The removal of a dalit cook from the anganwadi in Majure village, Karnataka, indicates that top-down measures to address caste discrimination are changing little on the ground
The village of Majure, in Chitradurga district, Karnataka, is once again in the news. It made the national headlines in 1998 when dalits in the village lodged a police complaint against members of the dominant Vokkaliga and Lingayat castes for an attack on their hamlet. As a consequence, several people were put behind bars (http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/karnataka/37-dalit-families-facing-social-boycott-in-hiriyur/article4265794.ece).
This time round, however, no formal complaint was lodged. Not that things have improved (rather, one could say the situation is deteriorating) but, as the dalits put it, they want to live in “harmony” in the village. For around two months, they’ve been facing a social boycott. The immediate provocation would appear to be the appointment of Lakshmamma, a member of the Madiga community, as cook in the anganwadi. Upper-caste politicians from the village did not want a dalit woman to cook food and feed their children and they succeeded in getting her to resign from the post. Despite a dalit in the Shettar cabinet contacting them, there has been no response. Interestingly, there are three dalit officers -- a deputy commissioner, a superintendent of police and a tehsildar -- in the district.
A recent report published in a section of the media highlighted rampant caste and gender discrimination in schools across India (www.indianexpress.com/news/report-says-caste.../1036207). The report, carried out by 41 independent monitoring institutes, which was submitted to the Union Human Resources Development Ministry, covered 186 schools serving midday meals across five states, namely Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. It was conducted between October 2010 and September 2012, and underlines how children from the scheduled castes face routine segregation from other children and are made to sit and eat separately. Children belonging to upper-caste Hindu families often refused food cooked by SC/ST cooks. The researchers also came across cases where dalit students were getting food but from a distance; in some instances, high-caste children brought their own plates for fear of school plates having been touched by dalit classmates.
The incidents at Majure and the detailed study clearly demonstrate limitations in the top-down approach adopted by the state in smoothening hierarchies in our society.
The Supreme Court order directing states to introduce midday meals at government-run primary schools in 2001 was seen as a novel scheme. Indeed, many subsequent studies pointed out that it led to an increase in enrolment figures and attendance. It was believed that the scheme would not only draw greater numbers of children into school but also encourage social mixing between castes and religious groups.
Whatever the intentions, experience shows that it is difficult to divorce programmes like the midday meal scheme from the context in which they operate.
It doesn’t take a lot to imagine how the atmosphere at school -- which is an extension of the ghettoised existence of people in their own ‘comfort zones’ -- impacts students, especially those from marginalised sections. It is not hard to understand how such an atmosphere impacts negatively not only rates of enrolment but also drop-out rates. Recent figures reveal the full story: the GER (gross enrolment ratio) of both scheduled caste and scheduled tribe boys and girls in 2003-04 decreased with reference to 2001-02 in several states. Likewise, the drop-out rate with respect to scheduled caste boys and girls increased in 2003-04, with reference to 2001-02. (Gross drop-out rate represents the percentage of students who drop out from a given grade or cycle or level of education in a given cycle/school year.) The increase ranged from 0.04% to 28.98% in 2003-04. Similarly, the drop-out rate for scheduled tribe boys and girls also increased in 2003-04 in several states, with reference to 2001-02. The gap between general candidates and scheduled caste and scheduled tribe candidates was 6.7% and 15.1% in 2001-02; this rose to 10.4% and 16.6% respectively in 2003-04.
Of course, this is not the only factor responsible for the slow marginalisation. Other factors include liberalisation and privatisation policies that have seen severe cuts in expenditure on social welfare. There are also success stories like Tamil Nadu. The state where the midday meal idea originated has pursued social equity by employing dalit cooks and backing up the measure with political follow-up and determination. Also Andhra Pradesh where the midday meal scheme has witnessed greater participation of dalits thanks to effective political mobilisation of dalits in the state and the government’s initiative in drawing in local organisations.
India Development Report 2011 could possibly offer some answers to this. One could say that these so-called successes are a result of good governance coupled with huge mobilisation of lower castes. Social movements in the southern states have impacted society so massively that we find that the upper castes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are worse-off than the scheduled castes and other backward classes in Tamil Nadu. The higher enrolment rates for SC and OBC children in Tamil Nadu can also be attributed to the history of social movements in the state. The better-than-average health, education and nutritional status of people here is due to a combination of these social movements and state government interventions.
But a lot still remains to be done. Human Rights Education Protection Council conducted a survey of 52 villages in Palayamkottai district, identifying 1,680 dalit school drop-outs. Twenty-three of them were present at a public hearing where they narrated experiences (http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/tamil-nadu/dalit-school-dropouts-narrate-their-discrimination-accounts/article4064737.ece) of being tormented physically and emotionally in their schools by teachers and classmates. All of them stated that they were called repeatedly by their caste name, and were discriminated against.
Nagaraj, a former fifth standard student at an aided primary school in Kalakkad, alleged that he was beaten by his teacher for no valid reason and that the shame of being beaten up in front of his classmates had forced him to drop out of school.
(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal Sandhan)
Infochange News & Features, January 2013