More than four weeks after the Tamil Nadu government announced that different types of government schools run by various departments would be brought under the School Education Department, the debate over the decision continues. The merger would mean that among others, 1,458 schools of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare (ADTW) Department will also be brought under the purview of the school education department. Hundreds of teachers working in Adi Dravidar welfare schools staged a protest in Chennai on Saturday, April 15, highlighting the flaws in their schools and demanding better solutions than the merger. The proposed merger has elicited mixed responses from teachers, education activists and political leaders. While all of them agree that the ADTW schools are under-resourced and in need of serious reforms, they are conflicted on whether the proposed merger will improve or worsen this situation.
The government has not explained how exactly it plans to implement the merger, raising concerns on whether it could further weaken the ADTW schools, and deflect from their focus on providing good education to Adi Dravidar and tribal students. There are also fears over whether the move could lead to a change in the caste composition of teachers and students.
Presenting the state Budget for 2023-2024 on March 20, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (PTR) had announced that schools functioning under different government departments — including the ADTW, Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes, and Denotified Communities Welfare (BCW), Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE), and Forest Departments — would soon be brought under the school education department. Requests were received to operate Adi Dravidar welfare schools through the school education department in the high-level vigilance and monitoring committee meetings held by Chief Minister MK Stalin in August 2021 and April 2022, the minister mentioned.
Since the merger was announced, several teachers and activists under the collective Arivu Samoogam have held many discussions on it. Many participants expressed concern that the merger was announced without consulting teachers working in ADTW schools and other key stakeholders. However, these discussions saw little representation from Government Tribal Residential (GTR) schools (run by ADTW) and the indigenous communities who attend these schools. TNM reached out to teachers and activists working in GTR schools in remote tribal areas to understand the different views on the proposal.
GTR school students in uniforms (Photo: Special Arrangement)
Tamil Nadu has 320 Government Tribal Residential (GTR) schools run by the ADTW department, which are open to non-tribal students too. Similarly, the 1,138 Adi Dravidar Welfare Schools in the state are also open to students from other communities. However, owing to their location in areas where the population is predominantly composed of tribals, or Adi Dravidar (Scheduled Caste) (SC) communities, most students enrolled in the welfare schools tend to belong to the same community mentioned in the school’s name.
With the particulars of the merger remaining unclear, there are concerns on whether the move could lead to a change in the caste composition of teachers and students, and even the location of the schools. Speaking to TNM, a teacher working at a GTR school in Kotagiri in The Nilgiris district for over 20 years, whose students are mainly from the Irula tribe, said, “When students from indigenous communities come to welfare schools, they feel safe as their classmates are from similar communities. They don’t really experience the kind of discrimination that Dalit and tribal students face in regular schools.” He added that the way the government transfers their management to the school education department could impact the security students feel in welfare schools.
While some sections, including the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), have demanded to remove caste identifiers in school names with the stated intent of destigmatising them, teachers and administrators working in welfare schools see their separate identity as a form of positive discrimination. Regina Mary, the headmistress (HM) of Attiyanur tribal residential higher secondary school in Tiruvannamalai district’s Jawadhu Hills, seconded the views of the teacher from The Nilgiris. “Welfare schools are located near Dalit colonies or tribal settlements so that students from those localities are not forced to cross the streets where caste Hindus who denied them education for generations reside,” she said.
Mavanalla GTR school (Photo: Special Arrangement)
“As a Dalit Christian, I know what stops Dalit students from accessing education. I can go to any school and treat every student like my own child. But I wonder if kids from Dalit and tribal communities are treated fairly by teachers from privileged communities,” Regina said. Currently, in all schools run by the ADTW department, teachers from Dalit and tribal communities are given preference during recruitment. The uncertainty over changes in teacher recruitment and posting processes has sparked worry among the teachers, which isn’t unfounded considering the harsh caste discrimination frequently seen in other government schools. Barely five months ago, the HM of one such school in Erode district was arrested for forcing Dalit students to clean toilets in the school for a year. The announcement of the merger, however, did not mention what steps would be taken to ensure the safety of Dalit and tribal students.
While caste discrimination is a problem that needs to be tackled in all schools, including private ones, many teachers and activists have also welcomed the merger, hoping the school education department will finally be able to fix the problems that the ADTW department couldn't.
Mahalakshmi, a primary school teacher who teaches students from the Malayali tribe in Jawadhu Hills, welcomed the merger saying it could help streamline irregularities in ADTW schools. She alleges that many teachers in tribal residential schools do not regularly visit their school and conduct lessons, owing to their remote locations and absence of attendance monitoring systems. “Last year, in our Arasaveli GTR high school, we had no school head, and no teachers for the secondary grades,” she said. Nearly 600 students attend the school, but it has been functioning with only three teachers, she mentioned. She added that many other welfare schools were also functioning with inadequate staff.
While the school education department arranges temporary contract-based or substitute teachers when there’s a shortage of teachers, that’s not the case with ADTW schools. With its well-established systems and resources, the school education department could potentially address such lapses, said Mahalakshmi.
Apart from the staff shortage, many tribal welfare schools also have inadequate infrastructure in school buildings and hostels. SC Natraj, director of the Erode-based NGO SUDAR, recalled that when he visited a GTR school in Onthanai village in Erode a couple of years back, he found the school’s cook teaching the students in the teacher’s absence. He said that often, students would have their meals at school and return home for the night, as the hostels lack basic facilities. SUDAR has been working towards betterment of education and for indigenous communities in the areas around Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve.
Currently, the HM of a tribal residential school also doubles as the hostel warden. However, Mahalakshmi alleged that many HMs merely show students’ hostel records and collect funds from the ADTW department, without ensuring that students are regularly attending the school and staying in the hostels. “With no checks in place, the current system tends to make HMs complacent and the schools remain underdeveloped,” the teacher alleged.
Compared to ADTW schools, schools under the school education department have much better monitoring mechanisms in place, with education officers from the block level to district level supervised by Chief Educational Officers and other senior officials. “In contrast, schools under the ADTW department only have special tahsildars for primary and high schools, and a district project officer (PO) for higher secondary schools,” Natraj said. The special tahsildars are revenue officers, who are supervised by the PO, the district level ADTW officer, and the ADTW director. None of these officials have necessarily specialised in education (especially for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities), which is just one of the many tasks under their ambit, Natraj noted.
Natraj said that while the very purpose of establishing separate schools for students from SC and ST communities was to provide special attention, the ADTW schools only received meagre scholarships and no other additional funding.
According to the ADTW department’s policy notes, the total allocation for the department from the state budget was Rs 4281.76 crore in 2022-23. But this year, the government reduced the allocation by nearly Rs 750 crore, to Rs 3,513 crore. Leaders in the Opposition have pointed out that this is a significant reduction, even after accounting for the transfer of schools to a different department.
When concerned teachers and HMs do try to make improvements, administrative hurdles make it cumbersome, said Mahalakshmi. “If we want an additional building sanctioned for the school, we need to approach the TAHDCO (Tamil Nadu Adi Dravidar Housing and Development Corporation) in the district headquarters, and it takes forever to get approval,” she said.
Questions for the Tamil Nadu government
Announcing the merger, Minister PTR had said in his budget speech: “To achieve the goal of social justice in the field of education, to improve the quality of schools functioning under various departments, and to ensure that all students are provided quality education, all schools functioning under various departments will be brought under the School Education department.”
Regardless of their stand on the merger, many teachers and activists point to the inefficiency of the state government in its handling of the ADTW schools so far. “Teachers of ADTW schools are blamed for students’ poor performance in exams. Ensuring students’ attendance alone is a herculean task for the teachers, considering their marginalised caste location. With so many challenges in the ADTW department, how can the teachers train their students to compete with privileged students?” asks Lakshmanan, National Convenor of Dalit Intellectual Collective. VCK MP Ravikumar, whose party has expressed support for the merger, has said that students of Adi Dravidar welfare schools performed poorer than students of other government schools, as per the Union government’s National Achievement Survey.
“Since both the ADTW and school education departments are under the state government, the flaws in welfare schools cannot be brushed away as if they weren’t the government’s responsibility till now,” says Professor Kathiravan, president of the Tamil Nadu Universities, Colleges SC/ST Teachers’ Association. Regardless of the merger, he suggests that the government must bring in meaningful reforms along the lines of Telangana’s Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society under the leadership of former IPS officer RS Praveen Kumar, who is now a leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
The merger was announced at a time when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government had come under sharp criticism for inefficient spending of funds meant for SC and ST communities. The Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department, which is the nodal agency for implementing the SCSP (Scheduled Caste Sub Plan) and Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) in the state, was found to have spent only Rs 5,976 crore (or 36%) of the allocated Rs 16,422 crore in 2022-2023. Of this, an amount of Rs 1,023.81 crore was allocated towards education, sports, and culture.
While the Tamil Nadu government has announced its intention to introduce a Bill to govern spending on SCSP and TSP, the merger also raises the question of whether the funds that SC and ST students are entitled to will be effectively spent on the ADTW schools.
Welfare schools in Tamil Nadu date back to the colonial era. They were first established after anti-caste leaders Rettamalai Srinivasan and Iyothee Thass Pandithar held discussions with Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of Theosophical Society, said Kathiravan. Since existing schools only admitted people from privileged communities, the idea of separate schools for Dalit students was floated.
In 1895, Olcott opened a ‘Panchama Free School’ in Adyar, with 55 students enrolled. By 1906, five such schools were established with 731 students. They were called Panchama schools, as they were meant for “children of the ‘outcastes,’ renamed Panchamas or the ‘fifth caste’.” Only one of these schools has survived to date — the Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School in Chennai.
While the first-ever Government Tribal Residential school in Tamil Nadu was established in Vappadi village of Salem district’s Gangavalli block in 1974, the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department was established in 1988 after trifurcating the Social Welfare Department.
Henry Steel Olcott with HP Blavatsky (Photo Credit: The Theosophical Society website)
Tamil Nadu has a total of 37 Scheduled Tribes. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate of Scheduled Tribes in the state was 54.34%, way below the literacy rate of other communities (80.09%). The state's policy notes from the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department for 2022-23 show that 28,263 students are studying in GTR schools. According to the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE), another 1,80,696 ST students are enrolled in government, government-aided, and private schools, as well as schools run by the forest department, and Eklavya Model Residential Schools run by the Union government. How the merger will affect the thousands of SC and ST students and hundreds of teachers associated with the welfare schools remains to be seen.