CHENNAI: A handful of boys in their teens gathered at a trisection at the slum resettlement at Perumbakkam on a Thursday noon. They were fashioned in baggy shorts and colourful T-shirts with their hair in spikes or, streaked with bright blonde, wine red or orange. Between them on the tar road lay an orange triangle drawn with chalk; 11 green marbles dotting the insides.
Karthik* (15), who was one among them, set the ball rolling. It drew a loud cheer from the other boys and when the game was done, Karthik shot a high five to the winner and promised to put up a better fight next time.
"Of course I'd rather be at school now. We'd all rather be at school. But schools don't like having us," he said laughing. Karthik and his family, were among the 2,092 families that are being evicted by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board from Sathiyavani Muthu Nagar in Park Town in Central Chennai. He was removed from there early in January. He was a class 9 student at a government-aided school near Chintadripet.
They were moved by the State, into one of the many vertical resettlement at Perumbakkam, to where over 20,000 families have already been relocated from slums around the city over the last few years. Despite housing such large number of families, Perumbakkam has merely two schools: one high school and one elementary school.
While most of them run at near full capacity, there are barely any vacancies for the new children who move in to the resettlement, forcing children to drop out.
“For the first few days, I took a two-hour bus journey to get to my old school. Then, I got tired. My mother made an unsuccessful attempt to enrol me in the government school within the resettlement here,” he said.
His neighbour, a 19-year-old girl, jumped in smiling sarcastically and said, "But he won't study here. He wants to have fun. He doesn't want to go to school. He just likes to play marbles with other drop-outs like him." Karthik immediately defended himself and said, "The teachers hit me here. They don't like me having any fun. They hit me because I asked questions in class...They hit me if I have a friendly conversation with girls... They hit me for everything," he said as his face turned serious.
He turned to his neighbour and said, "Do you know that according to law, teachers cannot hit students? They even hit me when I said that to them. I don't want to go to a school that doesn't like me. They didn't do this to me in my old school even though I was naughty," he argued.
Meanwhile, Vadivu, who is a sanitary worker at a government hospital, dragged her crying 10-year-old son by the ear, to enroll him in Class 5 at the government school within the resettlement. He was a frail and lean boy with big bold eyes that were welled with tears.
"I don't want to go to this school," the boy cried, as she hauled him up a flight of stairs to meet a teacher. Her family was relocated to Perumbakkam, in the last week of December. Her husband, is a daily-wage worker who lifted heavy objects to load them in trucks.
After a three-week search, Vadivu had found a job as a sweeper at a hospital nearby. "Since I have this new job, I cannot take him to the city to his old school everyday. It costs me Rs 10 to get out of the resettlement to the bus stop, Rs 27 for the bus journey from here to Chindadiripet and Rs 6 from that bus stop to his school. I cannot spend Rs 90 everyday," she rued. Her son angrily stomped away from her and buried his face on a wall crying.
He is supposed to be writing his first public exam in March this year. "I will not write any exam here. My friends are there. This is not my home," he cried. With barely two months left for the exam, his helpless mother yelled at him,"Do not talk to me like that!"
While bus facilities to Chintadiripet have been made free for students, it is not the case for parents. Further, there are very few buses plying between Perumbakkam and the city during school hours.
A bus shuttle, arranged by a public representative for school children, goes tightly packed. Shanthi*, the mother of an eight-year-old girl who was in Class 3, said that her daughter was forced to sit on the floor of the bus with her legs tightly crossed, in a way she doesn't occupy much space. Shanthi hugged her crossed knees tightly to demonstrate how her daughter was made to sit. She said within a few days, she pulled her daughter out of school.
When Express visited a few schools near Park Town and Chintadripet, teachers said even though students found the bus shuttle useful, they were extremely exhausted by the time they arrived in school.
"Most children who come from Perumbakkam after eviction, skip breakfast as they have to start really early from their homes," said a science teacher at a middle-school near Chindadiripet, adding that they are tired and hungry well ahead of the lunch recess. She further said that students start getting restless by 3:30 pm, as the first ones to get out of the school, get the better seats in the crowded shuttle buses.
"When students are evicted mid-year, they continue their education until the end of the academic year at best. Many of them quit, at the end. I don't know if they join other schools later," she said remarking that the government should prevent mid-academic-year evictions to prevent, "spoiling of children's education."
A teacher at a private low-priced kindergarten in the same neighbourhood said that half her students dropped out after evictions at Sathiyavani Muthu Nagar and Chindadiripet. "Since these children are mostly under five-years-of-age, they start falling sick every week when they travel so far. Parents just pull them out. These government evictions do not account for early childhood education at all," she rued adding that young children need at least 10 hours of sleep. "They do not get this sleep, as they have to wake up early and travel for two hours to get to the school," she said.
An Assessment of the two schools by Vanessa Peter, policy researcher, Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities:
- The primary school is located inside a tenement and does not have facilities like adequate lighting and ventilation.
- Children are made to sit on the floor in classrooms.
- As per records, the high school has a strength of 2,400, but only about 1,500 turn up regularly.
- The mid-day meal is not prepared in the school campus and hence, the quantity is not assessed on a daily basis. This has resulted in food falling short on most days. Students have also complained about quality of food.
- The High School school does not have compound wall and children are found to be outside classrooms most of the team
- Stop mid-academic year eviction
- Conduct survey of total number of children in school-going age at resettlement
- Carry-out evictions and relocation only after enough schools are operational as per RTE Act
- Ply more buses to the city