When online classes started for students in Kerala due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Anakha Babu, who has an MA in sociology, and her friends decided to help students get study tools like mobile phones and laptops as those from the poor and marginalised sections had been deprived of these facilities.
A former student activist of the Ambedkar Study Circle in Kalady University and an organiser of DISHA, a group working for the welfare of Dalit and other socially backward students, Anakha Babu and her sister Ardra Babu had never had a laptop. Ardra is doing a four-year course in Physiotherapy at the School of Medical Education in Angamaly.
Two years ago, she began trying to get laptops for herself and her sister under a government scheme, under which SC/ST students were provided with laptops. Finally, she managed to get a High Court order, directing the local self-government department to provide laptops to them at the earliest.
Even after the High Court’s direction, Anakha said she was subjected to arrogance and negligence by members of her panchayat in Idukki district who were apparently annoyed by her efforts to get her right.
Anakha hails from a hilly village in Idukki. Her father is a daily wage worker while her mother is a diabetes patient and does not work. While doing bachelor’s in sociology, Anakha came to know about the laptop scheme. She inquired about it at the panchayat office and the officials had said the scheme was not applicable to undergraduate students.
After completing the degree with 74% and securing admission for post graduation in Kalady University, she again went to the panchayat office and applied for laptops for both of them in 2018.
Though Anakha was informed that she and her sister were eligible, laptops were not provided to them due to the floods in 2018 and 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Meanwhile, Anakha completed her post-graduation.
“I found it very difficult to do assignments without a laptop. I used to borrow one from a friend. When the lockdown began, the hostel was closed and we all went returned home. I got an old laptop from a friend, but it had some technical problems. But I managed to do my dissertation on the laptop,” Anakha told The Federal.
Just two days prior to the submission date (June 10), the laptop couldn’t be turned on. Those days were too terrible for Anakha. “I was shattered. I was scared that I would not be able to submit the dissertation on time and miss an academic year. Somehow, I managed to turn it on the next day and completed the dissertation,” she said.
If Anakha had made a public appeal on social media, she and her sister would have got brand new laptops in no time. But that was not the way Anakha wanted to get things done. Getting a laptop under the government’s scheme was her legitimate right and not a matter of charity, she says.
“My sister has been staying in a hostel, paying ₹4,000 a month. It is a huge amount for us as we are struggling to make ends meet. Many a time, she has gone to bed with an empty stomach to save some money. Things that appear small and simple to others is hard to obtain for Dalits,” said Anakha.
Moreover, online classes have begun for Ardra too and she has been stuck without a laptop. Fed up with waiting, Anakha decided to seek justice from the court.
She had filed a petition in the High Court for writ of mandamus, seeking direction to the panchayat to provide them with laptops with no further delay. Advocate Santhamma, a Dalit rights activist, appeared pro bono for her, and in a few weeks, the High Court issued an order in her favour.
Anakha said when her mother had approached the panchayat with a copy of the order, she was treated badly. “The panchayat secretary and a member behaved in a rude manner. The member insulted my mother saying that if we had the money to go to the High Court, why couldn’t we buy a laptop,” said Anakha.
The panchayat secretary had said they could provide us with laptops only if they received it from the Kerala State Electronics Development Corporation (KELTRON). However, the process is getting delayed due to the pandemic. The secretary told The Federal that he had spoken to the district collector and was trying to get it done at the earliest.
“Due to the lockdown, KELTRON officials are not even picking up calls. However, we have been trying our best,” he said.
Politicians from both the Congress and the Left have visited Anakha and assured her of getting the laptops. But she has refused. “It is a matter of right, not anyone’s benevolence. I am taking this battle ahead for all Dalit and tribal students like me,” she says.