WAYANAD (KERALA): At age five, Anushree is the youngest commuter on the bus. The Class I student spends 12 hours a week this way. That too, crossing the State border twice each day. She journeys from Kutta in Karnataka to school in Mananthavady, Kerala, and back. She travels on these crowded buses with schoolgirls only a few years older keeping an eye on her. By the end of each week, she's logged nearly 400 km on that bus.

For those from outside Kerala, Anushree's story is astonishing. Her father is a Malayalee casual labourer based in Kutta, presently working in a flour mill in Tholpetty on the Kerala border. In Wayanad's ongoing agrarian crisis, he'd be lucky to find work 15 days in a month. Yet, he wants his daughter to have the best education she can get. For him, that's an English-medium school in Mananthavady.

This costs much more than sending her to just any school in Kutta. But a better school for his daughter is important to the man who could go days without work. And he spends even more to send her there spotlessly turned out. A moving and inspiring act. But this is Kerala where people place an enormous value on education. For girls, too.

Three of the many other girls on the bus - Vaishali, Razine and Shruti - also travel quite a distance daily. They are all in Class IX of a Government school. They are Malayalees commuting every day from inside Karnataka on student passes costing Rs.195 for three months. Not cheap. But their parents seek a Malayalam-medium school. Besides, they know that schools in their home State are better. You know this is Kerala when the three girls tell you their preferred sporting events are "hammer-throw, shot put and discus." But also on the bus are young people who have dropped out of college or school. These include Class IX and X students returning from back-breaking work in the fields of Kodagu. Many from Wayanad have moved to or beyond the border, seeking work in Karnataka. Even the children on the bus have a sense of the crisis gripping Wayanad. "Maybe 20 kids from poor families have dropped out these past two years," says Vaishali. "Four from my class alone." This pupil is also aware of "three suicides amongst farming families" in her neighbourhood.

Two processes have hit Kerala - and Wayanad in particular - very badly. One is the policy-driven commercialisation of education. This has evoked angry protests across the State. And the second is the collapse of Wayanad's economy. For the first time in decades in this education-proud State hundreds, even thousands, of students are dropping out of college and school because their parents can no longer pay the fees. It's worse at the college level.

"Some drop out after spending Rs. 2-3 lakhs," says Fr. A.K. Varghese of the St. George Orthodox Church in Padachira. "In this very parish, 20-30 students have left their professional courses in Karnataka, Tamilnadu, even Delhi. With agriculture failing, their parents can no longer afford it."

"In my own class," says Prof. Balagopal of St. Mary's College who is on the bus with us, "students find it hard to cope. This year's annual excursion was delayed as less than half the 45 pupils could afford it."

The crash of coffee, pepper, and vanilla prices has made things a lot worse. And rackets linked to the commercialisation of education are thriving. "When coffee and vanilla were booming," says Krishna Prasad of the Karshaka Sangham (Kisan Sabha), also on the bus with us, "people sent their children to expensive institutions in Karnataka. For instance, to nursing colleges that charge over Rs.4 lakhs for the whole course."

Countless students were recruited for such colleges by shady agencies. W.T. Sajith was one of them. "I, and some 3,000 others, went to Bangalore in response to a newspaper advertisement from such an agency," he told us. This was for a B.Sc nursing course.

"The agency assured us bank loans - with no collateral. The `hostel' turned out be a tiny home with 18 people packed into it. The college was not recognised by the Indian Nursing Council." The reason for the fake promises was simple. The college needed large numbers of students to gain recognition. Once it did, it demanded exorbitant fees from them.

But with the rural economy in collapse, "no one could pay," says Sajith. "The management used goondas to chase us out. When we wanted our school certificates back, they demanded Rs.15,000 from each of us." The agency had already extracted Rs.60 lakhs from them as "service charge" at Rs. 2,000 per student. (It had also made Rs.3 crores from the college - at Rs.10,000 per pupil recruited. In all, it made Rs.3.6 crore on this single deal.)

In Pulpally, farmer K.P. Varghese's daughter Nisha and her friend Annie cannot meet the demands their college in Karnataka now makes. A college which is "awful, with no teaching hospital attached." All such `private' nursing and medical colleges basically depend on government hospitals. They will never build the needed infrastructure themselves. But the girls are in too deep, having completed the first year. So they hope to somehow finish the three-year course. But bank loans are out. Banks are linking educational loans to agricultural dues. "I was turned down just this morning," says Varghese, who has pending agricultural loans.

Meanwhile, Kerala now emulates Karnataka. The Government is encouraging the spread of private, high-fee and `donation based' colleges. But for the State's students, the process is traumatic. It has meant a radical reversal of Kerala's educational policies. Those first introduced in 1957 by the then Namboodiripad Government had a dramatic impact. Even the poor in remote parts of Wayanad had access to better schooling. Together with other reforms, that enabled Kerala to emerge as India's one success story in education.

Meanwhile, the agrarian crisis goes down to the school level in Wayanad. "Parents are appealing for tuition fee waiver in school," says Fr. George Vettikatil. He is Procurator at the Catholic Bishop's House in Sultan Bathery and is in charge of one of Wayanad's best English-medium schools. "The school is losing money. But people who paid easily earlier are now really hard up."

Churches have played a hugely positive role in education here. But new dilemmas crop up. Church-run schools have always helped poor children. Yet church-linked bodies also own many high-fee institutions at the higher levels. So a few of those who fight for debt relief for Wayanad farmers also own colleges from where the children of those farmers drop out for want of money. Some are a little defensive about this.

"Modern institutions need lots of money to run," says Fr. Baby Elias. He is with the Mar Basil Church, Cheeyambam. Fr. Elias feels the Government is wholly to blame. "They won't spend a paisa on the education sector. Nor do they ensure remunerative prices for farmers. That's why children are dropping out."

At the Mananthavady depot, Anushree waves goodbye as she makes her way to school. As Wayanad's crisis deepens, the five-year-old is fighting a larger battle than she knows.