Usha Kumari is on hunger strike
Usha Kumari is on hunger strike|Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan
Kerala

A Teacher’s Lone Cry For Justice In Kerala

A teacher who has trekked a mountain every day for the past 20 years is demanding salary & regularisation

Rejimon Kuttappan

Rejimon Kuttappan

I had to halt under shade as my calf muscles were hurting badly following the two-hour-long trekking.

And some 200 metres far from where I was sitting, I could see a small tribal school building sitting on top of a rock and children playing in front.

Even though I was excited, I did not run towards the school as I was gasping after the tiring trek.

The school in the mountain
The school in the mountain
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

That was the seventh halt I was taking while climbing the 5 kilometre long steep path up the mountain.

While crossing the river at the foot of the mountain, boatman Saju S had warned me that, it would definitely be a tiring climb.

But I was not worried. I believed that my experience in participating in month-long political rallies during my college days would help me. But five minutes of trekking proved that I was overconfident and Saju was right.

Students cross the river in a boat to go to school
Students cross the river in a boat to go to school
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

After the short break, when my breathing became normal, I walked towards the school to meet Usha Kumari, the 52-year-old single school teacher who is on a hunger strike demanding her pending salary and regularisation of her job for the last few days.

I saw Usha lying on a bench in the classroom and I could understand there were no classes then. But children had come to the school and they were painting and playing puzzles.

Interestingly, for those 14 children, the school is like a second home, where they get and spend more productive time and Usha is a motherly figure.

When I asked the children, could I meet Usha teacher, they smiled at me and started to shout in chorus “teacher… somebody has come to meet you.”

The children were ‘guarding’ their teacher.

The students at the school
The students at the school
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

As Usha heard the children calling her, she got up and greeted me. As I had talked to Usha’s daughter a day before that, Usha was expecting me. She looked tired and exhausted. Even when she greeted me, her voice was frail. It was the third day of her hunger strike.

As I was drenched in sweat and still gasping, she smiled at me and asked, “are you tired, sir?”

When I said yes and admired her commitment and energy to trek this mountain for the last 20 years, she again smiled and said, yes, it has happened without any break.

“I love these children. It is their happiness which brings me here. I have seen this as my duty, not a job. That is why even when I was not getting a salary for the last five months, I continued to come here. And I don’t want to leave this school. That’s why I am holding my hunger strike here. Till yesterday, I took classes too even though I was on strike. But today, I feel tired,” she said.

A student peeps behind her
A student peeps behind her
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

An Arduous Climb For Education

Even before Amboori, a sleepy village in the southernmost tip of Western Ghats, wakes up, at around 6 am, Usha starts her journey from her home.

Riding her scooter for 30 minutes loaded with books and foodstuff for her students, she reaches the banks of the Neyyar river at around 7 am. From there, for some 5 to 10 minutes, she rows a boat alone to cross the river. And then she treks a steep hill through the thick forest for around two hours to reach the Multi-Grade Learning Centre.

“As I am an asthma patient, I can’t climb the 5 kilometre long hilly path at one go. I have to pause. But I try my best to reach before 10 am as these children and their parents will be waiting anxiously for me,” Usha said.

Since 2002, KR Usha Kumari, the single-school teacher, has not paused teaching tribal children at the Kunnathumala Multi Grade Learning Centre in Agasthyamala Biosphere, for even a single day.

“For the last 18 years, I have climbed this mountain alone. Many a time, during the rainy season, when trees fall, I have had a narrow escape. Sometimes, wild animals and forest snakes have scared me. But nothing has stopped me from coming here. Even my two children often complain that I ignore them and run to these tribal children,” Usha said.

A tribal student at the school
A tribal student at the school
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

“But now, the government has failed me. They have not given me my salary for the last five months and have ignored my repeated plea to regularise my job,” Usha said while wiping her tears as she struggled to control her emotions.

“None of the teachers in the single-teacher schools have received a salary. Recently, I along with other teachers approached the government to know why our salaries are delayed. We didn’t get a clear answer. It is then that I decided to conduct a hunger strike,” Usha added.

When asked what pushes her to continue the teacher job, even when she is not getting her salary, Usha said that she was always interested in working for the marginalised.

A Mentor & His Protégé

“PN Panicker is my mentor. Panicker is the Father of the Library Movement in Kerala. Through his projects, I got involved in 1985-86, educating tribal children. He inspired me to go to villages to teach children who did not have access to schools,” Usha said.

“Initially, I wanted to join the police and also passed the PSC test, but my family did not let me join. Soon, I got involved in several projects as part of the Amboori Grama Panchayat,” she adds.

For her exemplary work and commitment, Usha Kumari has won several accolades including the Saksharatha Puraskaram from KANFED (Kerala Association for Nonformal Education and Development).

While she was working towards tribal welfare, she was involved in a survey that found that parents in the area did not allow their wards to go to school because of the rugged terrain and the presence of wild elephants.

When the project was done, I heard that the government is starting single-teacher schools for the less privileged students in remote areas.

“I applied and got a job in a school in the same Western Ghats on a different side in 1999. I worked there for three years and then moved here,” Usha said.

“It took a lot of convincing on her part till the children began coming for makeshift classes on verandahs of houses. There were only five children then. Now, the number ranges between 15 to 20,” Usha said.

A student busy with her colouring
A student busy with her colouring
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

Till the time the school got a better building in 2000, classes were held on rocks and under the shade of trees. When it rained or when Usha fell ill, she would stay in the tribal settlement as the daily trek was impossible.

“My children used to complain that I always prefer to be with tribal children. I was worried about hearing that. But I didn’t want to drop my job,” Usha said.

Being A Single School Teacher

“Unlike regular schools, in the MGLC there is no bell to remind students of timing. There is no attendance. Students come here in a free atmosphere and indulge in learning activities. Here, the teacher creates a home like atmosphere, so students are fearless and treat the school as a place like their kudi (home). So, this is also home for me and these children are also my children,” Usha said.

And we have to be quite different from the normal school teachers, Usha added.

A view of the entrance to the school
A view of the entrance to the school
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

“The teacher has to take up many roles at a time. Those of a mother, a friend, so on and so forth. In short, a teacher is the soul of an MGLC, by whom a whole village gets transformed. And sometimes, I have to be a village head too. The villagers respect me a lot. They see me like a god sent person as I am teaching their children and they are becoming successful too,” Usha said.

While joining the school as a teacher Usha’s salary was Rs 1500 per month. And now she earns around Rs 19,000. However, even after 20 years of service, she is a contract worker.

MGLC teachers were paid only Rs 17,325. This government increased the monthly honorarium to Rs 18,500.

These schools are mostly located in remote areas, including tribal regions. It was a long-standing demand that the monthly honorarium for teachers be hiked.

The decision to increase the honorarium was taken following the fund allotment made in the state budget 2019-2020.

The Neyyar river which has to be crossed to reach the school
The Neyyar river which has to be crossed to reach the school
Photo credit: Rejimon Kuttappan

“In the beginning, there was a job contract which was renewed annually. But for the last few years, it is not happening. However, I was getting a salary. Now, unfortunately, I am not getting the salary for the last five months,” Usha said.

Usha admits that it has been a challenge for the last few months. Even without a salary for months, she has managed to continue her work with conviction, sometimes by spending from her pocket to get the students a proper meal. Usha needs her job to be regularised.

“Currently, I am not getting any health insurance and won’t get any end of service benefits. Why can’t the government recognise our commitment and regularise us,” Usha asked.

“Around 10,000 students are studying in different Multi-Grade Learning Centres. And there are around 340 teachers like me,” Usha added.

Recently, the government had a plan to raise the Multi-Grade Learning Centres into Lower Primary schools and Usha welcomes that move.

“Now I am the only person teaching here. 15 children are studying up to Class 4. They get bored because I am the one and the only teacher they are seeing. So if this learning centre gets upgraded to a Lower Primary school, more teachers will come and the children will be happy,” Usha said.

According to Usha, tribal children are keen on coming to school and attending classes.

“My students are pursuing degree and PG courses in colleges in town which, I feel, is an achievement for me as a teacher. Girls from these settlements are now staying in hostels in towns and pursuing carrier-oriented courses,” Usha said.

“My students also are working as clerks and in other positions in government services. They come and meet me once in a while,” Usha who has been active in providing parallel education for elderly and marginalised people for the last 30 years in different areas said.

The Single Teacher Schools Of Kerala

In Kerala, single teacher schools are also known as Ekaadhyapaka School or Alternative and Innovative Centre (AIEC) or Multi-grade Learning Centres (MGLC).

It is where a teacher has to teach two or more primary school student grades in the same class. The single teacher school was an initiative launched as part of the DPEP Programme in 1997.

It was later brought under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) with funds from the Department of Education as well as grants to tribal students from the Scheduled Tribes Development Department of the Kerala Government.

The project was a direct response to the high rate of dropout of tribal children from mainstream schools as learners felt disconnected with the classroom environment, teaching style and medium of education.

After the enactment of the Right to Education Act in 2012, the state government had announced the conversion of MGLCs into primary schools. But this did not happen.

Presently, 354 MGLCs are running in Kerala. A total of 11,888 children are getting an education in these 354 MGLCs. In Kerala, MGLC concentrates more in most tribal populated areas, like Palakad, Malappuram, Thrissur, Kannur, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts.

Though the previous government decided to end the operations of MGLC in 2014, the government was told to continue as this programme is helpful to many students residing in remote places.

MGLCs had their curriculum up to 2009. The curriculum that MGLC followed from its beginning to 2009 was entirely different from the normal school curriculum.

It was tailored to the nature and function of MGLC. Its important specialty was that it used a card method instead of textbooks. Learning activities were conducted according to this card method.

From Standard I to Standard IV, the teacher conducts learning activities with the help of different cards.

The card system used pictures of various animals, birds, and insects printed on it to assist learning. For example, an elephant card was used in language learning. Pictures of birds were used in the learning of mathematics. Pictures of insects were used in environmental studies. Promotion to the next class was given after learning 12 cards.

Its advantages were that students never felt any burden in the learning process. The card system was used in the evaluation process also.

But subsequent revisions that happened in the state syllabus left out revising the MGLC curriculum.

At present, MGLC follows the curriculum of SCERT, which is the curriculum of mainstream schools. It causes many problems in the MGLC classroom.

A culturally and socially different student at MGLC faces many problems when she/he is introduced to textbooks in normal schools, say experts.

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