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Neat footwork sorts out mouthy caretaker

INDIA. Twenty-three tribal schoolchildren in India's eastern state of Maharashtra last week walked nearly 45 miles to the nearest district administration office to complain about the poor conditions in their village school.

The effort has paid off. The "insensitive" headmaster has been removed, teachers have stopped "bunking" their classes and the bossy chowkidar (caretaker) is on his best behaviour.

The quality of the mid-day meal has improved and children have been assured that drinking water will now be available on tap.

"We have to walk to a nearby brook when we are thirsty as the two tube-wells which were dug in 1992 have not been working for three years," said one student, Vithal Nathu Mahale.

Another boy, Shankar Tula Navale, said the walk had raised the children's confidence and they were "determined" not to let things slide back to the "bad, old days". Ten-year-old Heeru Kashinath Bhoye, however, wondered when the long-awaited textbooks - supposed to be free to children in "backward" areas - would arrive.

The official explanation for the school's neglect is that, as it is located in a remote and hilly region, it is not "visible" to the district administration in Nashik, 45 miles away. There is a proposal to move it to a more "hospitable" region.

The episode reflects the wider crisis in India's school system. Most government-run schools, even in big cities, lack basic amenities. Leaking roofs and crumbling walls are common.

Parents in Delhi went to court saying that their children were not safe, and residents of a constituency in Uttar Pradesh boycotted the parliamentary elections to protest about the poor state of schools.

Hasan Suroor

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