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The pain is perceptible in nine-year-old Shankar's voice as he recounts how he's made to sit at the back of the class with other children from a similar "low caste" group. He says his teacher doesn't wish to accidentally touch them, keeping them as far away as possible from the rest of the children. His peers from the "upper caste" call him an "untouchable"; when he complains to the teachers, they see no issue. "You are untouchable – what else should they call you?"
His sister, who is 8, is asked to clean the classroom – that's her task because she's a girl and an "untouchable." At lunch, Shankar says the children from the other castes are served food provided by the government, while his fellow caste children are asked to wait outside the classroom; should any food remain after the teachers and "upper caste" children have eaten, it may then be offered to Shankar and other children from the "lower castes."
The children's parents point out that a child who's gone hungry for several meals is unlikely to be able to pay proper attention to classroom instruction. Shankar's eyes well up with tears as he responds to questions about life as a Dalit child attending the local school. Other Dalit children tell of similar discrimination, complaining that the teachers don't pay attention to them, call them outcasts and run down their abilities and enthusiasm for education. That's why the Dalit children rarely go to school; their visits reinforce the feelings of persecution and discrimination.
Shankar's story has been captured by our documentary (supported by Unicef) that was shot in remote villages in eastern India. The situation, of course, varies from state to state in rural areas. The Dalits, or Scheduled Castes, constitute 17 per cent of India's population, and nearly 80 per cent of them live in rural areas. For a long time, they have suffered from discriminatory access to educational services, as the rigidities of the caste system laid out their professional roles at birth, requiring no acquisition of knowledge or education. The result is wide gaps in the literacy rates and education levels between Scheduled Castes and the "others."
India's education policies have addressed the differentials in enrolment rates by improving the infrastructure of state-managed schools, providing free uniforms and books for children from poor Scheduled Caste families, free lunch for all poor children attending school, and scholarships for Scheduled Caste girls. These policies need to be further strengthened to address the discrimination faced by the "untouchable" children within schools and inside classrooms.
So how do we encourage progressive attitudes and equal, non-discriminatory access for children from the "lower castes"? Measures such as national education policies, legislation and a credible threat of prompt action against discriminatory practices in educational institutions, and training strategies focused on sensitizing teachers can explicitly promote an equal access approach to education.
Shankar says he wants to become a police inspector, and his sister Miss India. Both cite education as the key to their future dreams.
Sukhadeo Thorat is a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research in New Delhi. Nidhi Sadana Sabharwal is a principal research fellow at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in New Delhi.