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66 Pages Of Text But No Mention Of Caste: Does India Care About The Marginalised?

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This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

After a long wait of 34 years, India got a new National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020. Well, better late than never. An education policy for a ‘New India’ must also be anew. It must be equitable, progressive, and inclusive. NEP 2020 promises to be all this and much more.

It considers the progress of a child right from age 3 to adulthood. It promises to make the Indian education system ‘second to none’ by 2040.

The policy discusses some crucial issues such as shortage of teachers and professors, inadequate teacher training, providing early childhood care and education (ECCE), drop out rates, and enrollment ratios. It acknowledges the problems with higher education. But it very blatantly disregards the issues of the SC/ST, OBC, and minority students. It stops itself from considering the implications some of its proposals will have on the students from marginalized communities.

It envisions restoring the role of India as a ‘Vishwa Guru’, mostly at the cost of marginalized communities.

Representational image.

Denying The Realities Of Caste In Our Education System

Caste and the associated aspects do not feature in the policy. In the 66 pages of the policy, there is no discussion on reservations or caste. There is no acknowledgement of any caste discrimination taking place in schools and colleges or of the flouting of reservations norms. It also does not provide any mitigation strategies for these issues.

Will denying the realities of caste make the policy more progressive? Does one become progressive by accepting the realities and then attempting to change them or by simply denying them completely? The NEP sure does adopt the latter approach.

The policy refers to the SC/ST, OBC, and minority communities when it clubs them as SEDGs – Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups. The other sub-groups under SEDGs include – women, transgender individuals, migrant communities, students from aspirational districts, and so on. Clubbing these diverse groups under a single umbrella is unjustified.

The educational needs of each of these sub-groups are different from each other. They need to be addressed separately, distinctively. The needs of tribal communities differ from those of the other sub-groups. For instance, the policy points out that the drop out rate of ST students is higher compared to SC students. The girls from these communities are far more disadvantaged. Banding them together as one single group will not address the educational crisis that exists for the marginalized sections.

The Marginalized Remain On The Margins

The policy not only fails to identify the diverse marginalized groups and their educational needs but also ensures that these groups remain on the margins. Three important aspects where the policy fails the marginalized sections are – medium of instruction, privatization of education, and the introduction of vocational training.

There is a heavy emphasis on the use of “home language” as a medium of instruction until Grade 5 or 8 or even beyond. This denies rural and marginalized students the opportunity to learn English. This will only widen the existing gaps in our society. English is a global language. Knowing English provides students educational as well as employment opportunities within as well as outside India.

The education of girls will suffer. Parents will want their sons to go to English medium schools and the girls will have to go to regional medium schools. And in a few years drop out to support their brother’s education and help out at home.

The second aspect that disproportionately affects marginalized students is the privatization of education. Although the policy does not explicitly mention ‘privatization’, it hopes to gradually achieve full academic and administrative autonomy for higher education institutions (HEIs). This, the policy claims will foster innovation. Such autonomy will enable the institutions to provide more self-financed courses. And increase tuition fees to whatever they desire making education unaffordable for the marginalized communities. The reservation norms will be casually violated not only in admissions but also in faculty recruitments.

Furthermore, the internationalization of education with more foreign universities setting shop in India is sure to push the marginalized more to the margins.

By encouraging globalization and privatization of education, the state is pulling away from its responsibility to provide affordable, accessible education for all. Without adequate financial support in place for the marginalized sections, they will never be able to enter the corridors of these institutions.

This will not only shrink their employment opportunities but also impede their chances of moving up the social ladder.

The introduction of vocational education in schools is just another way of letting a doctor’s son remain a doctor, a cobbler’s son a cobbler, and a farmer’s son a farmer. Most of the people from marginalized communities are doing household, small scale skilled jobs. If they wanted their children to continue those same jobs, why would they even send them to schools?

Representational image.

Education In the Post-COVID World

The policy rightly states that technology will play an important role in the improvement of educational processes and outcomes. More so in a post-COVID world. It, however, fails to highlight the educational inequalities that will manifest from over-reliance on technology. During the pandemic, we have seen how unequal is the distribution of technology in India. Not everyone is equipped with it, especially the marginalized sections. We all are aware of the Dalit girl from Kerala who died by suicide as she was unable to access online classes.

The pandemic has pushed nearly 40 million people into poverty, therefore making education an expensive affair for these 40 million.

As stated earlier, the policy also fails to address the continuing issue of caste discrimination in education. The India Exclusion Report 2014 by the Centre for Equity Studies highlights how Indian schools continue to practice caste discrimination and social exclusion. But it does not end at the schools.

The experiences of discrimination or violence in schools shape their experiences in higher education institutions. Dalit and Adivasi students face discrimination even in colleges and universities. Caste discrimination is one of the topmost reasons for the high dropout rates and poor performance of SC/ST students in institutions such as IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, etc. The number of Dalit student suicides in the HEIs has been rising in the past few years owing to discrimination, isolation, exclusion, and humiliation.

Lost Chances

NEP 2020 is not the first and probably will not be the last to forget the caste realities. The India Exclusion Report (2014) points out how marginalized students face discrimination even in the Mid-day Meal Schemes. There is physical segregation, they are served after others are served, negative attitudes by the teachers, and so on. No policy on education will ever be inclusive or progressive if it denies these lived realities of the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities. Not just NEP but all policies and schemes in the education sector need to factor in the caste realities and work towards making India truly inclusive.

The NEP 2020 talks big numbers but provides no roadmaps to achieve them. It hopes to bridge the gaps between the current state of learning and what is required. Instead, it may end up increasing inequalities. It is being hailed as visionary and progressive but looked closely is exclusionary and conservative.

It sets to fulfil the lofty goal of “ensuring inclusive and quality education for all” (SDG4), and yet it misses the opportunity to do just that.

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