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Tamil Nadu: School-going tribal kids forced to eke out a living during lockdown

COIMBATORE: For 37-year-old Rasathi, a resident of Puliyankandi tribal settlement in Aliyar near Pollachi, it was a tough call. After a prolonged dilemma and with a heavy heart, she decided to send her teenaged daughter to work.

Her daughter is only one among many schoolchildren in tribal pockets and rural hinterland who have dropped out of school to work, some of them as farmhands.

“We had no choice. How could she remain idle for months together with schools not reopening. Besides, how safe is it for a girl to stay alone at home all day when all elders in the settlement are out for work?’’ quipped Rasathi, who works as a farmhand for a pay of ? 300 per day.

Her 17-year old daughter has just completed Class IX from a government high school at Aliyar and was eager to get into Class X. With uncertainty over reopening and mounting financial burden due to the lockdown, Rasathi decided to send her to work.

In a matter of a few weeks, her daughter’s life has transformed from a bright student to a mill worker, now living in a hostel of a textile mill at Sulur, about 70 km away from the tribal settlement.

The mill has assured her a salary of ?6,000 a month apart from a yearly bonus of ?30,000 for the job of a helper. The girl would be allowed to visit her parents once in six months. The chances of the girl returning back to school appears bleak as the parents had agreed for the conditions.

The plight of other students like her is no different. “I want to study. But I couldn’t watch my parents struggling without money,’’ said 13-yearold Jyothika, from Vepparai near Kaliyapuram in rural Coimbatore. She works as a farmhand for ?200 per day. Several children from the villages in and around Kaliyapuram have also turned into farmhands. “They are used for deweeding and building earthen bunds around trees,” said C Velumani, who has sent her daughter for work.


Most of these tribal settlements got access to schools only a couple of decades back. Activists working for tribal welfare said years of efforts by state and central governments as well as NGOs to provide formal education to tribal children is on the brink of getting wasted. “Scores of tribal children have now become labourers,” said V S Paramasivam, district president of Tamil Nadu tribal people association.


Due to lockdown induced unemployment, several families had shifted from the settlements to farms where all members of the family work, including children. Scores of children have also opted for work in coir factories and poultry farms. These children were enrolled by hardworking teachers who travelled to hill settlements multiple times to convince their parents to let their wards study. “If these children don’t study, the community would be pushed atleast few decades back,’’ Paramasivam said.


Tribal activist S Thanaraj that the exact number of dropouts would be known once schools reopen. “Teachers and government officials might have to work very hard to bring them back to school. These children might not see the blackboards again unless the government intervenes,” he said.

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