It may not be a matter of paradox to see a portrait of Rajiv Gandhi adorning the walls of a school for children of Sri Lankan refugees and repatriates in the changed context of even the dreary Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terming the killing of the Former Prime Minister as a `monumental tragedy' and expressing `regret' over the incident. But the `international' school, conceived originally by Rajiv Gandhi and established by NGO Bright Society years back in memory of his mother Indira Gandhi at Yelahnaka in Bangalore, holds no promise for the children of Sri Lankan Tamils who left their own land on different occasions unable to withstand the escalation of ethnic violence.
Prayers of about 168 children of this school before they sit down for noon meal each day seeking lasting peace in their trouble-torn island, salvation for their parents who sacrificed themselves in the losing battles against Simhala might and for the food they eat would tug at your heartstrings because the appeals are heartfelt. Now, it seems their prayers are going in vain. Life is in fact a struggle at this school for the refugee children, who hail from as many as 110 rehabilitation camps located across Tamil Nadu. Even, the very survival of the school is under threat as it is passing through a severe crisis due to the lack of any working capital or infrastructure.
On almost all the days, the only nutritional food they get is the noon meal supplied by International Society for Krishna Consciousness under its now famous Akshaya Pathra scheme. For breakfast and dinner, their staple is salted rice porridge. There is no provision for milk in the diet even in the case of children at lower primary level. ``I feel hungry in almost all days and that affects my studies,' says Gopala Krishnan, a gaunt-looking boy of second standard.
Some other students of the school say they go to sleep early at night to forget the hunger pangs. ``Whenever I sit up and study late, I feel really hungry. That forcing me to sleep early,' said Sivaranjan, another eight-year-old boy. Poor nutrition and bad sanitation are causing health problems to these hapless children, who feel neglected and abandoned by Sri Lankan and Indian Governments and militant organizations that exploiting their plight including LTTE. Those who engaged in the training of human bombs and land mine experts for a separate nation never thought of their own younger brethren here, who want nothing but peace and co-existence along with a life with dignity.
``It's actually our strong inner urge to keep away from all kinds of militancy that preventing us to return to the native country. No more fights please. We want better education and job opportunities,' appealed A.Deni, a teacher with the school, who actually hails from Delftin in Jaffna. Deni was actually a product the school. He landed up at the school in 1992 as a seventh standard student. Later, he took BSc in Chemistry from Government Science College in Bangalore. Now, he is teaching students of Upper Primary and High School levels.
Sivaranjan, who reached the school around two years back from a refugee camp near Puzhal in Chennai, has no clue about the whereabouts of his parents. His mother abandoned him in the camp soon after his birth and left. Lina, a nine-year-old girl from Mandapam camp in Rameswaram, and Nirojina, an eight-year-old girl from Arachaloor refugee camp near Erode, also have harrowing tales to tell about their continuing struggle for survival. Hunger is visible in the sunken cheeks of almost all students.
The school rooms are wired for electrical appliances such as lights and fans. But one does not see any of the appliances because there is no electricity either in the classrooms or in the hostel rooms due to the lack of funds to clear accumulated bill arrears worth Rs 6 lakh. Only the corridors of the girls' hostel and the dining area have some amount of light powered by solar panels. Drinking water is available only because of the benevolence of a local businessman Chandrappa, who pumps water from his own well to the school free of cost every day.
Though essential medicines are available because of philanthropical efforts of students of M.S.Ramaiah Medical College, poor nutrition and bad sanitation are posing severe health problems to the children. A large number of children are often affected with meningitis. The crumbling buildings have large cracks on the walls. Privacy is at a premium here. Over 30 students are stuffed into a small bedroom like a tin of sardines. As the school cannot afford curtains and as many of the window panes are broken, cardboard sheets have been used to board up the windows.
The Indira Gandhi International Academy School was established in a two-acre plot in Yelahanka in 1990 with funding from Bright Society, a non-governmental organization that works with Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka Government. Earlier it had about 400 children and the school was following CBSE syllabus. The unavailability of qualified teachers who ready to work on meager salary forced the authorities to opt for state government curriculum. Now, it's an English medium residential school with Tamil and Kannada as compulsory subjects to learn.
The NGO Bright Society, which drew inspiration from Rajiv Gandhi's suggestion regarding setting up of such a school, first approached Tamil Nadu Government to set up a school there so that the children could be close to their families, but it refused permission. However, the Karnataka Government stooped the flow of funds after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by LTTE in 1991. Bight society continued to fund the school, but with several other commitments on hand, its funding dwindled gradually. In the past three years, the Chennai-based NGO not sent any money. It's now functioning on a day-to-day basis with aid from philanthropists.
``We are just scraping through. Every day it is a struggle to set out and try to find someone who will sympathize with us and be willing to support our cause,' says N. Alangan, administrator of the school. ``The maximum salary for staff here is Rs 2500. So the quality of education also eroding despite the fact that our children scored 84 per cent victory in the last SSLC examination. I also have wished to get married and settled somewhere. But, how I can support a family with a meager income,' he laments.
Although there is a lot of open space around the buildings, the children seldom play or do any form of physical exercise. In fact, the administration discourages them from talking with anyone from outside and venturing out.
The gates are opened only to allow our second PUC students outside,' says Alangan. Playing in the ground also severely restricted for students after police came around three years ago to check whether it was a training camp for terrorists. ``They saw all our children practicing Karate in the morning and got scared that we were training them to become terrorists. They told us to stop sports activities,' said Alankan. Some of the former students of the school have obtained better higher education and managed good jobs including in IT and BPO firms of Bangalore. But survival is at stake for most of the children who completes Plus Two course this year.
(This article is part of a media fellowship awarded by National Foundation for India).