RAMPUR, India — At a public school in this northern Indian village, 8-year-old Dilip Banwasi learns his place.
Her third-grade teacher makes her sweep the classroom floor and sit in the back row.
At lunchtime, Dilip, a member of a lower social class known as the “rat catcher,” is among the last to be served. At recess, his classmates warn, “Don’t play with us,” says Dilip.
Dilip’s experience reflects a major obstacle to improving social mobility in India: discrimination in school. About half of all Indian public school students drop out by eighth grade, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, and most dropouts are from lower caste, Muslim or tribal communities.
The report, which examined four Indian states, attributes part of the blame to discrimination in the public education system.
Discrimination against tribal, Muslim and lower caste communities in India is common, but it can be particularly damaging in schools, activists say, because of the importance of education in finding better jobs and breaking out of social life. traditional social and economic constraints.
Students who drop out often end up working in the field, joining the estimated 13 million Indian children, most of whom are minorities, engaged in child labor.
In the Dilip district, it is the first generation to attend school. Adults work in brick kilns or are employed as servants in the houses of upper caste villagers.
Despite his enthusiasm for his studies – he wears his school uniform, shirt and khaki pants, even on weekends – Dilip’s attendance is declining.
In March, he skipped a week of school. So far this month, he’s only attended half of his classes because, he says, he doesn’t like to be laughed at.
Dilip’s teacher praises his intelligence, up to a point. “He is brilliant, but brilliant only among the Musahars,” says Dilip’s teacher Ramakant Sharma, referring to his community of Dalits, a social class previously referred to as “untouchables”.
Mr. Sharma said: “Discrimination no longer exists, at least not in this school. He added that “it is our duty as teachers to educate regardless of caste and religion.”
Teachers often address poorer students in derogatory terms, according to the Human Rights Watch report, and order them to perform unpleasant tasks, such as cleaning the toilets.
“Teachers are the products of a society that discriminates against marginalized communities, and they bring these attitudes into the classroom,” says Jayshree Bajoria, author of the report.
The report examines access to education in India four years after the country implemented a large-scale education overhaul, the Right to Education Act, ensuring free education for children aged 6 to 14. teachers’ prejudices and lack of responsibility made it difficult to maintain them.
A 2012 study, commissioned by the government’s flagship program for primary education, came to a similar conclusion after studying schools in six states.
An education official at the Department of Human Resources Development declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch report and defended the Right to Education Act, saying its success has been that “students who are traditionally out of school. education system are now part of it ”.
Near Dilip’s school, at the main state school for girls, several students say they rarely interact with children from lower castes.
One girl, Paishwani Singh, says she knew that one of her classmates was Dalit, but doesn’t believe the girl has any friends. “I’ve never seen her in class,” she says.
The Right to Education Act provided for a three-year deadline for states to achieve their goals, including ensuring that schools have a sufficient number of teachers and adequate infrastructure, such as toilets and a school. access to drinking water. Most states have not met this target.
Ms. Bajoria of Human Rights Watch says the law should include provisions for teacher training and monitoring, and that there should be clearly defined penalties for teachers who treat students unequally.
It is important to educate teachers about what constitutes discrimination, because sometimes biases are not intentional, she says.
The law should also clarify when a student is considered a “dropout,” activists say, a definition that can vary from state to state. In Dilip’s school, for example, teachers say there is no mechanism in place to determine a dropout case.
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