After 60 years of Independence and many international magazine covers later, the story of India is not all hope and glitter. In its wide dark spaces, which threaten to get bigger and darker, discrimination and inequity fester. And among its worst sufferers are children who continue to pay for a system they neither moulded nor understand.

On Independence day, Rigzyan Saifil, the District Magistrate of Orai, handed over Mata Prasad Dixit, Amod Kumar, Dinesh Khushwaha, all three teachers of a primary school in Majeeth village of Rampura block to the police. During a surprise school visit, he was told by students and parents that the teachers would regularly throw plates with mid-day meals (MDM) at Dalit children, make them sit apart from the rest of the class and cane them with a separate stick, washing their hands soon after. Saifil had made the check on receiving informal complaints. He was accompanied by the Superintendent of Police Raja Srivastava and District Basic Primary Education Officer Hari Singh Shakhya.

Dalit children wait in the background for their mid-day meals while others eat in front, at a government run primary school of village Bhagwanpura of Jalaun district. Picture courtesy: Action Aid.

Sanjeev Kumar, a class four student in a government run primary school of village Bhagwanpura of Jalaun district says his teacher does not permit him to sit on the mat. "The Thakurs and Brahmin students in my class ask me to keep away from the mat. My teacher asks me to sit on the ground. In school during mid day meal (MDM), we are forcibly seated very far and in the last. The children from the general castes don't like to play with us. If I go to the teachers for checking the home work or class work, they see it without touching it." Kumar is lucky his teachers do not thrash him.

In 2006, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Munoz, noted: "Teachers have been known to declare that Dalit pupils cannot learn unless they are beaten."

Pushpa Balmiki, 47, who belongs to the sweeper caste, is the founder of Adharshila, a 12-year-old organisation which works with manual scavengers in the state's Lakhimpur district. She says her Bachelor of Arts degree -- which she received three decades ago -- came only because her family had gained a reputation for 'dangai' (aggressiveness). Considering that even today, only 18 per cent of SC/STs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes) get any higher education, Balmiki is clearly in a minority. This is reflected in Balmiki's own family. Her husband has only passed class 12 and despite being an accomplished athlete was denied the opportunity to compete at higher levels.

Balmiki has a sharp recollection of what she went through in school. They were known to be a no nonsense family, vocal about their rights, she says. To counter discrimination they would demonstrate at the college, often threatening to strike work. The refusals of teachers to pat her back for a lesson well learnt or of classmates to share their tiffins with her is etched in her mind. "But I felt its worst pinch when doing my teachers training. A Muslim classmate and I were never permitted to do kitchen duties that the other girls did by rotation. I would often wonder what kind of lessons these teachers would take to their classes," she says.

Today, it is the turn of Sanjeev Kumar and scores of other children, and little appears to have changed.

Discrimination in U.P. takes various forms ranging from not permitting children to drink from the common water pot, denying entry into kitchens where the MDMs are cooked, asking the children to perform manual labour such as the sweeping of school premises and loading of bricks for construction work to even working in the homes of teachers. Negative stereotyping and considering these children as uneducable, favouring upper caste children, sarcastic comments on their caste and traditional occupations are also common as are bodily expressions that convey bias.

Textbooks also perpetuate myths, as has come to light in Gujarat. The National Human Rights Commission report of 2007 quotes a social science text prescribed by the Gujarat State Board.

"Problems of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes : Of Course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise importance of education in life.

Therefore, there is large-scale illiteracy among them and female illiteracy is the most striking fact."

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Even lower-caste teachers bear the brunt of this discrimination. Colleagues belonging to other castes do not accord them respect. In non-Dalit localities, these teachers do not sit on mats or cots during village survey activities and people belonging to the general castes speak to them in an insulting manner.

Kali Charan Shakwyar, an assistant teacher in a Junior High School of the Maharajpur village of Jalaun district's Madhaugarh block says, "We are harassed by both non-Dalit children as well as their parents. In schools, non-Dalit children don't greet us. In spite of incomplete homework, I cannot punish non-Dalit children. If I scold any non-Dalit child, then the parents quarrel with me. I am not even invited to marriages." He speaks of another female teacher who was forced to quit her job after she got married with the head master citing rules that call for teachers to work in the place of their residence. The headmaster insisted that the lady had lost the right to live in the same village post marriage, even though she continued to live with her parents.

Simmering tensions, but government in denial

Since September 2004 when Uttar Pradesh launched the MDM, protests, sometimes violent, have occurred with parents refusing to let their children eat food prepared by lower caste cooks. In October 2004, in Mawar, a village in Kanpur (Rural), which is home to 2,500 Muslims and Dalits, parents of Muslim children objected when the principal chose Savitri, a Dalit, to cook the mid-day meals. Angry parents threatened to withdraw their children. The confrontation turned ugly and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had to be rushed in to control matters. However while these more visible forms of discrimination grab headlines, other daily occurrences go unnoticed.

A reading of the crimes registered under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 makes that obvious. In U.P. the Act makes a provision of Rs.15,000 to Rs.2 lakhs for victims of atrocities. In 2001-02, Rs.14.45 crores were spent to benefit complainants. Yet, as revealed by statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, of the 3,790 crimes registered in the state under the 'Crimes against SC/STs' head there were none complaining of discrimination in educational institutions.

Mandarins in the state's education department are unwilling to accept that caste related biases in education are a serious problem. Sarvendra Vikram Singh, additional director Secondary Education, U.P. says: "There are no written complaints of this sort."

Sanjay Singh, secretary of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a voluntary organisation that works in three of the state's poorest districts to strengthen rural communities explains that complaints are rare because local politics is geared towards perpetuating discrimination. "An upper caste teacher would not like to upset the balance in his village by taking a stance against discrimination whereas Dalit teachers would prefer to work in villages dominated by their kind," he notes.

Policymakers are concerned, but little achievement

Theoretically, there is admirable concern for children especially from socially backward groups. This is reflected in the guiding principles of the Constitution of India: equality before law, equal protection to all and non-discrimination, expanded further in Articles 14, 15, 17, 25-28, 29 and 30 which promise social and economic justice to all in addition to the guarantee of doing away with biases.

The National Policy on Education, 1986 (NPE) was a first in its attempt to provide for equal access to education to all, irrespective of class, caste, creed or gender. More specifically it catered to the needs of SCs, STs, the handicapped and other minority groups.

This has been followed by other policy initiatives, which within a broader framework look out specifically for the disadvantaged. Thus while the 2001 launched Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) aims for universalisation of education, it has particular directives for bridging social and gender gaps while the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) launched in 1975, focus on areas predominantly inhabited by the SC, ST besides drought-prone regions and urban slums. In addition, there are specific schemes for fee concession, scholarships, book banks, merit scholarships, training for state services, hostel grants, running of Ashram schools (for STs) and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (for SC, ST and minority community adolescent girls).

Implementation of these well-intentioned national schemes in the states remains poor. Elementary Education In India, Where do We stand, a 2004 publication of the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA) has studied the proportion of students from SCs and STs that make it through the education system.

According to this report, nationally, the total enrollment of SC/ST students -- from pre-primary to class 12 -- stands at 26.4 per cent which is in tune with their share in the population. (According to the 2001 census while SCs form 16.20 per cent of the population, STs account for 8.08 per cent.) However a closer reading of these enrollment figures reveals that while at the primary level SC/ST enrollments form almost 30 per cent of the total enrollments, these taper off to 25, 20 and 18 per cent at the upper primary, secondary and higher secondary levels respectively.

In U.P. the SC population stands at 21.15 per cent while STs form .06 per cent of the population. The state mirrors the national trend in enrollment. Thus while at the primary level the SC/ST component in the enrollment is a high 23.75 per cent, it dips to 20, 13.21 and 11.28 per cent at the upper primary, secondary and higher secondary levels respectively.

The dropouts continue to live the hopeless lives of their uneducated and poor parents.

Caste and private schools

Private educational institutions are also not blameless. At The Avadh School (TAS) in Lucknow, an adoption programme for children from disadvantaged backgrounds ran into trouble with parents of other children. In 2004, the CBSE affiliated school started by adopting five girls each year. These girls were to study free of cost till class 12, with the school taking care of their uniforms, books and other expenses.

Principal Nandini Bidalia says that although children themselves are accepting of the new students, the response from parents has been disheartening. Parents tutor their children to stay away from the adoptees. They have also complained about a lack of hygiene and poor language skills and have expressed fears that these might rub off on their children, says Bidalia. "In fact, soon after we initiated the programme, a whisper campaign started against the school suggesting that we were forced to take in undeserving children because we were not getting "proper" children," she says.

Bidalia however feels that the reactions may have to do more with social status than caste. Her contention is that the children's physical appearance, their lack of language skills have also to do with the fact that they come from poor backgrounds (which she has equated with social status) and hence the bias.

The TAS experiment is however somewhat of a novelty. Most privately owned schools satisfy their conscience for social service by running after-school classes for the socially disadvantaged on the same campus. The Delhi Public School, one of India's most respected schools, in one of its Lucknow branches for instance runs a 'Shiksha Kendra' after regular school hours to cater to children from the nearby slums and also children of class four employees of the school. Principal Anu Dhingra proudly announces that the children get books and tuition free of charge, failing to justify how the ratio of 1:25 for the 50 students of the Kendra compares favourably with the 1:15 teacher student ratio she has adhered to so strictly in the school she heads.

Dhingra is not alone. Private school managements have been less than friendly to socially disadvantaged children. In 2004, only 12.48 per cent and 10.32 per cent of the total SC children enrolled in primary and upper primary schools respectively were going to private schools, in U.P. For ST children this figure is 28.16 and 17.90 per cent respectively, according to data from U.P.'s District Information Centre for Education reports. The lower percentages cannot solely be attributed to higher fees as many of the best private schools in Lucknow are known to take in either the children of alumni, or else design the admission process in a manner that lower caste children with parents of little education are automatically kept out.

For instance, admission to private schools comes after an interview conducted in English with parents. There is also an unspoken preference for children of professionals. School admission forms have columns that ask for the mother's education qualification. This loads the process against children, many of who may be the first generation of learners in the family aspiring for admission to such schools.

The low percentage of SC/ST students in private schools also extends to teachers. Private schools mostly employ upper caste teachers. For every SC/ST teacher in private schools, there are 22 who find employment in government schools, according to the NIEPA. (While there are no provisions to provide reservation in private educational institutions, it is interesting to note that the U.P. state government recently announced 30 per cent reservation for SCs/STs and the poor among the upper castes in jobs in private industries in return for concessions and subsidies.)

What is the way out?

Rajeev Dhyani, Programme Manager for Saksham India Trust, a Lucknow based resource centre for the development sector, says acknowledgement is the vital first step. "The government needs to seriously consider the problem which is crippling the future. For instance a study on the cases of caste discrimination pre and post the MDM scheme would be revealing," he says.

Balmiki suggests that the state's Dalit chief minister Mayawati pay urgent attention to education. "The aspirational benchmarks that Mayawati has set cannot be achieved in isolation. Only political empowerment is not important, education is the first step towards ensuring a better life, better opportunities."

As suggested by an NIEPA discussion paper on disparities in educational development, better allocation of resources to schools that serve areas dominated by lower castes or where literacy levels are low, involvement of NGOs in government schools, flexible models for education planning, participatory decision making and curriculum changes that reflect the truth about discrimination would also go a long way in remedying the situation.

In the 60th year of Independence it is clear that the implementation of these remedies is long overdue.