By Suchitra | TwoCircles.net
NEW DELHI – India has witnessed a complete collapse of healthcare facilities during the pandemic. Amid the lockdown, schools remain closed even when cinema theatres are open. The loss of learning has impacted marginalized communities very differently, a report titled “Confronting the Pandemic: Response and Recovering for Dalit and Adivasi students” by National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) finds. The report explores the ramifications of Covid-19 not only as a public health crisis but also as a crisis of deep, endemic inequality.
With better educational opportunities, Dalit and Adivasi students are able to reduce the gap between themselves and other socially advanced groups. All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) data indicates lack of financial resources as one of the main reasons for less accessibility of Dalit and Adivasi children to access higher education or drop out.
Even before the pandemic, about 15% of students surveyed (1,551 in absolute terms) were doing part-time work to either pay for their education or to contribute to household earnings. During the pandemic, however, 22% Dalit and 29% Adivasi students were forced to take up employment in addition to their courses, 48% of which took up manual labour.
Besides their limited ability to pay fees and meet educational expenses, they struggle to access available scholarships. For many Dalit and Adivasi students, attaining the dream of higher education often comes with the condition of earning their livelihood. Covid-19 and the related lockdown has unleashed a vicious livelihood crisis for these students.
Online education conveniently ignores existing inequalities and discrimination that exist beyond this online mode, especially among girls, who are at greater risk of missing out on education. It will reinforce the prevailing social exclusion that Dalit and Adivasi students face.
Inequitable access to online classes is a dangerous trend, given that education is one of the tools for Dalit-Adivasi students to escape the burdens they carry due to their socio-economic status. 74% of India’s Dalit population resides in rural areas. As per National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, only 24% of Indian households have internet access. While this is 42% in urban India, it is just 15% in rural India, becoming a deterrent for Dalit students to access digital education. 51% of surveyed students could not access online classes because they did not own a smartphone or a laptop, and were burdened, lagging behind due to this digital divide. 21% did not have access to a regular, stable internet connection in their villages. The main reasons to not access online classes were unavailability of Android phones, laptops, internet and space at home, or engagement in a job to meet expenses.
Scholarships and other entitlements
An important lever to increase access to government entitlements is the budgetary allocation to higher education schemes, particularly Post Matric Scheme (PMS). Post Matric Scholarship is a massive scheme, covering about 62 lakh students across the country. In 2014-15, students belonging to SC had a share of 13.5% and STs 4.8%. By 2018-19, this had increased to 15% for SCs and 6% for STs. Despite growing demand from SC/ST beneficiaries across the country, the PMS has faced continuous budgetary cuts. The government has failed to address the issue to adequately allocate for the scheme and work towards its better implementation.
The NCDHR report found about 31% of the total surveyed students didn’t receive a scholarship in the past year, with women constituting 47% of them. Out of the total surveyed students, 54% of them do not know whom to reach out in the government for information regarding Post Matric Scholarship and other government entitlements. 93% of the students didn’t receive any information/updates about the entitlements/Post Matric Scholarship from the media, especially during the Covid-19 period. More than 56% of the students pay up to Rs 3000 as their accommodation (hostel, PG or rented place) and around 51% of students pay their monthly mess charges up to Rs 3000., therefore the non-payment of PMS would risk them to vacate their premise or run into financial debt.
Intersectional narratives: Gender and Disability
Closing down of university spaces has blocked social mobility and resources for Dalit and Adivasi Women. Women’s education automatically becomes a non-priority amidst survival struggles and a lack of social security. The study revealed that 21% of women respondents were forced to take up employment during Covid-19. Another reason behind families discouraging online education for women students is exercising strong control over women’s sexuality. Access to the digital space also opens up avenues for one to explore their sexuality in various ways. In a tightly monitored Brahminical culture of regulating women’s sexuality, women’s social mobility, be it in the physical space or digital, is bound to be put to scrutiny.
The report highlights that some immediate concerns that need to be addressed for the Dalit transgender community include legal recognition of caste identity within trans reservation; inclusion of Bahujan history in mainstream education; reservation in government hostels and accommodation for outstation candidates applying for admissions to universities.
There is a near absence of Dalit and Adivasi students with disabilities, particularly in higher education. 26% of the total PWD students were forced to take up employment during Covid-19. 20% of the PWD students are planning to discontinue their study post Covid-19. 20% of the PWD students are planning to discontinue their study post Covid-19.
During such a critical period, state negligence and apathy towards Dalit and Adivasi students is evident, highlighting the exclusionary tendencies in our education system.
The report stresses that there is a strong need to re-evaluate the education system to address the existing inequalities and make it more inclusive as for thousands of Dalit and Adivasi students, education is the only means to break the vicious circle of economic deprivation and oppression.