CHENNAI: Amidst the media glare on a series of gory murders the city witnessed last week, what almost went unnoticed was a candlelight protest by members of the Narikurava community seeking justice for the sudden death of an eight-year-old boy in a children’s home.
The boy, Sai Praveen, who was staying in the Devi Karumariamman Destitute Home (Popularly known as Narikuravar School) at Saidapet, died on October 21 under mysterious circumstances. While the police are yet to cite the reason for the death, around 100 children from the Narikurava community have since left the home and the school attached to it, saying that Sai Praveen’s death is only a culmination of abuses and ill-treatment they had been facing in the home.
“My brother would not have died if they had taken better care,” says Priyanka, sixth-grader and elder sister of Sai Praveen. “He was very sick. He had a stomach ache and cried from pain. But they treated him for fever,” she said, adding that most children in the home heard Sai Praveen’s cries that night. And when he became silent, they all assumed he had gone to sleep. But only next morning they found him lying unconscious near a waste bin in the home. He was declared dead at a nearby hospital.
The main allegation of Priyanka and other children was that Sai Praveen, who was allergic to brinjal, refused to take it that night. But he was forced to eat it by the staff who beat him. Raghupathi Kuppusamy, who runs the home, denies all the children’s accusations of abuse, ill-treatment and neglect. “He only told us that he had fever and we treated him for that,” he said.
But nearly 100 students hailing from poor Narikurava families, who lack proper houses and joined the home in hope of education and care, have decided to quit the home and school, considering the abuse they have faced. “They would beat us and force us to eat three-day-old food. The water is always murky — it sometimes even has worms. Boys and girls are made to use the same toilets and some of us were made to clear the sewer using our hands,” says R Megala, a former student.
When visited the home, there was no water filter and most of the toilets appeared to be under construction. Only two toilets seemed functional while there were some 100 students in the home. Some rooms appeared to be under construction. The children are made to sleep on the roof with only a shed over their heads, though the home officials said they were provided mosquito nets at night. The school is situated on the banks of the Adyar river, which brings several mosquitoes to the home.
The students Express spoke to said that the staff are never ready to listen to their problems and don’t hesitate to beat them. “He (Raghupathi) even pinched me on my thighs. It’s been days and I still have the mark,” said another girl who didn’t want to be named. A source inside the home, who wished to remain anonymous, said most allegations made by the students are true.
When the Narikurava families and a few activists took up the issue with the police seeking to register a case of death due to negligence, the police reportedly did not accept their complaint. However, Raghupathy, who founded the home still runs it, says the family of the deceased boy was blackmailing him to pay them `2 lakh for the death. “I have done so much for them, but these are ungrateful people,” he told Express.
When contacted over the accusations against the home, a child welfare officer agreed that the home does not meet minimum standards. There must be eight staff for every 25 children. But the school records, checked by Express, suggested that there was one only warden looking after nearly 100 children.
“The school is built on eroding silt and there are mosquitoes and pests swarming. If the medical record of the deceased proves that he died because of the issues over food or water served, we will initiate necessary action,” said Siva Jayakumar, District Child Protection Officer (DCPO). “I left the school because I’m scared to go back there. I want to study, but don’t know if I can anymore,” says Megala, one of the 100 children from city’s Narikurava community who discontinued education after Sai Praveen’s death.