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The Defeating Case Of Invisible Caste Diversity In Indian Academia

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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.

In a recent news report, it was mentioned that “IITs should be exempted from reservations in faculty positions because they are Institutes of National Importance and are involved in research.” Some custodians of merit might have already started their happy dance on hearing the words ‘removal of reservations’. But if you read carefully, one of the recommendations also was —“Diversity issues should be addressed through outreach campaigns and targeted recruitment of faculty.” Diversity! Why should we be so bothered about it? 

Why do we need SC/ST/OBC teachers and researchers, including the women/ transpersons/ differently-abled people from these communities? 

People from marginalised communities have a different perspective of looking at things. It is an empirically proven fact that diversity enhances creativity. Multiple studies have demonstrated the enriching effects that race, gender, and other kinds of social diversity have on classrooms and workplaces.

There are not many studies on the impact of caste diversity in Indian classrooms. But we can safely assume that the lives of a first-generation-Dalit-female or a trans person or a differently-abled student are different from that of a male-forward caste student. So is the lived experience they bring to the classroom. 

Academic knowledge gained is the same for all the groups. It is this lived experience that sets apart the real-life application of knowledge.

Dadaji Khobragade
Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade.

Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, a Dalit cultivator and self-trained plant breeder developed the highly successful HMT-Sona and ten other popular rice varieties which are now widely grown across India. He wasn’t formally educated but had a passion for agriculture and agricultural processes.

The original ‘PadMan’ of India, Mr Arunachalam Muruganantham, belonged to a family of handloom weavers. It is a different story altogether that in the movie, he was changed to a Laxmikant ‘Chauhan’, a forward caste North Indian male. Necessity is the mother of innovation. And that is why we should have more researchers who are aware of ground-level difficulties. For someone who is not aware of manual scavenging, it will never be a problem.

It is strange that in this digital age when we even have self-flushing toilets, economical technology to replace manual scavenging is still a distant dream.

Not many children of manual scavengers get the opportunity to even complete primary education, leave alone take up engineering and invent solutions for their problems.

We don’t know how many Dalit and Adivasi innovators are sacrificed at the altar of merit. Just because they don’t have the required educational and social capital to back them up.

The traditional knowledge of indigenous communities in India is capitalised by scientific giants. Google ‘ethnomedicine of Indian tribes’ and you’d get a myriad of research. But the people actually belonging to these communities, who over many generations have developed their medicinal, botanical and sustainable systems are disregarded as unmeritorious. 

In the unhealthy obsession with narrow criteria of merit like scores and marks, we often tend to forget that factors such as personality, socioeconomic background, critical thinking, curiosity to learn- such unquantifiable human qualities, play a much bigger role. There might be some truth, after all, in Apple co-founder Steve Woz’s statement, that Indians lack creativity. The ones believing marks to be merit, at least.

Ironically, IITs and top academicians are exploring ways to attract overseas students to India. But back home, they show an unwillingness to acknowledge diversity.

Caste is invisible in Indian academia but only a naive person would say it doesn’t matter. The systemic biases are evident by the overrepresentation of a few privileged communities in IIT faculty, ever since IITs were established. By the 1920s, Tamil Brahmins filled over 70% of seats in regional engineering institutions, despite being barely 3% of the total regional population,” said Ajantha Subramanian, An anatomy of the caste culture at IIT-Madras.

The heartbreaking suicides of students from Dalit-Adivasi communities show that teachers with perfect CVs are not enough. We need teachers who understand and empathise with the struggles of the marginalised students; can identify discrimination and call out casual casteism of their colleagues; can be positive role models.; and can prevent academia from becoming savarna echo-chambers.

Without a diverse faculty and administration, marginalised students often end up feeling like outsiders trying to ‘fit-in’ exclusive spaces which is the opposite of what a university should be like —a melting pot of different cultures where differences are appreciated, imbibed, and learned from. Unfortunately, in spite of reservations, the current representation of SC/ST/OBC faculty in these meritorious institutes is dismal. Of the 8,856 sanctioned faculty strength in IITs, there are 4,876 from the general category, 329 OBCs, 149 SCs, and a mere 21 from the ST community. Across 23 IITs, only 9% of the current faculty are SC/ ST /OBCs. IIT facultyIIM faculty AISHE SURVEY

According to All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19, MHRD [AISHE Survey], social distribution of teachers in institutes of higher education also shows gross under-representation of SC/ST/OBCs as compared to their population.

Are Our Colleges On The Way To The Top?

These are snapshots from the diversity policies of some of the top universities of the world, among whom the IITs, IIMs and Institutes of National Importance, aspire to be.

Harvard

MIT

stanford

zurich

Top universities of the world actively encourage and celebrate diversity, not try to deny its existence.

 It’s not Reservations that are stopping these institutions from being at the top, rather the half-hearted implementation, which prevents a large part of the population from even taking part in the development process.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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