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A series of incidents of food poisoning and students falling ill in public hostels shines a light on unsanitary conditions and corruption

A series of incidents of food poisoning and students falling ill in public hostels shines a light on unsanitary conditions and corruption

The temples of education that were supposed to uplift the suppressed aspirations of the poor from darkness are themselves plunging into darkness, mainly due to lack of funds and neglect.

A series of incidents of students dying and falling ill in public hostels, especially in rural areas, has sent shock waves through students and parents. These children come from socially and economically disadvantaged strata. Some also come from the lower middle class, given the quality and free education provided in schools and hostels, backward class welfare, scheduled caste welfare, tribal welfare and minority welfare.

Children join these schools with the best academic credentials among peer groups and look forward to a bright future with little burden on their parents to support their education as the Telangana government has established new boarding schools in the past eight years.

Unfortunate death

But the unfortunate deaths of students across the state have undermined the reputation of these institutions and student safety is at stake.

What are these schools suffering from despite the government’s intention to provide quality education and the best facilities? They struggle with issues that are commonly seen in any government school or hostel. Lack of sanitation facilities and unsafe food lead to seasonal illnesses that spiral out of control when medical care is not provided at the right time.

Pathetic conditions prevail in these schools which also serve as after-hours hostels. Dormitories, restrooms and dining halls are cramped in one place, leaving no room for maintaining hygiene. The large number of students in such small accommodation makes maintenance all the more difficult.

In fact, most of these schools and hostels are built for other purposes that do not meet the needs of hostels. They are temporarily leased by the government but continue in the same for years together.

Administrators and teachers, not wanting to be quoted, say that while the government’s intention is appreciable, what is lacking is support through the timely release of funds with the same intensity. Most principals, who are responsible for schools and homes, cite lack of support staff, lack of funds and the irresponsibility of some of their peers as real problems as well.

“It is unfortunate that children died, which could have been completely avoided with small measures. Seasonal illnesses are natural but we could have taken better measures to stop fevers leading to death. Children suffering from food poisoning are unacceptable these days given the good health insurance available,” a senior Social Welfare Department official acknowledged.

The students raised the issue of the poor quality of the food served due to the substandard ingredients used. But, there is rarely any quality control and mess entrepreneurs say that without price revisions even when the prices of all the essentials have touched the sky, this will obviously be reflected in the quality of the food.

Unsanitary conditions in kitchens and canteens compound the problem. Water tanks are rarely cleaned and drinking water is often mixed with water for other purposes and is a deadly mixture for cases of food poisoning and diarrhoea. Lack of supervision in cleaning utensils with detergent further compounds the already poor sanitation of the kitchens.

Corruption wreaks havoc

With little oversight from the top, groupism and infighting between teachers and administrators also have a huge negative impact, some teachers say. Leaders in cahoots with local politicians to take food deals are also taking their toll.

A head teacher said food contractors had to pay local administrators and leaders and even student leaders or they would face corruption allegations and unnecessary media coverage.

Measures

A study on the management of social hostels in Telangana: insights, opportunities and challenges by Sudhaveni Naresh for the Center for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) suggested several measures to improve these social hostels. The study indicates that the construction of new reception buildings, especially for post-matric students, should be launched as a matter of priority while immediate attention is needed for the renovation of existing buildings and the improvement of basic infrastructure. .

The study also suggested increasing the annual budget for daily maintenance of hostels to ₹40,000. Head of National BC Welfare Association and MP for Rajya Sabha R. Krishnaiah said about 2.7 lakh students were staying at 2,144 SC, ST and BC hostels and another 6.5 lakh students at 874 SC boarding schools, ST, BC and Minorities and it was the government’s responsibility to provide them with quality accommodation, nutritious food, hygienic conditions and periodic health checks.

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