A police official from Ahmednagar said the students were sent back to maintain law and order, which was already under strain due to the ongoing state-wide strike by dairy farmers.

A group of about 400 tribal students, on its way to Nashik, was apprehended in Ahmednagar late on Monday evening and sent back to Pune, from where it had begun a over 200-km march last week in protest against the government’s decision to withdraw canteen facilities from tribal hostels.

The students were intercepted in Sangamner, in Ahmednagar district, and transported back to Pune, from where they were sent back to their home districts early Tuesday morning in specially-arranged vehicles.

“We were told the Nashik district police had promulgated prohibitory orders. In view of the orders, the Ahmednagar police refused to allow us to cross the border and detained us,” said student leader Madan Patave.

A police official from Ahmednagar said the students were sent back to maintain law and order, which was already under strain due to the ongoing state-wide strike by dairy farmers. “As per orders received for maintenance of law and order, the students were detained in Sangamner and sent to Pune, from where the march had started,” he said.

The station duty officer at the control room of Shivajinagar police station, where the students were dropped, said arrangements had been made to send the students back to their hometowns. “Over 350 students were brought to Pune city headquarters around 2 am on Tuesday. Vehicles were arranged for the transport of these students to their respective districts. From the police establishments in their areas, they will be dropped to their home towns,” he said.

In April this year, the Tribal Development Department had ordered the suspension of canteen facilities in 490 tribal hostels across the state and announced that students would henceforth be given food allowance, which would be credited into their bank accounts. It had said that students residing in hostels in bigger cities and district headquarters would be entitled to Rs 3,500 per month as food allowance, while those in other areas would get Rs 3,000 per month.

Students had claimed that the amount was not enough to meet their monthly food bills, and demanded restoration of canteen facilities with improved services. Based on information received through the Right to Information Act, The Indian Express had reported that the decision to replace canteens with food allowance had been pushed amidst growing complaints about deteriorating food quality in these canteens and the inability of the department to handle the issue of unauthorised occupants of the hostels.

Last week, the students had embarked on a march to Nashik, the headquarters of the Tribal Development Department, to submit a memorandum in this regard to the tribal commissioner.

Students claimed that the police action against them was pre-planned and designed to scuttle their protests. “We had tried to meet senior officials at Mantralaya (state secretariat), but we were unsuccessful. Our efforts to meet the tribal development minister and the chief minister also were not successful,” said Patave.

However, officials of the Tribal Development Department said seven rounds of meetings had been held with the protesting students, but they had failed to resolve the crisis. Sanjay Meena, additional tribal commissioner, Thane, who was present at these meetings, said the students were not ready to come for a discussion. “Even on Monday, we had met them in Sangamner and asked them to send a delegation to discuss their issues face to face, but they refused,” he said.

On Tuesday, several Opposition MLAs came out in support of the protesting students and raised the matter during the ongoing session of the state assembly in Nagpur. However, government officials claimed that many of the protesting students were unauthorised occupants of these hostels. But Patave refuted this claim. “Students had refused to fill forms during the admission to the hostels as that would have immediately started off the DBT for meals. All of us are bonafide students of the hostels,” he said.

(With inputs by Sushant Kulkarni)

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