“The teacher always made us sit in a corner of the room, and would throw keys at us (when she was angry. We only got food if anything else was left after other children were served. Gradually, we stopped going to school.”
These words belong to Shyam, a 14-year-old Dalit boy from Uttar Pradesh working at a brick kiln factory, in April 2013. The words describe his experience in his primary school. Shyam belongs to that majority, which is schooled by government run institutions, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.
I remember my primary education to be in stark contrast to Shyam’s. Then again, I was a part of the lucky minority, fortunate enough to live in a metropolitan city and to be schooled at a decent, expensive private school. I certainly did not have keys flung at my face!
However, Shyam is not the only boy experiencing such discriminatory practices.
A study conducted by the Human Rights Watch in Sonbhadra District in Uttar Pradesh shows us that students belonging to the Ghasiya tribal community suffer similar discrimination from fellow students and teachers on a daily basis; experiencing harsh, unfriendly environment in a supposedly safe, friendly place of learning.
The level of discrimination is such that in one reported incident, as many as 58 Ghasiya students were placed in the same grade, irrespective of their ages, and ordered to sit separately from the other students.
When the children were quizzed about it, they said,
“The teacher tells us to sit on the other side. If we sit with others, she scolds us and asks us to sit separately…The teacher doesn’t sit with us because she says we are “too dirty”. Other children also call us dirty everyday so sometimes we get angry and hit them.”
Interestingly enough, the school principle places the blame back on the tribal children, in a way that reinforces the statement of the child above.
“These Ghasiya children come to school late, come when they want come, no matter how much we tell them to come on time. Their main aim is to come and eat, not to study. Just see how dirty they are.”
Too dirty to study.
Too dirty to learn.
Too dirty to rub shoulders with other “cleaner” castes.
Too dirty to carve out a better future for themselves.
Just about dirty enough to carry out all the legacy of their oppressed ancestors to the last ‘sweep.’
So what are the consequences of such practices?
It is estimated that approximately 41% children leave their schools before completing their education. These children are mainly from the marginalized communities, e.g. Dalits, tribals etc. who make up a major chunk of the above mentioned, staggering figure.
Primarily, because they are too ‘dirty’ to study.
At least, that’s how their fellow students and teachers from ‘cleaner’ castes distastefully label them. A child from the marginalized community is already a prisoner of his/her own birth, born in socio- economic conditions that can be described as precarious at best. One of the important ways available for him/her to move up the socio-economic ladder, is access to education wherefrom matters can be taken in one’s own hands, and due diligence would lead to literacy which would lead to jobs and hence, relative economic prosperity, and so on and so forth, ushers the path for a cyclical growth of the community.
However, the same child, in most cases, cannot realise the potential that it’s born with.
So what about their right to education?
In a nutshell, the RTE Act, 2009 is supposed to ensure that children between the ages of 6 and 14 receive primary education for free, as a step to combat illiteracy at its very roots. So, a child studying in a government run school in Khamhar Village, Begusarai, Bihar would, theoretically, get a similar, if not the same, education as a child studying in a private school in Patna under the provisions of the Act.
On the surface, in its four years of existence, RTE Act seems to have made considerable headway. Primary education enrolment is at an all-time high in some states with as many as 96% of children in the given age bracket admitted to primary schools. The enrolment of female students across the country also seems to be burgeoning at a steady rate, adding fuel to the hope of the nation achieving the near impossible, gargantuan task of achieving the cent percent literacy mark.
So why does the increase in enrolment at the secondary and higher secondary education level mismatch with that of the enrolment at the primary education level?
Mainly because of Shyam and millions of other children like him who are forced to leave the education system due to reasons beyond their control.
The Act itself is a well-intended, theoretically sound piece of legislature that ought to spread elementary education across the length and breadth of the nation. But the implementation of it needs a major re-haul to carry out all its good intentions. Caste and gender sensitization training being given to the teachers, along with plans to monitor and track the academic progress of each child, among other problems, are the top issues the State needs to address in order to achieve its goal of spreading maximum literacy in the country.
Because Shyam wasn’t ‘too dirty’ to have the right to free, impartial education.
No child is.