Kokila Satkute from Morachapada, a tribal hamlet in Aarey officially called Unit No. 30, drops her kids Shamiksha, 7, and Shailesh, 10, to the BMC-run Marathi-medium school at 7.45 am every day. The school starts at 7 am but there’s no hurry. Nobody, not even the teachers, report on time.
Satkute is part of a 15-member group that walks 45 minutes to drop the children to school, and the situation is the same across the five BMCrun schools in Aarey (two Marathimedium, two Tamil-medium and a Hindi-medium school), that have a collective strength of around 2,500 students from 29 hamlets across Aarey.
|Parents in Aarey Colony form a group to drop and pick up
children from school
The Aarey residents say they will never run the risk of not accompanying their children to and from school, and that it will always be done in a large group which will have at least one male member.
“We don’t want our kids to become prey to leopards,” said Satkute, adding that the evening walk back home is the worst. “The road is deserted, there are no streetlights and no walls to protect us from the leopards,” she said.
The 90 teachers working in the five schools don’t have it easy either. Most of them commute by buses, and get off at Aarey Colony checkpost, the last stop.
The only mode of transportation from there are the autorickshaws, which rarely ply by the meter, forcing the teachers to walk at least 25 to 30 minutes to their destination.
Following last Saturday’s leopard attack that killed an 11-year-old boy, the attendance at the Marathi-medium school in Unit 6 was down 53 per cent, said principal Jayant Ramchandra.
After every news of leopard sighting, the attendance drops drastically. “The number of children in schools is constantly reducing because parents would rather keep their kids home than risk their lives,” said Vidya Patil, mother of 9-year-old Tushar, a physically-challenged boy who also walks to school.
“Nobody complains because the teachers walk in two hours late themselves. They are facing the same problems but authorities are waiting for a fatality to strike,” said Anandrai Mogha, a parent and member of a 16- member school committee, which has approached BEST to start a bus service for students.
The committee members say most men in the tribal hamlets are daily wage labourers, and it’s up to the women to stay back in schools to keep an eye on the kids. “The fence walls are two-feet in height, and there are supposed to be six watchmen on duty but they are never around.
Leopards prey on children who wander alone,” said Satkute. The residents also want a dispensary within the school premises. The Saturday incident was the sixth leopard attack in the past seven months.
Ecologist Vidya Athreya said she and her team registered 21 leopards in and around Aarey through camera trap capture technology. “This is a very high number compared to the past records.
The aggression from the animals is unusual unless provoked. It could be a case of a single animal that is attacking people. Another reason could be the increase in number of slums,” Athreya said.