49.35% of dalit children drop out of school at the primary level, 67.77% at the junior high school level, and 77.65% by high school. Clearly, midday meal schemes have failed to check the dropout rate of dalit children. What are the alternatives?
Despite an innately fractured social body, India continues living by its ironies, harmoniously. One of those ironies is that the privileged have predestined themselves as authors of justice for the underprivileged. But their concern doesn't always work the way it was intended to.
Our Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, for instance, meets various trade bodies, union leaders, even agriculturists, for worthy inputs before giving final shape to the Union Finance Bill. When it comes to the needs of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (hereafter dalits), he never seems to need such consultations. There seems no need to call dalit bodies for any inputs. No finance minister has done so before, so why should P Chidambaram deviate from the well-laid tradition? After all, it is the economy that must be reformed and opened, society can remain traditional and closed.
In the conventional wisdom of the privileged, the dalits must be hungry. So, give them food. MGR decoded this secret as early as 1980, when he launched the notable MDM or Mid-Day Meal scheme in his state, Tamil Nadu. Over a quarter-century, that experiment has evolved into a public policy product replicated by other states. The basic idea behind the MDM was to check the massive dropouts of children from the school system. Centred on dalits, children of the poor were the targets. It was envisioned that the food would draw children into the school system and keep them within the walls of schools.
But a recent report titled 'Selected Educational Statistics, Government of India , 2000', tells a different tale. In Tamil Nadu, home ground of the MDM, there are 13.87 lakh (1.38 million) dalit students at the primary (I-V) level. In the same year, the number of dalit students at the junior high school (VI-VIII) level was 5.92 lakh: a fall of 57.31%. In the same year, the number of dalit students at the high school (IX-X) level was 02.32 lakh: a fall of 60.81%. If we contrast the high school figures with those of the primary, the gap could be as wide as 83.27%.
This is not exactly the dropout rate, but indicates the pattern. According to the Government of India report, the enrolment ratio of dalit children has virtually hit the 100-point mark in most states, with or without MDM schemes. This only goes to establish that dalit parents are conscious of the importance of education, and make efforts to enroll their children. As if predestined by circumstances, the largest portion of dalit children who enroll at the primary level, do not complete even junior high school. Where will these dalit children fit into the job market?
It must be honestly acknowledged that the MDM scheme is a failed tool to check dropouts. To those still seeking refuge in the MDM scheme to check dropouts, a report by the National Commission for SC/STs (1997-98) can be enlightening. The nation-wide report gives the stage-wise figures of the dropout rate for dalit children: 49.35% at the primary level (those who enrolled for class I, but dropped-out before completing class V); 67.77% at the junior high school level, and 77.65% by high school.
These figures make interesting reading: dropouts at the primary stage (I-V) are the least, and highest by the high school level. This irony hasn't been explained by educational experts, and those planning the future of India . In the absence of any credible study, guesswork based on our lived experience can be a helpful tool.
Students at the primary stage (I-V) of learning are bracketed in the age-group 6-11. The job market in the countryside has fewer vacancies for little hands aged 6-11. But vacancies open up for those crossing the 11-year mark. Students at the junior high school level are bracketed in the age-group of 11-14 years. The agrarian economy sucks these children away from the school system. Students at the high school stage are bracketed in the 14-16 age-group. These dalit children are now grown-up citizens, eligible to toil in the agrarian economy.
A child needs three meals a day, plus a little expenditure on clothing and health. The MDM schemes take care of the meal at noon , parents must make arrangements for the other two meals. The children's education now becomes economically unviable, the children, now adults, must contribute to the family's income, and hence they drop out of the school system forever.
The dropout phenomenon is compounded by yet another phenomenon: in most parts of India , the academic session clashes with the sowing/harvesting seasons. In north India for instance, schools open in July, when paddy is planted. Paddy is harvested in November when examinations take place, followed immediately by the sowing of wheat. The wheat is harvested in April, when the final/board examinations take place. Since the poor get about three months employment in a year, sowing and harvesting being the main season, the children must add to the family income, even if that means being absent from school. A poor examination result also adds to the dropout phenomenon.
All policy packages to retain dalit children in the school system have failed. Children of dalit landless agricultural labourers and urban slumdwellers are the easiest victims. The only policy which hasn't been tested, and which has often been demanded by dalit activists, is the policy of compensation. Why can't the government compensate dalit parents who, regulated by circumstances, tend to withdraw their children from the school system?
With over 50 Sundays in a year, and a host of other holidays, the academic sessions are invariably less than six months of a year. To begin with, dalit families living below the poverty line and those just hanging at the edge of the poverty line - that's about half of all dalit families -- who are in dire need, can be the targets. In that case, for instance, about 1.5 crore (50 million) dalit children would be entitled to compensation.
Dalit children are sucked out of the school system for a daily wage of Rs 5. If 1.5 crore dalit children were to be compensated for 180 days at Rs 6 per day, the total money required would be about Rs 1620 crore annually. This amount is less than the money doled out to Members of Parliament each year, which is often not spent rationally. Or less than the subsidy accorded to LPG users.
After the tsunami, India has joined the club of 'giver nations'. In fact, the Indian economy is strong enough to support all dalit children, even at higher rates per day.
The Constituent Assembly, which conceived the Republic, mandated it to create a society based on justice. Dalits found a special mention, taking into account the curse of history. But that mandate has been betrayed year after year.
(Chandra Bhan Prasad is a dalit writer and columnist based in New Delhi.)
InfoChange News & Features, March 2005