The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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We are witnessing an unprecedented thrust on “empowerment” — a target pivotal in achieving the right balance between equality and social responsibility. There is no doubting the fact that education is the basic necessity for attaining such empowerment. The Constitution safeguards the right to education of the weaker sections of our country in Article 46. But little has been done for educating the scheduled castes though they constitute almost 17 per cent of India’s population.

To say that the government has made no efforts at all in achieving the goal of “education for all” would be unfair. There are schemes like book banks and pre-matric scholarships, scholarships for children engaged in unclean occupations like scavenging, programmes for Dalit girls and overseas scholarships for meritorious students aspiring to pursue higher studies.The tenth five year plan aspires to get all children admitted to school before 2004.

Despite all these plans, the target is yet to be achieved owing to some major impediments at the grassroots level. The fact that most Dalits live in the rural areas, has made the spread of education among this group difficult. Urban Dalits receive wider exposure.

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However, encouraging signs are emanating from Himachal Pradesh. Data available till 1993-94 from the National Sample Survey Organization indicates that the participation of Dalits in the schools of this state is as high as that of other social groups. In Uttar Pradesh on the other hand, the attendance rate of Dalit students in the schools is very poor.

The Dalit community is not a homogeneous group but is riddled with the problems of an internal caste system. The distribution of aid also follows this internal hierarchy, making the aid accessible only to the select few.

The Dalit girl suffers a “double deprivation” — for being a Dalit, and also for being born a girl. A large number of Dalit girls all over India have practically no access to formal schooling, with the rural picture being particularly bleak. It is time that at least alternative schooling reached them. The assumption that once a Dalit child is admitted to a school, the goal is reached can be fatal, for this is only the beginning of the process. To ensure that the student continues in school, constant monitoring and support is necessary. Economic constraints, inability to cope with the academic curricula, and hostility from classmates and teachers are some of the reasons forcing a Dalit student to discontinue his schooling.

More effort, please

World Bank reports of 1997 point out that in states like Kerala and Karnataka, Dalit children are unable to tackle subjects like mathematics in a curriculum that is not structured keeping them in mind. Similar problems arise in the learning of languages. Having grown up using a “restricted speech code” that is mostly equipped for communicating day-to-day matters, the language used in class is almost incomprehensible to Dalit students. What is needed, therefore, is a curriculum which the student will be able to assimilate and follow easily.

Aggravating the situation further is the discriminatory treatment meted out to the SC students not only by their classmates but even by their teachers. Moreover, school education is still a luxury that most Dalit parents can ill afford. To send a breadwinner to school is unimaginable for most parents. And when they manage to overcome their reservations, they see their children returning home miserable, facing hostilities and non-cooperation from their classmates and teachers. It will take more than the unveiling of glamorous schemes and irregular midday meals to keep a Dalit child in school.

The process of emancipation of a community is an active one involving the members of the community so that they can emerge from the darkness. The Dalit child and his family should be made to feel the necessity of education and appreciate its benefits for them in the long run.

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