Adi Dravidar students in Chennai bring the city to a halt to highlight
the abysmal conditions in their hostels.
Students residing in government-run Adi Dravidar hostels block the
arterial Anna Salai in Chennai on December 21. The blockade continued
for more than four hours.
"HOW dare a bunch of students take the law into their own hands, block
traffic for nearly five hours on Anna Salai and bring the vibrant city
to a halt, just to highlight their plight?" This was the initial
response from commuters to the road blockade staged by hundreds of
Dalit students in Chennai on December 21, 2010, which choked the entry
points to the city's arterial road.
The students were demanding basic amenities at the hostels run by the
Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department of the Tamil Nadu
The stranded public's anger against the "wildcat protest" started to
dissolve when stories about the plight of the Dalit students and the
inhuman treatment meted out to them in these hostels began to spread,
to a large extent helped by the electronic media.
The agitation has brought to the fore the sorry state of affairs in
the hostels run by the government for Dalit students in the State. A
vast majority of these hostellers in Chennai are first-generation
learners from poor families, of farm workers, construction labourers,
manual workers and small peasants. Most of them are mainly from
villages in the industrially backward northern districts, including
Villupuram, Kancheepuram, Cuddalore and Tiruvannamalai. They join
government or government-aided colleges, dreaming about getting decent
employment so that their families can come out of the debt trap in
which they have been caught for generations. They undergo numerous
ordeals. The hostels do not offer them the right environment. In fact,
their hostel life is miserable.
Having exhausted every avenue to get their grievances redressed,
several residents of the 17 hostels in the city meant for Dalit
students assembled near the 50-year-old M.C. Raja Hostel at Saidapet
and blocked peak-hour traffic from 9 a.m. An attempt by the police to
disperse them by using force failed. The agitating students lifted the
blockade around 12 p.m. after the Minister for Adi Dravidar Welfare,
A. Tamilarasi, and senior officials reached the scene of protest and
assured them of measures to solve their problems.
Stray dogs roam the corridors of the M.C. Raja Hostel at Saidapet.
The hostellers raised slogans demanding immediate steps to supply
quality food, improve the conditions of hygiene on the hostel
premises, enhance basic facilities such as toilets and libraries,
evict unauthorised persons staying in the hostels, and order an
inquiry into the alleged financial irregularities in the running of
the hostels. The Minister inspected the M.C. Raja Hostel subsequently.
It is not difficult to understand the problems encountered by boarders
at the M.C. Raja Hostel, the oldest Adi Dravidar students' hostel,
which has been named after the well-known Dalit leader M.C. Raja.
Plaques on the portico announce that its foundation stone was laid on
April 22, 1960, and that the sturdy building was dedicated to students
by Chief Minister K. Kamaraj on December 15, 1961. Poor maintenance by
successive governments has left the structure in bad shape. The stench
of urine and faeces and decayed food hits the senses the moment one
enters the premises. Leftover food is dumped in the corridors.
Overcrowding is a major problem. Around 1,600 persons stay in 52 rooms
in the three-storey building against the sanctioned strength of 595
The dining hall at the hostel is used to store construction materials.
Some students spoke to Frontline, but were cautious while narrating
their tale of woes as they did not want to incur the wrath of
intimidating groups with political connections and the agents who
enable them to get part-time jobs for a paltry wage.
They said they ate the rice served in the hostel mess but with
vegetables and a side dish they prepared in their own rooms or bought
from private canteens in the vicinity.
To meet these additional expenses, many students take up part-time
jobs, which include serving food at events. They also allow themselves
to be used by political parties for their demonstrations. They are
occasionally used as "co-stars" in crowd scenes in films. These
assignments, undertaken on weekly holidays, fetch them Rs.100 a day.
Middlemen corner the lion's share.
Some students even travel to far-off places such as Madurai and
Tirunelveli to be servers at marriage functions. These fetch them
between Rs.400 and Rs.500. The conveyance is arranged by the catering
agent. The job also enables them to eat palatable food.
One of the boarders pointed out that defecation on the nearby ground
belonging to the Animal Husbandry Department is common as the number
of toilets in the hostel was insufficient for so many boarders. An
open space on the hostel premises serves as a bathroom.
The leftover food attracts pigs and stray dogs to the premises. Water
supplied to the hostel for drinking and bathing is contaminated as the
storage tanks are rarely cleaned, one student lamented. Despite these
health hazards, no adequate medical facility has been made available
to the boarders, students said.
Although a weekly menu is prescribed by the government, most of the
time only rice is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Occasionally, the daily routine is broken when the students are
provided "variety rice" for breakfast. As the authorities have stopped
serving food in the dining hall, the boarders have to collect the food
directly from the kitchen in plastic buckets. Both the dining hall and
the "gymnasium" remain locked.
Students alleged on condition of anonymity that genuine residents were
intimidated by armed gangs enjoying political patronage, who often
instigated group rivalry. "The gangs mercilessly snuff out any
Agreeing with the boarders' charge that they have been herded like
cattle, a top official in the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare
Department told Frontline that overcrowding was the main problem in
the Dalit students' hostels in Chennai. Some unauthorised persons had
been staying in these hostels for up to 10 years, he said.
He said that among the 1,000-odd "unauthorised inmates" of the M.C.
Raja Hostel were genuine students who did not get accommodation in any
government-run hostel, educated but unemployed persons, and persons
drawing meagre wages. These persons share the hostel space and food
with the authorised boarders as they cannot afford private
accommodation. (Social activists point out that landlords in Chennai
and other major towns deny accommodation to Dalit students and
families.) As many as 30 persons stay in rooms measuring 20 feet x 15
THE HINDU ARCHIVES
Students use buckets to carry food to their rooms as no vessels are provided.
"Evicting the outsiders is an uphill task as unemployment is the main
factor contributing to overcrowding in these hostels," a senior
officer in the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department said. Most
of the unauthorised inmates were also Dalits with a poor economic
background. They returned to their native places on completion of
their courses only to return to the cities for survival, he said.
Around 25 per cent of the 61.28 lakh job-seekers on the live registers
in the employment exchanges of Tamil Nadu as on March 31, 2010, are
Dalits (see Table 1). As on May 31, 2009, as many as 12.16 lakh Dalit
job-seekers with different educational qualifications had registered
their names with the employment exchanges (see Table 2).
According to official sources, 1,27,534 Dalit students have been
accommodated in 1,565 hostels. There are 1,229 hostels benefiting
84,886 Adi Dravidar (Scheduled Caste) students and 40 hostels
accommodating 2,040 students belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, apart
from 296 government tribal residential school hostels benefitting
40,608 students. In addition to this, 36 non-governmental
organisations have been running hostels with a total strength of 5,204
Dalit students. In contrast to the situation in the Dalit hostels in
Chennai, the number of students in the Adi Dravidar hostels in the
rural areas is lower than the sanctioned strength.
The policy note on the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department
points out that the government allocates funds towards food charges
for the hostellers at the rate of Rs.550 each for college students and
Rs.450 for schoolchildren. Apart from this, every college student is
given Rs.35 and a schoolchild Rs.25 every month to purchase soap and
oil, it says.
The document also claims that wet grinders, colour televisions and
water purifiers have been provided in all hostels, besides ensuring
library facilities. Bedsheets are supplied to the boarders once in two
years, it says. But to the great dismay of education activists,
legislators, representatives of NGOs and functionaries of students'
organisations, the ground reality is different.
Issues relating to the situation in the Dalit students' hostels were
raised at the public hearing held by the National Commission for
Protection of Child Rights in Chennai. Even the Petitions Committee of
the Tamil Nadu Assembly, which inspected the Dalit students' hostels
in different parts of the State in July 2010, found that most of these
facilities were absent. Expressing anguish at the appalling
conditions, the panel directed the authorities to take remedial
measures on a priority basis.
However, reports indicate that little has been done to improve the
conditions in the hostels both in urban areas and in rural pockets.
The government initiated some maintenance work at the M.C. Raja Hostel
only after the December 21 protest. It has formed a team of officials
to look into the grievances of the students, according to sources in
Referring to the hostellers' agitation in Chennai, K.S. Kanagaraj,
president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Student Federation of India
(SFI), said, "The protest only showed that all is not well with the
Dalit students' hostels not only in Chennai but in other parts of the
State, too." He called for steps to ensure that all eligible
applicants were given hostel accommodation.
He urged the government to increase the funds earmarked for food. The
wardens should be asked to adhere strictly to the prescribed
guidelines with regard to the menu, he said. He favoured the setting
up of separate hostels in the city for working Dalit youth and
R. Krishnamurthy, convener of the South Chennai district unit of the
Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, and T. Neethirajan,
another activist of the front, who visited the M.C. Raja Hostel,
referred to the State government's claim that the Budget allocation
for the S.C. Sub-Plan had been increased from Rs.567 crore in 2005-06
to Rs.3,828 crore for 2010-11 forming 19 per cent of the total plan
outlay. They called for immediate steps to modernise the Dalit
students' hostels in the city and take disciplinary action against
those involved in irregularities.
Education activist S.S. Rajagopalan said the plight of the physically
challenged students staying in the M.C. Raja Hostel was pathetic. Even
if the authorities could not provide nutritious food, they should at
least ensure that the food served was hygienic, he said.
Funds earmarked under Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (education for all) and the
special component plan should be used to improve the conditions in
these hostels, he added. "The government should keep in mind that
Article 21 of the Constitution reinforces equity and dignity of every
Social activist A. Narayanan, who had submitted a detailed memorandum
to the State Human Rights Commission in December 2008 seeking its
intervention to alleviate the problems of residents of the Dalit
students' hostels, said the unrest should not be viewed merely as a
law and order problem. The prevailing environment in the hostels was
not conducive to academic activities, he opined.
"The hostels do not have the minimum complementary infrastructure,
such as libraries and recreation rooms, to help the students improve
their mental and physical fitness without undesirable diversions," he
observed. Also, there was no adequate security in the hostels and the
wardens were not motivated to set things in order, he said.
Echoing similar sentiments, P.B. Martin, secretary of the
Kancheepuram-based Social Action Movement, said the hostels were in
fact "hell away from home" as none of their objectives – providing
safety and security, nutritious food and good ambience to study and
play – was achieved. These hostels had become safe havens for
anti-social elements, he said, adding that even murders had been
committed in them. He was alluding to the crime committed in the Adi
Dravidar students' hostel at Thayarammankulam village in Kancheepuram
district in October.
Stressing the need for sensitising the wardens, he said there were
complaints that in some Adi Dravidar hostels, the attendance registers
were not properly maintained and Dalit boarders were often asked to
run errands for the wardens. In one hostel, it was reported in 2007,
the boys were asked to graze cattle belonging to the warden, he said.
Corruption at the local level led to a situation where the actual
number of students in the hostels in the districts was far smaller
than the sanctioned strength. Most of the children who were withdrawn
from the hostels became school dropouts, he said. This, he pointed
out, was a cause for concern in a State where the dropout rate among
Dalits was much higher than the overall dropout rate, and the literacy
level among Dalits – 63.19 per cent in the case of Adi Dravidars and
41.53 per cent in the case of S.Ts – was far less than the State
average of 73.45 per cent, according to the 2001 Census.
Steps such as ensuring a better monitoring mechanism, revamping of the
Adi Dravidar Welfare panels at the district level and appointment of
specially trained persons as wardens were needed immediately to
improve the situation in the Dalit students' hostels, he opined.
Some educationists and NGOs have also suggested that in order to end
the discrimination, all the schools and hostels run by the Adi
Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department should be brought under the
Education Department. The convention held by the State Platform for
Common School System in Chennai on December 27 adopted a resolution to
A healthy sign, which no one can afford to ignore, is that around 10
per cent of the residents in these hostels are from the Most Backward
Classes and they coexist with the Dalit students in peace and harmony,
sharing the humiliation in a State where caste bias and untouchability
are major social issues.
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