Hunger and humiliation — that's all 6-year-old Neha has learnt at her village school.
"We are made to sit apart. The food served is just a quarter of what is given to other children. The persons who serve it almost throw it at us to avoid contact," she said.
Therein lies the rub.
Neha is one of the 20-odd Dalit children attending the government school of Dagawashankar village in Harda district (120 km from Bhopal). And the school keeps them at arm’s length, literally.
The seating is separate, during classes and at mealtimes. The food served is leftovers, the portions tiny. A request for a second helping makes the attendants see red, say Neha's schoolmates, Pramila and Bharti, who live in the nearby Gahal Harijan Basti. After meals, they even have to wash their dishes.The children have complained at home.
But the parents, struggling under the injustice and stigma of caste, have not had the courage to demand justice.
"Registering charges against the upper caste people in the village is next to impossible," said Kusumbai, whose 8-year-old son Akash attends the school. "The government says it is doing a lot for dalits and tribals. Then why do our children get only a quarter of the food?"
The school authorities deny the allegations.
"No discrimination happens at our school," headmistress Usha Mehra told HT on phone.
In absence of a formal complaint, the authorities are yet to take any steps.
SC/ST welfare minister Vijay Shah could not be reached for comment. Principal secretary of the department, M Mohan Rao, said he would initiate action once he gets the details of the issue or a formal complaint.
The sub-divisional magistrate of Harda, Manjusha Rai, said such discrimination could not be tolerated and an inquiry would be conducted into the matter. Bhavna Dubey, district education officer of Harda, also assured that steps would be taken to stop the discrimination.
But would it heal the scars of the Dalit children of Dagawashankar? One can only hope.