When a man from the largely stigmatised Kuruvar community was picked up by the police in Madurai weeks back for alleged theft, the collateral damage was massive. Lakshmi (name changed), his 13-year old daughter, stopped going to the school as a result of her schoolmates’ snide remarks about her father.
With widespread caste discrimination and ‘branding’ of communities, the effect on children can be observed in cases across the country — Dalit children being made to sweep classrooms and clean toilets at schools, eat separately and face neglect. The constant branding by the teachers and classmates as the ‘other’, besides affecting the psyche of the child, has also shown to increase dropouts, and the cycle goes on — child labour, drug abuse, alcoholism and crime.
The issues of child rights exist universally, where there is a divisive system between ‘our children’ and ‘their children’, but the discrimination gets reinforced in India because of the socio-religious philosophy that almost accepts caste discrimination, believes social activist Vasanthi Devi, former chairperson of the Institute for Human Rights Education.
Often being first generation learners with a non-conducive home atmosphere, the troubles at school are multilayered. “Dalit children have special needs, and this is not accepted by most people. School children face the same issues the adults of the caste face — lack of opportunity and poorer standards,” says N Thayalan, director, Human Resource Development Foundation.
Pallar, Parayar and Arunthatiyar are the major Dalit groups in the State. A survey was conducted in 2010 among 200 Arunthatiyar families, the group engaged in manual scavenging and considered ‘Dalit among the Dalits’.The study, conducted by the Arunthatiyar Human Rights Forum, revealed that 24 per cent of the children dropped out from school; dropouts started right from Class I and the maximum dropouts were in Class VIII. The top reason given by students for dropping out was slow learning, followed by peer group influence, family incompetence, teachers attitude and difficult syllabus.
While the children may not not completely comprehend the underlying factors behind this social oppression, around 40 per cent of the teachers had quoted caste discrimination as a reason for dropouts, although the top reason was inadequate staff followed by poor parental care and economic factors. Frequent migration by parents, occupation of the parents as manual scavengers, and the disturbed environment at homes increases dropouts.
“The most number of drop-outs are from the SC/ST community. The school-going age is an impressionable age and extra attention needs to be paid to counter this vulnerability,” says Shantha Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and founder of the Andhra-based MV Foundation.
The majority of students in government schools are often from marginalised communities, and consequently, the schools often have poor facilities where teachers are not sensitised on non-discrimination. “The moment they step into school, they feel the hostility. Teachers referring to caste names and treating them with contempt is common,” Vasanthi Devi says. There are also subtler issues like the difference in the Tamil dialect that they speak, which is mocked. The schools with a majority of SC/ST students often get branded as ‘rowdy’ schools, with teachers who work there constantly on the look out for better positions.
Marginalised groups have also been pushed to the fringes due to urbanisation and migration, affecting their education. “Should Dalit children not be there in the heart of the city?” asks Virgil D’samy, director of Arunodhaya, a foundation working for street and working children. “Should the city have only glass buildings and be for only one section of society?”
At a time of urbanisation and globalisation, ‘inclusivity’ is what activists believe is the way forward, and separate schools for the ‘marginalised’ could lead to isolation and ghettoisation. “In the past, we needed separate schools to give special attention, but I believe that now is a time for assimilation. Any child rights policy should target all children, and it is time to stop labelling groups as Dalits or street children,” says Shantha Sinha, who started her life in child rights activism by working only for Dalit children but later moving to an area-based approach, as she felt that caste-based welfare measures could increase polarisation. The targeted approach, she believes, continues the caste-stereotyping and the approach has to be more democratic.
“A common school system is the only way to move to convergence. The government schools and Adi Dravidar schools often have poor facilities, teacher absenteeism,” claims Vasanthi Devi. “Once there are mixed economic groups in government schools, they will be forced to upgrade.”
Dalit leaders, however, believe that this approach, while commendable, is idealistic. “It is a good concept, but we know the kind of discrimination we face even as Dalit leaders. A lot of social development is necessary and we need to first become equals,” says Karuppu Sami, an activist from the organisation Rural Educational and Development Centre in Satyamangalam, Erode. “In an ideal society, we could have common schools. There is a separate SC/ST minister and department. Why not SC/ST schools?” asks Karuppu Sami.
The Tamil Nadu government is trying to tackle the issues of children from backward communities through scholarships, Adi Dravidar schools and hostels, and provision of free study material. “Enrolment rates and pass percetage are going up,” says an education official. There are 1,397 Adi Dravidar schools and 1,304 hostels in the State, with around 90 per cent of these being in rural areas. Over 1,70,000 children study in the schools, and ten more college hostels were added this year.
The post matric-scheme covers the college fees for all students who clear the eligibility, and ten students from each block on the basis of merit are given scholarships for private schools. Apart from reservations and scholarships, a large scale sensitisation on discrimination, from the government side, is an important factor that activists believe is much needed in order to tackle this problem at the root.
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