Distance learning? For these students near Mumbai, school is a one-hour walk away
Lalita Dhole, a domestic help, dreams of providing the best education to her children. Her biggest worry is not how they will perform in their exams, but their safety. Her apprehension stems from the fact that her children have to meander through a rut road and a forest for an hour before reaching school.
Dhole is not from one of the BIMARU states, but a satellite town of Mumbai, Thane, which boasts of world-class educational institutes and a throbbing commercial apparatus.
The anxiety is shared by parents, most of them illiterate, from 16 tribal hamlets in Thane, whose children have to overcome several obstacles.
“No vehicles enter our area due to the kuchha road. There are no streetlights, which make us worried that animals may attack our children. During the monsoon, it becomes impossible to send them to schools because of waterlogging,” says Dhole.
Amid talks of making Maharashtra a trillion-dollar economy by 2025, education seems to be a luxury, not a basic right for students from tribal hamlets in Kasar Vadavali at Ghodbunder Road and Yeoor Hills. Even the Right to Education Act, passed nine years ago, has not nudged the Thane authorities to make education more accessible by building roads and ironing out other mobility issues.
However, Takadapada and Paankhanda villages, which are 3km-4km from the hamlets, have schools till Class 8.
Most hilly padas are home to Warli tribes, with no access to electricity and water. One of the tribal hamlets in Kasar Vadavali, Pachvadpada, which is half an hour away from Thane station, overlooks high-rises. Seventy families living in the pada are labourers or work as house helps in these high-rises.
“As our parents never sent us to school, we don’t want this thing to happen to our children. Though we have enrolled them in schools, there are various problems, which make it difficult for them to continue education,” says Anita Dhandekar, resident of Pachvadpada. The nearest school for Anita’s son is at Takadapada, and he leaves an hour before the school time.
One class too many at kindergarten
The fallout of far-off schools is that tribal children, even 10-years-old, are studying in a kindergarten (balwadi centre) at Pachvadpada, run by a non-governmental organisation, Hari Om Trekkers.
Manisha Rathore, who is now a Class 5 student studying at Anmol Vidyalaya (an aided school) at Vasant Vihar in Thane, used to go to the kindergarten along with eight other children. “Most parents prefer sending their children to this balwadi because they aren’t many schools nearby. Students who are eight or ten years old are still studying here because they can’t go alone to school. Another incentive is that the centre provides meals too,” says Nandkumar Nikte, volunteer at the balwadi.
NGO Matrushakti Sevanyas runs a hostel for tribal girls, including Manisha Rathore, in Vasant Vihar. These students complain about the quality of education at schools run by the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC), says Sandhya Sawant, founder of the NGO. Now, they are happy that they are getting good education at Anmol Vidyalaya.
“There (at civic schools) are just four or five teachers. Given their background, these students need special attention. As they do not get that attention in the school, most of them drop out,” Sawant says.
‘College is a dream’
Vasant Gavit, village head at Pachvadpada, said apart from his children, there are only two boys who have studied till Class 12 in his pada.
“Notwithstanding our proximity to Mumbai, we do not get enough facilities,” complains Gavit. Gavit informs that a few village heads have acquired five-and-a-half acres of land from the collector. A part of the land is likely to be used to open a small school or a balwadi. The plan may take more than three years before it comes to fruition.
“None of the children from our pada has studied in college. Boys mostly leave studies after Class 8 owing to the distance, while girls are expected to stay at home. College seems like a distant dream for the children,” Gavit contends.
‘Not out of the woods’
A self-help group run by the wives of village heads intends to write to the TMC, asking it to provide better roads. Ramesh Tokre, president of Vanhakh Samiti, reveals that 150 students enrolled at the Paankhanda school last year. They take the kaccha road to reach school.
“The civic body doesn’t get permission to build a school because the land is forested. The other problem is that no one really demanded that students be provided with transportation. Even if we are provided with one, it will have to drop students half a kilometre away from the school because the road is bad. The other option is hiring an autorickshaw, which we can’t afford,” said Tokre.
Officials from TMC’s education department point out the same difficulty in building schools.
“If we get one room on rent, we are willing to provide education to these tribal students. But this isn’t the case in tribal padas. We cannot take over forest land for schools,” said the official.
What the law says
According to the Right to Education Act, 2009, for Class1-5 students, the nearest school must be within a km
Schools for Class 6-8 students must be within a radius of three kilometres
If schools are farther the prescribed limit, the authorities need provide free transportation, mandates the Act