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.