches in a single teacher school in Wayanad’s Chembra where there is a population of the Kattunaikans tribe, raises similar concerns.

“I teach students till Class 4 in my school (MGLC). There have been no disruptions. But at the same time, I can see high school students who were staying in hostels loitering now since the residential schools are closed. Some of them are very bright children and it is sad to see them wasting time,” says Raghu.

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