Class divide

A fortnight ago,parents in a village in Maharashtra’s Latur stopped sending their children to the district school,protesting against the presence of HIV positive children. THE SUNDAY EXPRESS travels to Hasegaon in Latur to discover dreams that live on despite the discrimination by Swatee Kher.

Sumedha Patil walks to school with her younger brother Anirudh,9,with a smile. The 12-year-old loves going to school and wants to become a doctor when she grows up.

Sumedha Patil smiles as she walks to school with her younger brother Anirudh,9. The 12-year-old loves going to school and wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

But not everyone at the district school where she studies,in Hasegaon in Latur,Maharashtra,shares her dream.

Sumedha and her brother tested positive for HIV after their parents’ death last December and they now live at the Sevalaya AIDS ashram in Latur. They are among nine children from this ashram who were admitted to the district primary school or the Zilla Parishad School last month. But their presence in school has triggered resentment,with parents of other children withdrawing their wards.

It all started on July 2 when Sushant,8,one of the HIV positive boys,began to bleed from his ear. It was an infection that had gone worse. Sushant and his brothers Mangesh and Sachin,who live at the ashram,have had a history of abuse. In fact,Sachin lost his hearing after being beaten up routinely by his father and grandfather. Their father died last year and their mother is in the final stages of AIDS.

“My father used to beat me. Since then,I have had trouble hearing,” says Sushant. When his ear started bleeding in school,parents of other students took them away,fearing they would catch the infection.

In this village of 4,000 where rumours travel fast and information on HIV/AIDS travels slow,residents don’t want their children to mix with children with HIV. In the last two weeks,fewer than 50 of the school’s 238 students have been turning up for classes and villagers have passed unanimous resolutions opposing the presence of HIV positive children in the district school.

“Why should our children study with these children? Can the officials assure us of their safety? The number of such children is bound to increase in the coming years. Because of this ashram,will our village become a destination for such kids,” argued a villager during an interaction with local MLA Dinakar Mane.

But the school has stood by the children. Dharmaraj Bhise,a senior teacher who was acting principal when the children were taken in,says,“We are educated and should know that there is no risk involved here. But these villagers are adamant. I hope this doesn’t continue for long and create divisions among children.”

Of course,the fact that 400 HIV positive children are undergoing Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) at the Latur government hospital and of the nine HIV positive children in school,only two are undergoing the treatment,means little to the villagers. Maharashtra,among the six high HIV prevalence states in the country,has 3,743 children undergoing ART—the highest in the country.

After a decade of the HIV epidemic in the country,experts say the disease is in its fourth phase now. In 1998,when the first HIV case was detected in Mumbai,the virus was restricted to high risk groups. Over the years,the virus spread to migrants who mingled with these high risk groups. In 2007,a sentinel survey showed that infected men had spread the virus to their partners. Children are the most recent addition to this chain.

In 2007,health experts and officials of the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) approved the National Policy for Children which aims to “ensure all children affected by HIV are able to eventually realise their right to education and are supported to complete their education. There should be no discrimination for admission and retention.”

Lack of awareness and misconceptions on HIV/AIDS has been festering in Hasegaon for a while. Last year,when a youth returned from Mumbai after contracting the disease,his family and villagers kept him in isolation,outside the village.

“When he died,doctors told us to speed up the cremation. When a dead person can pose such a threat,won’t these children pose a risk to our kids?” argues a villager.

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BACK in school,the children at the centre of this storm are not quite sure of what’s going on. But they can sense that something is not right.

“Even today,there were no students in my class. I don’t know why they haven’t been coming,” says Santosh,adding,“A boy abused me today. He called me bad names.”

At school,they sit in their classes with the few other children from the village who have been attending school but say they don’t have too many friends. As the bell rings,the children head out to the playground. “We spend time together. We are new here and don’t have many friends,” says Ganesh.

He and his brother want to join the police,“to catch thieves,robbers,dacoits,” says Ganesh. “Like Mithun who was ‘Inspector Arjun’ in that movie. He flips his cap in the air and shoots at thieves. By the time the cap lands on his head,the robbers are dead,” he says animatedly.

Meanwhile,fourteen-year-old Rahul,the oldest among the HIV positive children,wants to join the Army. An orphan from the neighbouring district of Osmanabad,his parents died two years ago and one of his relatives left him at the ashram.

The Sevalaya Ashram,started by a group of youngsters led by journalist-teacher Ravi Bapatley two years ago,stands on a 10-acre plot,15 km from Latur city. The ashram offers shelter to 10 HIV+ children who were orphaned or left behind by relatives. After morning prayers,the children play a round of cricket before heading to school at 9 a.m. and returning by 5 p.m.

When the ashram came up two years ago,the villagers had protested then too. But this month’s protests—over the presence of the HIV+ children in school—have prompted the project director of the State AIDS Control Organisation,along with 13 counsellors,to carry out an intense awareness programme in the village,campaigning door-to-door over the last weekend. Till now,it has had little effect—in fact,some of them even think the ‘awareness programme’ is part of a scheme against the village.

So,NGOs,activists and officials have taken a step back now,waiting for the anger to subside before trying to rationalise with the villagers. “We are continuing with our awareness programme. Hopefully,the situation will improve,” says district collector Eknath Davale.

Ramesh Devkar,director of Maharashtra State Aids Control Society,says a more mature approach is needed to convince the villagers. “We are going to meet the villagers again to explain to them. We are hoping that the situation does not get worse,” Devkar says.

Meanwhile,politicians have added their bit to the controversy. A delegation of protesting parents met Congress leader and Guardian Minister Dilip Deshmukh,who assured them of the possibility of creating a separate facility for the HIV positive children.

Local district representative Vasundhara Shinde,who attended a parents’ meet,supports the villagers. “I think those children should be educated in their ashram. They can give exams at this school. For the sake of sympathy and policy,why should we ignore the feelings of villagers,” she asks. “Are we not sending a wrong message that people can indulge in such activities and be irresponsible enough to leave their children to face the world? And then,the government bears their cost of education and treatment,but doesn’t care for the natives of the village.”

Rights groups and activists working with the children say the priority now is to care for them. “This is a completely wrong stand taken by politicians. This is the fourth stage of the evolution of the disease. Now the biggest challenge is related to children,about their education and well-being,” says Sanjeevani Kulkarni who runs Prayas,a set-up in Pune that tends to children with HIV.

The controversy in Latur will perhaps not end soon. But neither will the dreams of Sumedha and eight other children at the ashram.

Source: The India Express

Link: https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/class-divide/