The picture that Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to while suggesting that the situation of Scheduled Tribe children in Kerala was more “khatarnaak” than in Somalia, appeared in Mathrubhumi on November 4, 2015, and was subsequently picked up by local newspapers and TV channels.
The picture showed four children in a garbage yard at Peravoor in Kannur, seemingly foraging for food. At his rally in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, Modi said: “Yahaan Keral ki janjaati, janta, ST Scheduled Tribe, usmey jo child death ratio hai, Somalia se bhi sthiti khatarnaak hai… Abhi kuchh din pehle… media mein dardnaak chitra dekhney ko mila… Peravoor mein Scheduled Tribe ke baalak koode ke dher mein bhojan talaash kar rahe haain…”
(“The situation with the child death ratio among Scheduled Tribes in Kerala is scarier than even Somalia. Recently, one came across a tragic picture in the media. In Peravoor, Scheduled Tribe children were seen foraging for food in a garbage dump…”)
On Tuesday, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy dashed off a strong letter to Modi, accusing him of making “statements that had nothing to do with reality and likened Kerala to Somalia”, and demanded that he withdraw the statement.
The report was about four children, studying in Classes 5 and 6, who lived in a tribal colony about 500 m from the garbage ground run by the village panchayat. The journalist who reported the story, Nazar Valiyedath of Mathrubhumi, told The Indian Express that he had been informed about the children, belonging to two families, by staff at the garbage ground.
“The kids jumped over the boundary wall of the ground, where solid waste from the panchayat is brought for processing every day. They were seen searching for food items in the waste. I took their photographs, which forced the government to order a probe,” he said.
T Vijesh, driver of the truck that dumps waste at the yard, said the garbage included stale food from hotels and bakeries. “The children would wait outside the ground, and after the vehicle left, they would jump over the wall and start rummaging for fruits, pastries, samosas and puffs. They were also ragpickers. We had told them to stay away, and had reported them to the authorities several times. Police had recorded my statement and that of three other staff,” Vijesh said.
Following protests, the director of Scheduled Tribe Development Department probed the incident and submitted a report on November 18. It said: “The children are facing complaints of skipping classes and trespassing… They also trespass the waste dumping ground despite stern warning from the staff. Their parents are farm workers, who get regular works. Hence, their families do not face any difficulty in getting food or other necessities. These two families were given one acre of land each at a tribal rehabilitation centre in a government farm. But they have not yet moved to that place. (They) are living in habitable houses…”
The station house officer at the local police station told the government that the children rarely went to school despite a vehicle being made available to them for free.
District Collector P Balakiran said the news about the children consuming waste was “false”. “They had enough food at home. Their parents don’t have any complaints,” he said. The Collector said after the incident, the children were taken to a residential school in Wayanad, but they had run away from there. “Then we put them in another school near their colony,” the Collector said.