Wayanad’s Adivasi students protest against institutional discrimination in education

Adivasi students in Wayanad district’s Sultan Bathery town protest against the lack of access to digital classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. COURTESY ADISHAKTHI SUMMER SCHOOL
15 October, 2020

While the Adivasi community of Kerala has always been at a significant disadvantage in secondary and higher education, the various issues Adivasi students face have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and colleges in Kerala have increasingly begun teaching through digital classes, which are often inaccessible to Adivasi and Dalit students. The pressure that this put on marginalised students was most evident in the case of Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year-old Dalit student from Malappuram district who died by suicide on 1 June, after she was unable to attend an online class.

Since 28 September, over a hundred Adivasi students have been protesting outside the civil police station in the town of Sultan Bathery in Wayanad district. The student protesters argued that various attempts by the state government to address this, such as the distribution of free laptops and the broadcast of classes on state-owned television channels, has not eased the inaccessibility of education for Adivasi students. They also pointed out that the lack of access to online classes is only a part of a broader system of exclusion that includes opaque admission procedures, the lack of reserved seats and exorbitant fees that push Adivasi students out of the secondary and higher education system.

“There are tribal homes which still do not have electricity, let alone a television, a laptop or a mobile phone,” Sathysree Dravid, a volunteer with a student’s collective called Adishakthi Summer School, who also participated in the protest, told me. Adishakthi has led the protest. “More than half of tribal students are outside the purview of the online education system. I can say this without a doubt,” Dravid said. “The government has suddenly introduced a new education system without any attempts to collect data.”

Recognising that many students lack access to internet, on 1 June, the Kerala government began classes for schools and colleges through the state-owned KITE Victers television channel. However, many activists pointed out that this, too, is not easy to access for many Adivasi students, and that it is incomprehensible if not supplemented with regular teaching. M Geethanandan, an activist for Dalit and Adivasi rights and a prominent face in the protest, told me that several Adivasi students are first-generation learners and do not have the parental guidance required to absorb learning via virtual tools. Geethanandan recalled an anecdote from June to explain. “We had eight students who were studying in eleventh standard in Kochi,” he said. “We arranged for a television set and had them listen to the teaching through Victers channel from the first session itself. They were unable to follow it. They need prior assistance from someone who will explain the texts.”

To provide such assistance, the Kerala government had started the Samagra Shiksha Kerala initiative, under the education department, in 2017. It appointed 241 mentor-teachers or Gotrabandhus in Wayanad district alone. The teachers, with the requisite qualification of a Bachelors in Education degree, had to be well-versed in Malayalam and at least one of the local tribal dialects in Wayanad. “These children feel a sense of alienation in the classroom right from first standard,” Geethanandan told me. “The mentor-teachers were appointed to fill this gap. Their duties include offering support to tribal students and visiting their homes to ensure that they don’t drop out.” He said that his organisation had recommended that these teachers could visit Adivasi colonies during the lockdown and teach children in person while the lectures stream on television. “A local learning centre was required. But it did not happen,” he told me. “The teachers did not visit them nor were the schools functioning.” Kuttikrishnan AP, the state project director of Samagra Shiksha Kerala did not respond to questions about the criticisms of the programme’s implementation in Wayanad.

On 1 July, the Kerala government announced that laptops would be provided to students from socially and economically disadvantaged groups under the Kerala State Financial Enterprises Vidyashree scheme. The KSFE scheme is a micro-finance scheme where KSFE a student receives a laptop on loan once they have paid the instalment of 500 rupees for three months. The local units of Kudumbasree, government-organised self-help groups, would collaborate with the Kerala State Financial Enterprises—a state owned chit fund and loan company—to distribute the laptops. Geethanandan said that the scheme hardly has any scope in Wayanad as Kudumbasree groups had a very small presence in the district. He also added that a device would not solve the larger problem of poor connectivity and the unaffordability of internet data packs for most Adivasi households.

At the protest in Sultan Bathery, Jishnu Koyalipura, an Adivasi student and a volunteer coordinator with Adishakthi, told me that the Kerala government’s failure to make education accessible to Adivasis during the pandemic was part of a history of disregarding of Adivasi education. Koyalipura said that this lack of concern for Adivasi education was clearly visible in the number of Adivasi students who could enrol into secondary education. “Our main demand is that there should be more seats in eleventh grade and that there should be an additional batch for Scheduled Castes’ and Scheduled Tribes’ students,” Koyalipura told me. “And those who wish to pursue further studies after twelfth should be provided financial assistance from corpus funds.” In the academic year of 2020, he said, 2,009 students had passed out of the 2,442 students who appeared for the tenth board exam. “At present, there are only 529 seats for the 2,009 students in Wayanad,” Koyalipura told me. The other 1,400 students do not have access to seats to study further. The situation compels them to drop out.”

Geethanandan argued that the number of students being turned away from secondary education would be even higher. He said that the number of Adivasi students seeking admission in eleventh standard cannot be calculated without considering the students who passed in the previous year but failed to find a seat. “There will be applicants from the last failed batch,” Geethanandan said. “There will also be students who will apply from the National Institute of Open Schooling.” He said that the disproportionately fewer number of seats available to Adivasi students leads to many students dropping out of formal education and being deprived of the right to education.

The barriers to education for Adivasis students are even more pronounced at the college level. Mary Lydia, a volunteer with Adishakthi, told me about the struggles of another Adivasi student from the Kaatunayakan community to get into college. “She was studying at an MRS school in Nilambur,” Lydia said, referring to model residential schools, which are enlisted by the Scheduled Tribes Development Board for children who cannot access educational institutions in the vicinity of their homes. “She had to procure her certificate from there and then submit it to a college in Kochi. There is no mediator to help them.” Lydia added, “We don’t have a support mechanism which is interested in ensuring that such children pursue higher education and grow further.”

Many colleges implement an admission method called spot allotment. “After the entire seat-allotment process is over, the authorities conduct spot allotments to the residual seats at a public function,” Geethanandan said. “Many students are forced to sign up for science. Many are sent to private parallel colleges which work like tuition centres. They send some five hundred students as part of SC and ST batches in parallel colleges.” Parallel college is a term commonly used in Kerala to describe private educational institutions that are not recognised by any university. According to him, these private institutes do not provide quality education and many students are denied entry to eleventh standard classes in the mainstream.

Lydia added that the autonomous colleges in Kerala typically have just two seats for ST students in any course. This means that they have to apply to multiple places to assure themselves of admission. “A student has to pay around three thousand rupees as application fees,” Lydia said. “There is no mechanism in place to provide them with financial assistance. The system does not provide them an easy and inclusive path to higher education.” She alleged that the government departments concerning Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes have failed to look into the manner in which seats reserved for marginalised students are transferred to the management quota of self-financed colleges.

One of the major issues raised by the student volunteers is the lack of transparency in autonomous colleges in fixing a fee structure and implementing the reservation policy. “There is no procedure in place,” Lydia told me. “For example, as per rules, if SC and ST seats are not filled, a university has to publish an advertisement twice before converting it to another seat. But the government has not issued a proper set of directions to any university.” Another problem unique to Kerala, particularly in recent years, is that the admission season collides with heavy monsoons. The resultant calamity isolates remote settlements. “MG university offers special allotments but gives very limited number of days for the students to apply,” Lydia said. “Most of our children live in the interior regions of Attappady and Wayanad.” Attappady is a protected forest region in Palakkad district and is one of the largest tribal settlements in the state. The office of C Raveendranath, Kerala’s education minister, did not respond to emailed queries about Adivasi students being excluded from the secondary and higher education system.  

The Adishakthi Summer School was started by youth volunteers who wanted to assist tribal students with the daunting process of getting admitted to the state’s colleges. “This is an initiative by tribal and Dalit students,” Lydia said. “Every academic year, we organise summer camps to offer orientation and skill development to children to prepare them for their education.” During the lockdown, the collective formed a team of 80 volunteers from the media, IT sector and universities, including Tata Institute of Social Sciences to provide online assistance to 500 students at the secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate levels. However, students told me that the government’s insensitivity to Adivasi students lacking educational access during the lockdown pushed them to protest. “We have been raising these demands for three years,” Jishnu told me. “There has been no response or action from the government so far. That is why we had to begin such a protest. We did not wish to protest. We were compelled by circumstances.”

The students protesting at Sultan Bathery led marches to the offices of CK Saseendran and IC Balakrishnan, Wayanad’s MLAs, on 1 October and 29 September and presented them with their list of demands. On 3 October, the Kerala government issued newly effective COVID-19 protocols, which restricted public gatherings to five people. Protestors in Sultan Bathery told me that since then they have contained the number of protesters at the site, but said they would continue to raise their demands. “Adishakthi Summer School was not formed with the intention to protest,” Lydia told me. “We have resorted to it because we want Kerala’s civil society to pay attention to this situation.”