Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Lesser Children, 5th August, 2012

After my first post, I had wanted to follow up with a happy post. Something positive and shining. And I promise it will come because everyday I meet people who give me hope. But today's post is again triggered by a recent visit to a village in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and a news story on the status of mid-day meal schemes in some of our states.

For the benefit of my friends outside India, the flagship program on universalization of primary education in the country has a critical component on providing hot cooked mid-day meals to all the students in govenment schools. It was meant to be the strategy to attract children of poorer families for whom sending a child to school was viewed as the opportunity cost lost in terms of another hand to earn a few extra rupees for a meal. Over the course of the last decade, this and several other strategies has ensured very high rates of enrolment at the primary level. A critical success. Let us leave aside the debate on quality, completion and retention for a moment.

Cut to this village then in a remote district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. I like to call this region the final frontier after maybe sub-saharan Africa in the global development scenario. Uttar Pradesh, one state in India, has a population of nearly 200 million, larger than Brazil. Anything that happens here is of consequence not only to India but to the world.

I went to this village as part of my work and we were in one of the hamlets of the village. A remote one, inhabited by a section of the community that has been historically on the margins both economically and socially. I noticed a lot of children hanging around while I was meeting with some of the women in the hamlet. Since school was open, I found it very strange. Further probing revealed a shocking story. Reluctantly a shy but brave mother, between her tears narrated the tale of how her children were made to sit at the back of the classroom, not allowed to ask questions in class, made to clean the school building and when the time for mid-day meal came- were asked to carry their food and go home because the 'other' children did not want to eat with them. The children simply refused to go to school after a point. It became an accepted social norm over the years. Illiteracy was preferable to a pointless education of division. Dignity to humiliation. And who can argue with this mother on this?

I would pull out my daughter from her school at the first hint of any such discrimination, wouldn't I? As a result in this tiny hamlet of about 25 families, more than 30 children just stopped going to school. The older ones dropped out. The younger ones never went. They spend their time working alongside their parents at brick kilns and construction sites. They play, loiter, gaze in honest curiousity at the wall paintings one NGO has done in the hamlet about the right to education and then just get on with whatever they were doing.

I am not ashamed to say that I cried that day. For the pain of these children, for the pain of those parents who knew they were denying their children a chance at a better life but had no option, for the parents of those 'other' children who will never know some new friends and how differences can be so enriching, for those teachers who did not even realize they had done anything wrong, for those NGO workers who decided this was such a tough issue to deal with that we should just focus on easier things. I am glad the situation has changed now in this hamlet due to the work we are doing there but the intention of this blog is not really to discuss the solutions in that detail. Atleast not yet.

Cut to today's newspaper and there is the report of a study on caste biases in mid-day meal in a few states that just proves with evidence this experience I had. To quote, " The monitoring agency, International Institute for Development Studies, said 85% of the school children were found sitting in caste groups", in one of the districts surveyed. In some places upper caste children refused to eat food with dalit children, meals cooked by lower castes were rejected by upper caste children and dalit children were served food from a distance.

Can you imagine being a child from this so called 'upper caste'? Imagine growing up with such deep rooted prejudices when all you should be thinking about is the next game of cricket or hopskotch? Imagine growing up with a feeling of superiority so intense only to be rudely thrust into a cruel competittive world which will find some way of making you feel inadequate in comparison to someone else? What a tragedy! More so than those dalit children, who I think will eventually find their way to school and be more resilient and fearless in facing the challenges of life.

I know caste was not created in a day, its a concept that emerged out of years of social order and it cannot go away in a day. Its not a new issue either. For years now, starting with the architect of our constitution, a dalit child himself, the debate has raged on. Maybe we need a paradigm shift in this debate. Instead of talking about years of subjugation and exploitation, maybe we focus on the contribution of the dalits to our society and our lives. Celebrate the instances of friendship, collaboration and trust. Change the empirical expectations around how society interacts.

How we will do this? And who will do this? I did mention earlier, I do not have the answers. Only questions. And some questions hurt more than others so here goes - what will you do to change this situation?

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