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Is NEP 2020 Ignoring Gender And Caste-Based Discrimination In Schools?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Savitribai Phule, a revolutionary in her own right and a worthy wife of a great revolutionary Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, launched her first school exclusively for girls in Pune, 172 years ago in 1848. That was to assert the right to education for women. Women of all castes and Shudras were banned from accessing education besides other restrictions about livelihood as per Hindu codes of law.

The Phule couple had to go through life-threatening opposition from the religious bigots in Pune. The law of the land has changed since but religious ethos stays on hindering the education of these discriminated large sections of our society.

Marginalization Begins At School Level

Girl students, especially from lower castes, are assigned the toilet cleaning work even in schools. Representational image

Segregation of students based on their caste at birth, identifying them with a wrist band of a certain colour and assigning of cleaning duty in school premises according to their caste and gender status is rampant in schools across India. This may not and cannot have an official mandate from the school managements. Still, influential caste people manage to enforce it, as the Director of School Education, Chennai reported in one such case – “Allegedly, these practices are enforced by students themselves and supported by influential caste persons and teachers.”

There are several cases of gradation and discrimination based on caste and gender all over the country. Girl students, especially from lower castes, are assigned the toilet cleaning work even in schools.

But the policymakers and those in power do not recognize this toxicity in our social system. All versions of National Education Policy (NEP) 2019, followed by Final NEP 2019 and ‘NEP 2020 For Circulation‘ (whatever that means!) skips mentioning caste-based discrimination in its listing of various reasons for under-represented groups (URGs) or socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs). The NEP 2019 has coined this strange term first as URGs and now refined to SEDGs, consciously avoiding the usual SCs, STs, minorities, OBCs, etc. for whatever reason.

The NEP 2020 says, “The Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs) can be broadly categorized based on gender identities, socio-cultural identities, geographical identities, disabilities, and socio-economic conditions (such as children of migrants, children from low-income households, children in vulnerable situations, victims of or children of victims of trafficking, orphans including child beggars in urban areas and the urban poor)” (Para 6.2).

These ‘socio-cultural identities’ come closest to caste-based identities. If the policy on education really means so, then it is all the more perilous. It, sort of, grants sanctity to caste-based gradation as our culture, creating a situation of thought-conflict as is happening in the case of Tirumala temple case.

These situations of caste-based or gender-based discriminations can be attributed to one cause, i.e. our religious beliefs, our notions of religious purity and duty. The SEDGs are not SEDGs merely because of a lack of infrastructure or lack of access to schools. It is a direct result of our value system which questions the right to the very existence of these groups, especially girls. The numerous instances of girl infanticides or feticides and resultant declining gender ratio should be a disturbing and guiding factor for policymakers, especially on education.

If the girl lives on to ‘exist’ despite all the threats at every stage, other notions like ‘impurity’ during menstruation are imposed to kill their spirit of enthusiasm. Then there are notions of a girl’s ‘duty’ to the family. The segregation of duties between a boy and a girl within the family leaves girls doing household chores like cooking, cleaning and fetching water, besides babysitting for siblings.

NEP 2019 On Girls’ Education

But, the policy on education is oblivious of all these stark realities or maybe, it is aware and hence has a dedicated chapter called 6.2. Education of girls as a cross-cutting theme! However, the opening lines of this chapter show how the policymakers are confused.

covid impact on girls education
Covid-19 impact on girls’ education

It claims “Indian society has long upheld the high status of women and girls and the importance of girls’ education. Early history dating back thousands of years indicates the preeminent role women played as leaders in politics, defense, religion, literature as well as the fabric of Indian society.” If it is so, why the policy recommends ‘Changing mindsets and halting harmful practices to foster gender equity and inclusion‘. The policy recognizes the missing link in our social evolution and irreparable damage that had done prompting Savitribai Phule to initiate a course correction. Course correction which was vehemently opposed and continues to be done! The means have become more gruesome or sophisticated depending upon the caste and social status of the girl concerned. It is a double whammy for the girls from caste-based discriminated groups.

Special Education Zones

The proposed policy on education is too lofty to make any discerning sense about provisions for improvement in the environment for girls’ education. It proposes to focus on girls from SEDGs and proposes Special Education Zones (SEZ) for them. But those will be run by philanthropists who will have complete autonomy in finances, curriculum, administration, etc. The government then expects that these philanthropists will run these SEZ on a not-for-profit basis and will also mitigate opportunity costs and fees for pursuing education.

SEZ or proposed school complex projects combined with vocational and hobbies to be included in the curriculum as regular courses will create educational ‘ghettos’ to produce a mediocre, low skilled force of irrelevant youth, boys and girls. They will be at best single skilled at bonded labour for the capitalist owners of philanthropist trusts.

The Current Scenario

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a different kind of challenge. It has forced digital distance teaching upon the teachers who are one of the least computer literates in the country. Some might argue that banks had the same situation when automation was introduced, and the banking industry coped with that. But teaching and banking are poles apart. In banking, it was all about handling the transactions mechanically, with scope to correct the mistake. Man-machine relation in banking is purely transactional.

This is not the case with teaching. Teaching deals with tender, curious human minds and involves the production of knowledge, not just transaction. Absence of data connectivity and access to reliable devices, especially for girls in particular and SEDGs, in general, will deny any meaningful education to the large population. The education divide will further aggravate with the digital divide and stratification of models of learning.

The National Education Policy needs to shed its ambivalence about our culture and social values and invest heavily from government funds in education. Education and defence should draw equal importance for defending our sovereignty. These two sectors should get the same amount of budget allocations.

Indian government’s spending on education is awfully low. And now the government wants to rely more on philanthropists, reducing its funding substantially. There is no empirical evidence that philanthropists work in the best interest of marginalized sections, but there is research which proves to the contrary.

Privatization, through philanthropists or otherwise, and excessive autonomy with a stated vision of ‘education system rooted in Indian ethos’ will only further aggravate the toxicity of discrimination in education and society at large. Education policy should realign its focus.

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