“The real challenge is convincing the parents. Most of them belong to extremely poor household and sending their children to work means losing out on a source of income or source of help at home,”, said Ambika. Little hands thus take up fishing illegally at Hoggenakkal or learn to perform acrobatic jumps from atop the heights of Hogankkal falls at the cost of Rs 8-10. Some like Madhubala take up shepherding cattle or are sent to gather and sell forest produce.
To motivate parents into sending their children to school and ensure fewer lesser dropouts, UNICEF gives Rs 150 to every child per month for going to school which can be collected at the end of the session from the bank. Apart from providing the children with books and stationery for free, the government also gives every child Rs 500 per year. According to G.Revathi, a teacher of English and mathematics at the NCLP school in Hoggenakkal, the dropout rate in the area remains low, with a maximum of 1 or 2 out of 25 students dropping out, that too not in every batch.
A board showing the details of every child inducted into the current session including their daily allowance, background details,etc.
Ever since its inception in 1996, the school has had only 400 students. “We take only 25 students every two years. The idea is to take a small bunch of kids and give them concentrated attention to make them fit for higher education,”, said Revathi. The average age group of students enrolled is between 9-14 years. Most of them join the school without any basic education and therefore in the initial three months, everyone learns the basic. After that, the teachers assess each one’s capacity to grasp things and based on their age, they are attended to individually.
Despite the low dropout rate, concentration, attendance and an appropriate environment back at home remains a huge challenge, according to the teachers. For example , for the twinkle-eyed, 9-year-old Kavya, who wants to grow up and join the police force and “arrest the bad guys”, most evenings are spent shielding herself and her three little siblings from the wrath of her alcoholic father. She had to discontinue her education for six months because of regular fights between her parents.
Kavya with a paper fan she made by herself.