Dalit education

Bottom of the heap

Print edition : February 19, 2016
Despite reservations and various social justice programmes, the pursuit of education continues to be an arduous task for Dalits at the senior secondary level and in higher education.

The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar in the University of Hyderabad, on January 18 is symptomatic of a larger malaise that plagues our education system, at both the school level and in higher education. The nationwide outrage that the death has sparked and the suicide note that Rohith Vemula left behind have brought into sharp focus the odds stacked against members of the Scheduled Castes (S.C.s) in their pursuit of education.

In keeping with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's exhortation to Dalits to educate, agitate and organise, S.C.s have been showing remarkable progress in literacy rates in the "7+" and "15+" age groups, but a closer look at available educational statistics reveals that Dalits still struggle to stay in school and move on to higher education.

While S.C.s have posted impressive growth in literacy rates, unfortunately their dropout rates are also alarmingly high at the senior secondary level. Their gross enrolment ratio (GER) is higher than the national figure in primary and upper primary school levels, but starts falling at the senior secondary level and is much lower in higher education in many key States. (The GER is a measure of the number of persons in a particular level in school or college out of the total number who are in the age agroup for that level. It can be above 100 owing to grade repetition or students at a level at ages younger or older than the typical age for the level.)

According to Census of India data, in the age group of seven years and above, the literacy rates of S.C.s grew an impressive 11.4 percentage points in the decade between 2001 and 2011 (from 54.7 per cent to 66.1 per cent), compared with 8.2 percentage points for all categories. The growth was even higher among S.C. women, at 14.5 percentage points. In adult literacy too (15+ age group), S.C.s posted significant growth rates of 15.3 percentage points overall and 20.1 percentage points for women.

However, dropout rates among S.C.s were higher with rising levels of education. Data from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2014 show that the dropout rate was only 16.6 per cent for classes I-V, but it zoomed to 38.8 per cent between classes 1 and VIII and peaked at 50.1 for classes 1-X.

The GER for S.C.s in primary and upper primary levels is above 75 but it plummets to 48.8 at the senior secondary level. In higher education, the GER is much lower at 18.5 compared to the national figure of 23.6 for all categories. Among key States, Tamil Nadu topped the list both in general category (44.8), while Telangana was number one in the country for S.C.s (39.6).

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