It’s a dawn of a new era for a group of poor tribal pupils amid these unprecedented viral times at Nilambur taluka - a cluster of villages - in north Kerala’s Malappuram district.
They are back to learning and continuing their school education, which have been suspended since March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and resulted in the closure of schools.
Many of the pupils had virtually forgotten in-classroom teaching.
To make matters worse, they were cut off from the rest of the world because of the unavailability of Internet connectivity and lack of smartphones.
P.V. Abdul Wahab, a sitting member of the Rajya Sabha (RS) -- the Upper House of Indian Parliament -- and a non-resident Indian (NRI), who has been living in the UAE for the past four decades, told
“Some of them could barely remember the names of their schools because the prolonged break had almost wiped out their memories of the campus,” he said.
Wahab, who belongs to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is a potent political force in the district, has arranged for the distribution of Internet-enabled tablets for the tribal pupils under the Indian government’s Jan Shikshan Sansthan (JSS) initiative.
He has been a three-term RS MP and heads the JSS initiative in the district.
So far, around 150 tablets have been given to the tribal pupils, who are overjoyed at being able to reconnect the world at large and continue with their education.
Wahab has been involved with the tribal villages of Karulai gram panchayat as part of the Indian government’s Saansad Adarsh Grama Yojnna, a developmental scheme, and has adopted four villages in the district.
“They live in the middle of the forest in small houses and most of them are unemployed,” Wahab said.
“The only source of economic sustenance is the forest produce that the male tribals collect and sell. Healthcare facilities are abysmal and most of them lack basic amenities such as access to electricity or even telephones,” he added.
The tribal villages are neither well-connected with other parts of the district or the southernmost Indian state and a majority of the locals don’t want to venture out for jobs.
The tribals of Nilambur are a rare exception to Kerala, whose ambitious and enterprising people have been heading out to other parts of India, Arabian Gulf or across the world for better financial prospects.
“But we’re trying to provide employment opportunities for them through specialised training in the hospitality, plumbing and electrical industries,” said Wahab, who has four-decade-long experience in the Middle East, and enjoys a filial bond with Nilambur.
In the UAE, he established the Bridgeway group of companies and along several other firms in his native India; his sons now look after the businesses.
He said the boost on the telecom and education fronts in these tribal villages because of the JSS, which helped instal over 10 basic towers to ensure 5 GHz wireless connectivity to the settlements. “The project aims to create a sustainable social and economic ecosystem for tribal people through a high-speed internet connection,” said Wahab. “It offers a total solution for the digital affairs of the inhabitants of the colonies. This allows them to interact directly with stakeholders and other public servants,” he added.
In the pre-Covid-19-pandemic era, tribal pupils only had access to single-teacher primary schools. The teacher taught all subjects and took four classes simultaneously.
After Grade IV, the tribal pupils would drop out because they were reluctant travel outside their native village.
To make matters worse, the devastating Kerala floods in 2018 and 2019 also destroyed half a dozen computers, a printer and a projector in the school.
The natural disaster was followed by the contagion, which struck a rude jolt as it denied poor tribal pupils' basic education.
However, the sufferings appear to be a thing of the past, as the poor tribal children can look to a better and prosperous future, thanks to Wahab’s initiative to make the government’s scheme a roaring success.
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There were no immediate reports of serious structural damage to buildings, but power was out in some areas of the city and people were fleeing to higher ground