90 city children who signed up for a summer course on ‘survival skills and personality development’ in Panchgani allege they were humiliated and provided unhygienic washrooms, spoilt food
Last Sunday, when around 90 students from Mumbai began a journey to the idyllic Panchgani to attend a private 21-day ‘commando’ training camp that promised to teach them personality development and survival skills, they didn’t have the faintest idea of the horror lying ahead. In just two days, the participants’ spirit was allegedly crushed by high-handedness, threats, mental trauma, assault and humiliation. Some of them allegedly contemplated running away or even suicide to escape the torment.
The private hostel where the children were accommodated
Three of the participants managed to make a short SOS call to their parents — their contact with the world outside was cut off by the organisers, Pune-based Marshal Cadet Foundation — and returned to Mumbai on Wednesday. The fee for the 21-day training camp was around Rs 18,000 per participant, but the only thing they got was a lesson in having their confidence broken.
Broken wash basins with no taps at the camp
First, starve them...
Of the three participants, a 14-year-old girl, who’s been to hell and back, told mid-day that the warning signs became apparent soon after they began their trip to Panchgani. “When our bus left around 6 am from Dadar, we were told that we would reach our destination by 1.30 pm and would be served lunch. But we drove for 12 hours, without any food, and were only allowed a couple of bathroom breaks. We arrived at the camp hungry and tired. Around 8.30 pm, we were served cold and burnt rice and a thick gooey dal, which had apparently been cooked for lunch and was not palatable at all. We were forced to finish everything on our plates or face dire consequences,” said the Std VIII student from the western suburbs.
The bathroom where someone had defecated and children were told categorically to clean it themselves
The girl and her twin brother had reportedly been assured by the camp organisers at the time of enrolment that as per their religious beliefs, they would be only served food devoid of onion and garlic. But when they were provided food on arrival at the camp, their request was disregarded.
A flier for the camp
“We were, instead, given a lecture on the health benefits of eating onion and garlic. I was hit with a cane. I witnessed many children being openly abused and punished, even when they were not at fault. They cried through the night,” alleged the brother.
After the meal, a short meeting of the participants was convened to familiarise them with the odd rules at the camp. The twins were allegedly forbidden from communicating with each other.
When the participants returned to their dormitories at a private establishment, they realised that there weren’t enough beds for all. “Our coordinator in-charge told us to join all the beds and five of us had to squeeze
on a bed meant for two persons,” said the boy.
Their ordeal at the toilets sealed in their humiliation. Someone had defecated in the bathing area. “When we complained about it, we were simply told to clean up the poop ourselves. The wash basin had broken sinks,
with no taps,” said the boy.
... and ignore
The organisers were not equipped for the training, either. “They allegedly had just two horses to give riding lessons to 320 participants,” said the boy.
Another 14-year-old participant alleged that he fractured his arm during the course of a routine exercise at the camp, but was taken to a dispensary in a truck used to transport horses. The floor of the truck, he alleged, was covered in dung.
“My right hand was frozen stiff and I was in excruciating pain, but I was mocked by the trainer in front of people, saying I was over-reacting and putting on a show to avoid the training schedule.”
The gravity of the boy’s injuries was noticed only by Dr Yogesh Kodkani, who had gone to Panchgani to fetch his two children. He happened to examine the injured child, who, too, was returning home and diagnosed the problem as multiple subluxation — a partial dislocation of the bones. If this condition is left untreated, it could lead to further complications like growth of fibrosis in the muscle, which could make treatment more challenging.
‘They are just kids’
The boy’s father, Sameer Shah, questioned the coordinators’ handling of the situation.
“How does mocking someone injured and in pain help build his confidence or prepare him for life? At the end of the day, the organisers should have remembered that they are just children who need compassion and
care,” he said.
Kodkani said his two children have earned black belts in martial arts and have been trained in horse riding, archery and rifle shooting at other boot camps. “They are not the kind to run away from a challenge.”
Kodkani, like most parents, learnt of the camp after reading a flyer and spent Rs 18,400 per child on enrolment. “Parents need to have a 24x7 access to their children, but no mobile phones were allowed within the premises of the camp,” he said.
Back in the safety of their homes, the children now joke that the only thing they learnt at the camp was how to survive on rotten rood and in unhygienic conditions.
The other side
Pooja Valmiki, coordinator of the camp, rubbished the allegations. “If a few children claim that it took them 12 hours to reach Panchgani, we can produce 50 testimonies of other children who can vouch that they reached the destination by 3.30 pm and were served proper food. A couple of bathrooms could have been broken and that happens even in our homes. But overall, we have ayahs who clean the toilets twice a day. We have been organising such camps for years and have never faced any problem,” she said. “We are willing to have any kind of inspection of our facilities.”
She claimed that the beds were joined “only for the safety of the tiny tots so that they don’t roll over and fall”.
Contradicting her statement, though, Ganesh Borate, proprietor of Marshal Cadet Foundation, said owing to heavy traffic, the bus was delayed and reached Panchgani only around 5.15 pm. It made a pit stop at Khopoli
around 2 pm.
He also said he was actually a civilian, with no army commando training background.
He, however, backed Valmiki’s claim that there are adequate staff members to take care of hygiene and other amenities for the children. “We tell parents to pack lunch for the children and stopped on the way in Khopoli, where they were allowed to eat. We had to use the horse carrier to transport the boy with the dislocated wrist because our other vehicle had broken down,” he said.
Price per person for the 21-day ‘commando-training’ camp