Jan 24, 07 Malaysiakini
For the past month, the rainy spell has turned a short walk to school into a challenging task for C Niraj. The dirt road leading to the school is covered with mud and full of potholes.
“A clean pair of shoes will turn red by the time he reaches school,” said the 10-year-old pupil’s father K Chelvam when met at the school located in a oil palm plantation in Negeri Sembilan.
Even when dry, the dirt road is anything but pleasant.
“Lorries that pass by the school throw up dirt and dust, these stick to the uniforms and nearby buildings,” lamented Chelvam, a 39-year-old plantation worker.
True enough, the 95-year-old school and the buildings next to it are covered in a thick red coat of dust and dirt.
A drain runs next to the school canteen. This sometimes becomes clogged and turns into a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
The school’s original wooden block is still standing and it is surrounded by six relatively newer blocks. But the major concern is termites.
SRJK (T) Ladang Regent, which is sited on a plantation belonging to IOI Corporation, first opened its doors in 1912.
The estate is located in the small town of Gemenceh, which sits in the border between Negeri Sembilan and Malacca. It is about 145km from Kuala Lumpur.
A malaysiakini team visited the school after receiving complaints that the buildings were in bad shape, posing a danger to the 380 pupils.
While the headmistress and teachers appeared reluctant to discuss the matter, the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) was more forthcoming.
PTA chairperson P Rajendran said there are concerns about safety and plans are underway to secure a new plot of land to relocate the school.
“We have identified a place outside this estate and are working hard in gaining proper approvals from the state authorities to gazette us that piece of land,” he said.
He explained that there are other reasons, apart from termites, that requires the school to relocate.
“At the moment, there are less than 20 students from this estate in the school. The other pupils come from outside the estate.
“As such, we are worried that in the near future, there will be no students from this estate and this might lead the estate management to ignore the school,” said the 47-year-old grocer, whose son is in Standard One.
Relocating the school to a site closer to Gemencheh will also mean easy access to pupils from nearby residential areas.
“At the moment, students from outside the estate find it difficult to get school buses to come into the estate. If we move out, that problem will be solved,” said Rajendran, who also lives outside the estate.
However, acquiring land and approval from the authorities not easy tasks.
In fact, the plan to relocate the school has been in the backburner since 1997. At that time, MIC president and Works Minister S Samy Vellu promised that he will personally look into the matter.
“It has been 10 years now. There has been no progress,” lamented Rajendran.
To get things moving, the PTA approached local philanthropist and activist Dr RL Annandan.
“We have identified the land. We have obtained approval from the Negeri Sembilan state government for the relocation.
“MIC is trying to find us the funds and things are looking brighter now,” said Annandan, 58, when met in his clinic in Gemencheh.
However, he was unable to provide a time-frame as to when the new school will be built.
Danger of collapse
Despite the progress, some parents, including a few in the PTA, want to see the relocation happen immediately.
“They are talking as though everything has been done. But in reality, that is not the case,” said Chelvam, who is also a PTA member.
“I am worried that the school will collapse as a result of termite attacks. What is the government doing about that?” he asked.
“Look, there is a Public Works Department (JKR) report stating that the school is in bad shape as a result of the termite attacks,” stressed the angry parent, who also expressed concern over the unhygienic condition of the school’s surroundings.
Chelvam and five other parents lodged a police report last month stating that the school is not safe for their children.
“We are dissatisfied with the state government, the state education department and JKR for not taking immediate action to ensure the safety of the pupils,” read the police report.
Last August, the state JKR prepared a report on the condition of the school. It said the school is in need of immediate repairs to prevent any untoward incidents.
Similarly, there is another report by the state health authorities which also called for urgent repairs to the building and upgrades to the drainage system.
Rajendran admitted that the reports have made the need for relocation all the more urgent but denied that the school building is in danger of any immediate collapse.
“The teachers and we at the PTA will not allow that to happen. We are aware of the true situation. It is not that bad at the moment. And we are trying to relocate to a new school,” he said.
Annandan concurred. He said while waiting for the new school to be constructed, steps are being taken to ensure that the present school remains safe.
A teacher, who declined to be named, said he and his colleagues will never compromise on their pupils’ safety.
He said the school is working with the plantation owners and their state representative to look into the road and drainage issues.
The bigger obstacle is for Rajendran and Annandan to obtain proper approval and funding for the new school.
Their work is made harder by the fact that there are no provisions under the 9th Malaysian Plan (9MP) to build new Tamil schools.
However, following requests made by the MIC president, the Education Ministry has agreed to provide aid for 34 Tamil schools under a supplementary allocation.
Unfortunately, SRJK (T) Ladang Regent is not on the list.
“This puts us in a tight spot. We might have to raise our own fund although MIC has promised to solicit some money for us,” said Annandan.
He has been informed that the state government may try to allocate funds for the school during the mid term review of the 9MP.
Malaysiakini was also shown a letter from Negeri Sembilan Menteri Besar Mohd Hassan’s office giving the green light for the relocation.
A spokesperson for Mohd Hassan confirmed that the state will try to secure funding for the school under the mid term review.
However, this is still two years away.
“This is a good school. It was the fourth best school among 65 Tamil schools in the state as far as the last UPSR examination results go,” said Rajendran.
“We just hope we can get things done in time so that we can see the school relocated to a better place. Despite what others say, we are working very hard for this,” he added.