By Beena Pallical:
The teachers in school would always choose somebody fairer for greeting guests invited for any school programme. Many years later, I was able to understand that this was discrimination – with connotations of caste.
I can’t recall any other personal experience of being discriminated for my caste in school or college, but having worked on the education of Dalit students as an activist these past years, I know now how this discrimination functions. And just how this becomes a huge hindrance for Dalit and Adivasi students trying to access education. And how even if they do manage to access it, it affects the quality of their education.
If you want to understand how discrimination against Dalit students works or the impact it has on them, you have to understand the difference a good education makes to these students. Most Dalit students who go to a university are first-generation learners. Many students that I interact with, for example, tell me ‘Ma’am, my parents don’t even understand what PhD means. They know that I am studying at a good place somewhere, but they have absolutely no clue what a PhD means’.
But when they do get access to higher education, an amazing thing happens, I have observed. An educated member empowers the entire family. For us as a community, access to higher education is a huge indicator of a family’s progress.
It is not easy to reach this level though for most students. There is a lack of economic resources, a lack of opportunities, and discrimination at the school level. Yet students cross these barriers and reach college. But here again they are discriminated against.
It is really sad because we have not been able to ensure an end to caste discrimination despite a lot of good policies, anti-discrimination laws, and the constitution. According to the 2011 census, for example, while only about 34 percent of the non-SC/ST population doesn’t have access to literacy in India, about 43 percent of the Scheduled Caste population and 50 percent of the Scheduled Tribe population is not literate.
Discrimination happens in different ways. At the institute level, it could be a teacher failing a student because of personal bias against their rural background. Or it could be teachers and students making casteist comments against students. They’ll say things like, “You are Dalit. You are not supposed to be here (in school/college). You should be doing something else”.
Sometimes the government itself puts students at disadvantage by not implementing its policies. When a student avails the post-matric scholarship, for example, they sometimes don’t get it for the next one or two years. The person either drops out or goes to a private loan shark, ending up in a vicious cycle of debt and, eventually, poverty.
This happens because there are budgetary allocations for central scholarships, which are not released to the states. The budget estimate at the beginning of this financial year for post-matric scholarship for SC students was Rs 3,347.99 crore. According to a Parliament answer in July this year, of this amount, Rs 1,725 crore had been released to the states. The total dues to states, however, stood at Rs 5,854 crore.
Years of facing this kind of harassment leads to a point where they can’t take it any longer. The threat of casteist violence, the constant reminders to one’s exclusion, and no acknowledgement of the effort they have put in definitely has a huge impact on their mental health. In extreme cases, many of them commit suicide.
Last year, we saw this notably when both the state and institute machinery acted against Rohith Vemula, a University of Hyderabad scholar. This year, 17-year-old S. Anitha committed suicide when she couldn’t join an MBBS course due to change in the pattern of examination that put her at a disadvantage, although she had excellent scores in her Class XII State Board examinations.
This is the grim reality of India. The dream of “ensuring inclusive and quality education for all” still remains that – a distant dream. Data on dropout rates continues to show that as we move higher up on the educational level, more scheduled caste and scheduled tribe students drop out than students from upper castes.
The idea of ensuring ‘sustainable development’ in such a scenario remains far-fetched. Quality education is the bedrock of sustainable development, the foundation for improving people’s lives. Sure, we have made improvements in this area, but we need to take stronger measures if we want this development to reach the most marginalised in time for achieving our Sustainable Development Goals.
That change, firstly, has to come in our attitudes, because that is where change is most difficult. But this is also where, I believe, every citizen can create a difference. Caste is entrenched in our daily lives. You should be conscious of the fact that we all use caste as a basis to discriminate – from not allowing somebody to eat in the plates that we use, to how we treat the driver. You have to be aware that when we think of cleaning toilets, we ask someone else to do it, and that person happens to be almost always from a Dalit background.
When we effect this change in our attitude, we can also demand better and bolder moves from our government. The current draft indicators developed by the government for measuring progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of Quality Education, for example, don’t even name caste. How are we then to measure how “safe” or “nonviolent” our schools and colleges are for Dalit and Adivasi students? If we want to change this, we should develop and include indicators that measure the access students from these communities have to each level of education.
Finally, I believe that ending this discrimination is not just the burden of my Dalit, Adivasi brothers and sisters. It has an impact on our society and how it functions, as a whole. Until this sentiment too settles in you, becomes a part of you, and encourages you to act on it, our development will remain a mirage – unsustainable and always beyond reach.
– As told to Abhishek Jha
Featured image used for representative purposes only.