HYDERABAD, Nov 11 (WFS) - Janardhan, 12, is proud of the fact that he can cook dal (lentils) and rice in a jiffy. And that he can get more rice by begging than his friends. A student of Class 7, he begs along with 56 other boys aged between five and 15 years. And he begs to go to school.
In July 2004, all of them were thrown out of a hostel for backward class boys in Chintavaram village, Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh. Backward classes [BCs] are communities notified by the central or state governments as socially and educationally backward.
In June 2004, when the hostel authorities quoted an obscure government order (GO) and asked the boys to leave the hostel, they refused. When they were thrown out, the boys did not go back home but first took shelter in a public building and then with the help of an NGO, Kula Vivaksha Vyatireka Porata Committee (Committee to Fight Against Caste Discrimination), rented a building for Rs 600 (1US$=Rs 46) per month. They did not want to disrupt their studies at any cost.
For the first few days, local residents generously provided food to the children. "But it is impossible even for us to feed 57 kids every day. Much as we wanted to take care of them, we were helpless," says Chandraiah, a villager. That's when the young boys worked out a survival formula for themselves. They decided to take turns begging in nearby villages and going to school. So, every week, one group attends school while the other begs. The ones who beg return home to cook for their mates. The very young ones are spared the ordeal of begging.
For their courageous efforts, the boys have evoked admiration from different quarters. In July 2004, boarders of all the hostels in the district expressed their solidarity with the homeless kids and went on a day's fast. Later, all the students of the Gudur division boycotted one day of school and staged a demonstration outside the district collector's office. The regional press also supported their cause.
However, these protests did not help the boys get back to their hostel. "We even took out processions on the national highway. Nothing worked, nobody listened to us," laments Mahesh K, a class 10 student.
The students -- mostly children of silica mine workers and agricultural workers -- recall that their hostel was running well for a long time. The villagers confirmed that most of the boys are bright and three of them topped in their school in the secondary school certificate examination.
The Andhra Pradesh government runs about 1,400 BC hostels in the state, out of which 270 are for girls. The BC welfare department, delinked from social welfare department by the former Telugu Desam Party government, claims it spends about Rs 800 million on such hostels. "We also maintain 14 hostels for denotified tribes and residential schools for children of people in traditional occupations. No other state has such educational facilities for BCs," claimed an official from the BC welfare department.
The idea behind running such hostels is that the children get a permanent place to stay and don't have to move with their migratory parents from one district to another. The hostels are also an attempt to provide BCs with a level playing field.
However, due to the apparent misinterpretation of a GO, the boys lost their hostel. According to an official in the social welfare department, the government had issued an order asking district officials to set up a hostel for college girls from the backward classes. If necessary, the GO said, hostels that were under-utilized could be closed down and the building could be used for the girls’ hostel. The district officials arbitrarily decided that as the boys’ hostel was under-utilized, it could be converted into a girl's hostel.
"Why make such a fuss over one hostel closing down? We can't disobey government orders. We have to run a hostel for girls and there is no other building in the village where we can accommodate the boys and provide them with staff and facilities," says an official from the social welfare department. But the sarpanch (head of village council) of Chintavaram village says he is ready to give space for the hostel.
Most BC hostels in the state are currently facing severe resource crunch. "It is true that there are extensive schemes in place. But the problem is either the grant comes too late in the academic year or our requisitions for food supplies are not met on time," explains the warden of a BC hostel in Rangareddy district. "The new government in Andhra Pradesh has reduced the budget for the BC welfare department," says R Krishnaiah, president of the Andhra Pradesh BC Welfare Association.
"During our work with child workers, we have discovered that most families want to send their kids to school. The government-run hostels are full to the brim. It shows we really need more such hostels," says Shanta Sinha, Ramon Magsaysay award winner for Community Leadership, who has started a movement in the state to bring all children to school.
Although Janardhan and his friends have no idea how long they will have to beg to go to school, they hope it will not be for too long.
(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)