They have to walk 14 kilometres a day to study beyond Class V

It is two years since 14-year-old A.Asaiponnu, a Class VI student, dropped out of school. Neither the nutritious noon meal provided at State Government schools nor the schemes such as free uniforms and textbooks were attractive enough to make her pursue her education.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act - 2009, a Central Act, too could not force education upon her, for she was not ready to walk over 14 kilometres a day to attend school from her hamlet Sittraruvipatti situated on the foothills of Alagarmalai near here.

It takes a drive for about 25 km from the Madurai Corporation buildings towards the road connecting Alagarkovil and Melur to reach Kidaripatti, from where a rocky terrain branches out towards Sambiranipatti and then to Sittraruvipatti, a hamlet that depends solely on solar power.

After having been in the dark for decades, it was only recently that every hut in the hamlet got electricity through solar panels and batteries provided by SELCO, a private organisation, through loans offered to the residents by Indian Overseas Bank.

Barefoot

Around 15 children from here walk down the tough terrain barefoot for about eight every day to attend a Panchayat Union Primary School at Sambiranipatti. Among them are Asaiponnu’s four younger sisters and one younger brother.

Once the children of the hamlet complete Class V, they have little choice but to walk another six km a day to reach a high school at Kidaripatti. “It was after attending Class VI for a few days that Asaiponnu decided to drop out as she could not walk so long,” says her mother A.Inbam.

Ms.Inbam’s husband A.Alaguselvam has been working as an unskilled labourer in Dubai for the last five years.

Yet, the family’s economic status has not grown much as they continued to stay in the hilly region and were struggling to settle a loan of Rs.95,000 he had taken for going to the Gulf country.

With very little scope for farming or any other income generating activity in the hilly terrain, most of the residents are eking out a living by selling firewood and rearing goats on contract.

Whenever the goats reared on contract give birth to offsprings, the latter are shared equally between the owner and the rearer.

C.Indira (75) says the residents of the hamlet are staying put at the isolated hamlet without relocating themselves because they do not know where else to go. “I have been here for the last 30 years. I gave birth to four sons and two daughters and got all of them married.

“See my first grandson P.Thavamani, born to my eldest son, got married recently to my granddaughter T.Vellathai, born to my eldest daughter. The girl is now on the family way and her baby will be the first to be born in this soil with a fan and tube light at home,” she adds.

The electrification of the hamlet through solar power has come as a great relief to school going kids like M.Vijayakumar and A.Rajesh who regularly encounter wild animals and reptiles like snakes and scorpions at home and gaurs, also called Indian bisons, while playing together in the hillocks.

“Most of the Indian bisons would run away on hearing us shout. But some of the deaf bisons do not. They chase us and we come running back to our houses. Sometimes it is fun, but at times it becomes really scary,” says Rajesh with Vijayakumar nodding in agreement.

The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development had been implementing its watershed development project in the hamlet and trying to grow mangroves and lemon trees.

What is good news for its residents now is that the Additional Collector-cum-Project Director of District Rural Development Agency G.K.Arun Sundar Thayalan has got funds sanctioned for laying a pucca road to the village and hopes that the works would start soon.

“A good road connectivity is what we have been longing for decades. It would be nice if the district administration comes forward with other schemes to improve our lives and make sure that all our children get educated without any difficulty,” pleads P.Chinnamma, a resident.