Discrimination in education.

Indian society suffers from substantial inequalities in education, employment, and income based on caste and ethnicity. Compensatory or positive discrimination policies reserve 15% of the seats in institutions of higher education and state and central government jobs for people of the lowest caste, the Scheduled Caste; 7.5% of the seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribe. These programs have been strengthened by improved enforcement and increased funding in the 1990s.

The Convention on the Rights of the child has important implications for the education of children. In the Convention are numerous articles that deal with education and with children’s rights education. First is the child’s right to education on the basis equal opportunity (article 28). This includes the right to free primary education and to accessible secondary and higher education. Second are the child’s rights in education (articles 2, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 19). This includes the right to non-discrimination, participation, protection from abuse and violence, and freedom of thought, expression, and religion. Third are the child’s rights through education (article 29 and 42). This refers to education where children are able to know and understand their rights and to develop respect for human rights, including their own human rights.

Discrimination on any grounds- religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any other is prohibited under Art 15 of the Constitution. This constitutes an important move away from the graded inequalities and discrimination based on the caste system. Discrimination is widespread on various counts – caste, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, class, disability, region, language, family occupation, or a combination of these. These have found their way into every aspect of social life, including the education system. Dalit’s face the worst forms of discrimination and violence, given the religious basis of the caste system, concepts of purity, pollution and untouchability.

Article 21A Indian Constitution mandates the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged 6-14 years has the right to free and compulsory elementary education with adequate infrastructure facilities, free textbooks, writing materials and uniforms; the government should ensure that children from disadvantaged social groups are not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education; The Constitution categorically abolished “untouchability” and its practice in any form declaring it ‘offence punishable under law’. In the context of education, Article 30 (2) prohibits the state from discriminating in granting aid to educational institutions on the ground of its management under a minority. Article 46 of Indian Constitution recognises the state should promote with special care the educational interests of scheduled castes.

Caste based discrimination in the education system can be seen at two levels – institutional and relational. Institutional discrimination includes the many ways in which the education system denies equitable education opportunities, education services and supportive mechanisms to facilitate Dalit students to access an equal quality of education and to reduce educational inequalities between Dalit’s and non-Dalit’s. It may include both active and passive forms of discrimination, default and intentional. The relational forms of caste based discrimination against students in the schools and higher education institutions take various forms too. At the school level, discrimination has been reported and studied- caste based verbal abuse and name calling, in midday meals, teaching and learning practices, in the use of drinking water, in assigning cleaning tasks in schools, not paying attention to Dalit students and de-motivating them, preventing their participation in schools, heightened corporal punishments, and so on. Discrimination and violence against Dalit schools have been reported by students across the country, including sexual violence against Dalit girl students. The current and long-term negative impact of this discrimination on Dalit students in terms of their learning, educational achievements as well as future opportunities are yet to be fully grasped.

Adivasis, in addition to suffering from the same low expectations, face a different set of issues. Demographically, tribal habitations are small and sparsely populated and hence lack many infrastructural facilities, including schools and roads. Even when schools are within walking distance for pupils, it is not unusual for the roads to become impassable during the monsoon and for the teachers, who often live in larger towns, to surreptitiously close the school. These factors are particularly constraining for tribal children who live in isolated communities. Language poses another major challenge for tribal education. Trial’s normally speak local dialects rather than the main language of the state in which they reside, and tribal students feel further alienated when the teachers are not well trained to communicate in their tribal dialects (Sujatha 2002). Muslim students suffer from similar disadvantages. Many Muslims would like to see education take place in Urdu, their mother tongue, but few schools accommodate this. Children often face harassment and ridicule, and rising religious tensions lead to children’s alienation from school. Since Muslim families are disproportionately urban, access to schools is less likely to be a problem, but discrimination by teachers and a hostile school environment may pose a major impediment.

Human rights activists are concerned that the discrimination is preventing the realisation of India’s Right to Education (RTE) that aims to provide quality education to all children between the ages of 6 to 14 till elementary school (till eighth grade). Since RTE came into force in 2010, nearly all children are in school. Government data shows that the total enrolment of children in primary school increased by 14.6 million in the past five years, which includes 56 per cent girls, as well as 55 per cent backward castes and 41 per cent Muslims. Meenakshi Ganguly, head of Human Rights Watch in India, said that it was the responsibility of the government to ensure that all the enrolled children feel safe and welcome in school, which allows them to complete their education. “We are a proudly diverse country, we celebrate that diversity, let’s do that with honour, equity and not with discrimination,” she said, making an appeal for zero discrimination at the launch of the report. But would the appeal cut into the thick cloak of prejudice? Experts believe that few efforts have been made to sensitise teachers, or detecting and preventing discrimination. Vimala Ramachandran, an education pioneer for over two decades, said that at present no mechanism exists to monitor teachers and penalise them for discrimination.

Unaddressed discrimination

Annie Namala, executive director at the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, pointed that government bodies and civil society groups had done studies to address discrimination, but these recommendations were not being implemented. “None of these are really getting to the light of the day, nor it translating into any point down the files and papers,” she said. Increasingly, parents with even some money are opting to send their children to any cheap private school in the vicinity. And so, government schools are filled with the most marginalised children, while their teachers belong to upper castes. Ambarish Rai, national convener at the Right to Education Forum, says that these teachers don’t understand why children of cobblers and washer men should be taught. Their thinking, he said, is “what will they do with studying”. Besides child labour, girl dropouts are especially vulnerable to early marriages. Government data shows that the dropout rate among girls is more than 41 per cent till the eighth grade and over 57 per cent till the tenth grade. Girls from lower castes are made to clean toilets, while girls from the higher castes make tea for the teacher. In Rajasthan, she pointed out that government schools for girls don’t offer science and math beyond the eighth grade.

Access to childcare

To succeed in bringing and retaining marginalised children in schools, the government will have to ensure zero discrimination in classrooms. Girls and children with disabilities will need even more attention. For this, any future teacher training should go beyond improving learning outcomes to focus on inclusive learning practices that are effective, ensure greater participation of children from marginalised communities and healthy interaction among children from different backgrounds. Civil society groups can be important government allies in this venture.

It is also time to expand the Right to Education so that all children are entitled to 12 years of free and accessible education by 2030. Equally, there needs to be universal access to early childhood care and education to guarantee children’s long-term development, health and well-being. These goals are part of the proposed global agenda and India too sees them as priorities. The government should set an example at the World Education Forum by announcing special commitments toward implementing these goals.

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