Indian human rights body demands answer over deaths of hundreds of indigenous schoolchildren

By Rina Chandran MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has accused the western state of Maharashtra of negligence over the "shocking and painful" deaths in the past decade of more than 700 indigenous children in schools run by the authorities. It was the second time in two months that the commission has criticized the state's care of its indigenous people. Last month, the NHRC asked state authorities for a detailed report on the deaths of more than 600 indigenous children from malnutrition. The NHRC said on Tuesday that at least 740 students from poor tribal areas of Maharashtra state had died in state-run "ashram" schools over the past decade from illnesses such as malaria, food poisoning, drowning and snake bites. The schools, which provide accommodation for pupils, had not followed several procedures, including health screens for the students at least twice a year, it said. "The school authorities, as their lawful guardians, are responsible for their welfare, safety and healthcare," the NHRC said. "The negligence on the part of the Department of Tribal Development and the school authorities is a violation of the right to life and dignity of the students," it added. A spokesman for the state's tribal department said senior officials were meeting with the chief minister in Mumbai to "look into all aspects and take appropriate action". The NHRC asked the government of Maharashtra to provide a report on the matter within a month. Ashram schools for children from poor tribal areas of India were set up more than two decades ago and are the only option for many living in remote areas. The schools, which are run by state authorities, are meant to improve literacy levels and provide basic healthcare to the children. Maharashtra, one of the wealthiest states in the country, has about 550 tribal schools but most of these schools lack even basic amenities and health services, an activist said. "There are no proper beds, and most schools lack proper toilets and drinking water, and basic healthcare facilities," said Vivek Pandit, founder of Shramjivi Sanghatana, which works with vulnerable people in Maharashtra. "There is enough funding, but it is badly managed and not accounted for," said Pandit. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit to see more stories.)