The temples of education that were supposed to uplift the suppressed aspirations of the poor from darkness are themselves plunging into darkness, mostly due to lack of funds and neglect.
A series of incidents of students dying and falling sick in State-run hostels, particularly in rural areas, has sent shock waves among students and parents. These children are from socially and economically backward sections. Some come from lower middle-class backgrounds as well, given the quality and free education assured in the backward classes welfare, scheduled caste welfare, tribal welfare and minority welfare schools and hostels.
Children join these schools with the best academic credentials among peer groups and look up to a bright future with little burden on their parents to support their education, with the Telangana government setting up new residential schools over the last eight years.
But the unfortunate deaths of students across the State have left the reputation of these institutions undermined and the safety of students is at question.
What ails these schools despite the government’s intention to provide quality education and the best of facilities? They are plagued with issues that are commonly visible in any government school or hostel. Lack of sanitation facilities and unhygienic food lead to seasonal diseases that go out of hand when medical care is not extended at the right time.
Pathetic conditions prevail in these schools that also double up as hostels after school hours. Dormitories, washrooms and dining halls are cramped at one place, leaving no scope for maintaining hygiene. The sheer number of students in such small accommodations makes it all the more difficult for maintenance.
In fact, most of these schools and hostels are constructed for some other purpose that don’t suit the needs of hostels. They are rented by the government temporarily but continue in the same for years together.
Administrators and teachers, unwilling to be quoted, say that though the intention of the government is appreciable, what lacks is the support through timely release of funds with the same intensity. Most principals, who are responsible for the schools and hostels, claim lack of support staff, shortage of funds and irresponsibility on the part of some of their peers, as genuine issues as well.
“It is unfortunate that children died that could have been avoided totally with small measures. Seasonal diseases are natural but we could have taken better measures to stop the fevers leading to deaths. Children suffering due to food poisoning is unacceptable in these days given the good medicare available,” a senior official in the Social Welfare department agreed.
Students have been raising the issue of poor quality of food served due to inferior quality ingredients used. But, there is seldom any check on the quality and the mess contractors say that with no revision of prices even when the prices of all essential commodities have touched the sky, it will obviously reflect in the quality of food.
The unhygienic conditions in the kitchens and the dining halls are spiking the problem. Water tanks are rarely cleaned and drinking water often gets mixed with water for other purposes and this is a deadly mix for food poisoning cases and diarrhoea. Lack of supervision in cleaning utensils with detergent further aggravates the already poor sanitation in kitchens.
Corruption takes a toll
With little supervision from the top, groupism and infighting among teachers and administrators also has a huge adverse impact, say some teachers. Leaders in cahoots with local politicians in taking food contracts is also playing havoc.
A senior teacher said that food contractors have to pay the administrators and local leaders and even student leaders or else they would face allegations of corruption and unnecessary media coverage.
A study of the Management of Social Welfare Hostels in Telangana: Insights, Opportunities and Challenges by Sudhaveni Naresh for the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) suggested several measures to improve these welfare hostels. The study says construction of new hostel buildings, particularly for post-matric students, needs to be initiated on a priority basis while immediate attention is needed for renovation of existing buildings and improving basic infrastructural facilities.
The study also suggested enhancement of annual budget for day-to-day maintenance of hostels to ₹40,000. National BC Welfare Association chief and Rajya Sabha MP R. Krishnaiah says that about 2.7 lakh students were staying in 2,144 SC, ST and BC hostels and another 6.5 lakh students in 874 SC, ST, BC and Minorities residential schools and it was the government’s responsibility to provide them quality boarding, nutritious food, hygienic conditions and periodic health check-up.