23/11/2019 5:32 PM IST

Kerala Snakebite Death Throws State's Education and Health Standards Under Scrutiny

The preventable death of a 10-year-old student has sparked outrage against institutional failures in a state revered for high standards.

10-year-old Shehla Sherin died from a snakebite in Kerala.

A neatly kept compound and a wall adorned with beautiful portraits and thought-provoking quotes from leaders who contributed to Kerala’s reformist legacy welcome you to the Government Sarvajana Higher Secondary School at Sulthan Bathery, the major town in Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Wayanad, Kerala.

“We spent about Rs 8 lakh on the compound wall and Rs 5 lakh on the entrance gate. The school has a long history in extending universal education in this extremely backward region and so we thought of an impressive wall and gate when the state government sanctioned us funds. The wall and the pictures are showing Kerala’s achievements in the general education sector. They also signify the school’s decades-long contributions to the society around,’’ said P. V. Sahadevan, leader of the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and senior councillor in the Sulthan Bathery Municipality, which manages the institution. 

But what’s inside the compound totally contradicts Sahadevan claims about how his party, which rules both the state and municipality, treats government schools. Classes are held in buildings in a state of extreme disrepair, huge cracks mark the rooms’ floors. Piles of garbage and thick, overgrown bushes dot the areas between the buildings. Numerous holes, which serve as ideal hideouts for reptiles, can be seen in the ceilings, walls, and floors.

Yes, it’s the same school where 10-year-old Shehla Sherin was bitten by a snake last Wednesday, and where her teachers chose to ignore her requests for immediate medical help. Bitten by a snake after her leg got stuck in a small hole in the classroom floor, Sherin died about three hours later.

Going by various research studies, Kerala’s government schools are the best in India, equipped with matchless infrastructure and dedicated teachers. But the Sulthan Bathery incident has attracted national and international attention, poking holes in Kerala’s claim to safe and student-friendly classrooms along with other facilities. The tragedy has also exposed the insensitivity of a number of teachers at the school and doctors at the local government hospital who chose to ignore Sherin and her fellow students’ concerns. Incidentally, health is another area where Kerala boasts of meeting international standards.

The girl died during the three-hour journey to Government Medical College in Kozhikode, since there was no anti-venom in any of the hospitals in Wayanad. In the face of national uproar, the Kerala government has suspended the headmaster and principal of the school, along with the doctor on duty at the government taluk hospital in Sulthan Bathery, for dereliction in duty and contributing to the girl’s death. 

“A hill district with huge forest cover, Wayanad reports snakebite cases on a large scale daily. But the district lacks any quality treatment facility not only for snake bites but also for other emergency situations. The success stories on Kerala fail to carry anything remarkable from Wayanad. This is pathetic and this snakebite case is a wakeup call,’’ says Arun Govindan, a technocrat from Wayanad who presently lives in Thiruvananthapuram. 

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According to fellow students, Sherin informed her class teacher about the snake bite after it occurred at around 3:15 pm on Wednesday. There were many holes on the floor of the class room and students had spotted reptiles in some of them before as well. But the teacher, according to students, refused to believe Sherin when she said that there was a snake in the hole into which her leg had gone into. The teacher said that the injury came from a nail and not from a snake bite, though the student’s leg began to discolour and turn blue.

The children along with another teacher begged the school authorities to take Sherin to the taluk hospital, which was hardly 1 km away. But the girl had to wait for her parents in the hallway outside the classroom for about 45 minutes because of her teacher, Shjil’s adamance that there was no snake in the hole. Although several teachers had their own vehicles on campus, Shijil allegedly waited for the girl’s father to pick her up and take her to the hospital.

Shehla’s father was just 1 km away from the school and he came to the school as soon as he had been informed of his daughter’s injury. He took her to a nearby private hospital but there was no anti-venom in store there. Then she was taken to the taluk government hospital, where the doctor refused to administer the anti-venom citing lack of ventilator facility to manage any possible complication or worsening of the situation.

Then the doctor referred the girl to the medical college hospital in Kozhikode, 98 km away. There began the three-hour long ambulance journey to Kozhikode on the hilly highway, which passes through difficult terrains. 

En route to the medical college hospital, Shehla developed difficulty breathing and she was taken to the government taluk hospital at Vythiri on the way. After she was given some medication, the journey to Kozhikode continued. But her condition worsened again. She was taken to Good Shepherd Hospital at Chelode around 5:30 pm, and doctors there confirmed that she was admitted with a faint heartbeat. Her death was confirmed by 6:15 pm.

“It was not just the snake which killed Shehla. Apathy of teachers and school administration had caused her death. The poor state of affairs at the school where class rooms had turned holes for snakes and other reptiles to hide had also contributed to the tragedy. It’s a monumental failure of the whole system. I lost my daughter because of apathy of the teachers and the doctor at Sulthan Bathery Taluk hospital. Equally alarming is the poor infrastructure at the school which spent its funds to build posh compound wall and gate. The priority must be safe classrooms,” said Abdul Azeez, Sherin’s father and a lawyer by profession.

Shehla’s classmates told HuffPost India that they were chased away with cane sticks by the school principal when they asked for immediate medical assistance for their friend, who herself had told teachers that she was bitten by a snake. “Shehla told the teachers multiple times that she had been bitten by a snake. But they refused to act. Within an hour, her leg turned blue. The school authorities had wasted about 50 minutes without taking her to the nearby hospital till her father arrived on the scene,” said Nida Fathima, a classmate and close friend of Sherin’s.

“The teachers had many theories. They said she could have scraped her leg against a stone, then on a bench, and then that she might have hit a nail. But if she hit a nail, how could there be two puncture marks adjacent to each other? Irrespective of what caused the wound, we requested the teachers to take her to hospital. But they were not ready to listen,’’ said Fathima. Students said a teacher named Leena pleaded with the rest of the teachers, including Shijil. to take the girl to the hospital but they refused.

Though the issue has evoked wide outrage and the state government has ordered a detailed inquiry, the school’s principal KK Mohanan, who is now suspended, still insists that Sherin scraped her leg against a concrete wall, after which they poured water on the injury and tied a cloth around it. He is also denying the allegation that the school delayed her hospitalisation.

“There was a delay at the hospital. Shehla’s father also came late. But there was no delay in informing the parent,” he told HuffPost India. However, he admitted that the teachers had used sticks to send the students away after they began to gather in large numbers.

When asked about the holes in the floor, Mohanan said they were caused by the pushing and pulling of benches by the students.

“We have old buildings and the plasters disappear when students are pushing and pulling benches frequently,” he said.

Students have alleged that there was a ban on wearing slippers inside the classrooms and Sherin was barefoot when the incident occured. However, Mohanan claims that students voluntarily keep their slippers outside to avoid dirtying the floor.

“Two parallel inquiries have been started by Deputy Director Education and District Medical Officer. Disciplinary actions have also been initiated. There would definitely be rectifying measures. We will not allow this to be repeated,”  said Wayanad District Collector Adeela Abdulla. 

“The duty doctor at Sulthan Bathery taluk hospital took the stand that necessary blood tests need to be done before administering the anti-venom. While blood test results were being awaited, my daughter vomited repeatedly. Seeing this, the doctor panicked and arranged for an ambulance instead of administering the anti-venom. I pleaded with folded hands to the doctor multiple times to provide the anti-venom, but it fell on deaf ears. I was compelled to take her in the ambulance,” said Aziz, struggling to contain his emotions.

“Kerala has undoubtedly made enviable gains in the field of education and public health. But this incident proves that there must be constant vigil on our schools and hospitals to keep intact that legacy.

The government is now engaged in creating hi-tech classrooms and digitalised school environments to give world class standard to government schools. But the priority must be on sensitising the teachers and doctors. Infrastructure is secondary,” said educationist Professor M. N. Karassery.

Adding, “Giving a sense of direction to the teachers and staff is the priority. Creation of safe class rooms must be the first priority in fund utilisation. Compound walls and gates can wait.”