For Dalit students in Perali village in Tamil Nadu’s Perambalur district, the route to school is long and dangerous. To reach the Government Higher Secondary School in the village, they need to carefully avoid streets that run through upper caste neighbourhoods. They must instead risk the busy traffic of a highway as they circle these localities.
Violating the village’s unofficial diktat could cost Dalit families their employment, as upper caste communities control most of the economic opportunities even in the state that, for the past four decades, has seen politics centred on backward communities.As India strives to send every child to school under the Right to Education Act, students from traditionally deprived or minority communities face disadvantages that deny them an equal opportunity at quality education.
Statistics offer a reason for optimism, with Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Muslim students increasingly as likely to enroll in schools as students from upper castes.
The latest figures collated by the human resource development (HRD) ministry put SC enrolment in elementary schooling at 19.8% of the total enrolment, higher than their 2001 population percentage of 16.2%.
ST enrolment is 10.9% compared to a population percentage of 8.2%, while Muslim enrolment stands at 13%, just under the 13.4% of the population that the community constituted in 2001.
But these statistics also hide the challenges these students face once enrolled in school.Five Dalit students in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, were early March allegedly beaten inside their classroom by upper caste students.
On March 18, upper caste boys attacked a Dalit boy in Boothakudi village near Madurai with a sickle because he refused to budge from a courtyard he was sitting in, after they insisted he move.
Earlier this year, two Dalit students in the state were arrested for allegedly threatening an upper caste teacher. The boys insisted they were innocent.
In Assam, teachers speaking Assamese are frequently posted in schools for non-Assamese communities, creating a language barrier that often means no teaching, and no learning.
“The situation is pathetic,” state minorities commission chief Allen Brooks said.
Schools under the state’s tribal councils often face the same crisis - turned around. In Chirang district’s Rowmari block, 220 km west of Guwahati, Bodo medium teachers are assigned to four single-teacher Assamese medium schools.
“I am worried about the future of my sons,” said Mohammad Shah Jalal Ali, a grocer whose Assamese-speaking children are taught by a Bodo teacher who does not know the language.
Bapunagar Urdu School in Ahmedabad caters principally to low-income Muslims. But the dilapidated, half-century-old school needs Urdu teachers to fill up vacant posts. Awareness of the RTE Act — the most publicised education project in India’s history — has eluded the students of this school.
Communities facing these challenges often try to find their own solutions. In the school in Assam’s Chirang district where Mohammad Ali’s sons study, villagers have asked two former temporary teachers to take classes.
They teach with almost no pay in the hope that they will some day be absorbed into the state’s formal teacher cadre. But the uncertainty that looms over their careers casts its shadow on the school’s future too.
“How long will this continue?” Ali wondered.
(With inputs from Mahesh Langa)