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Delhi as a case study: The unending curse of caste and class in schools

Anurag Kundu | Updated on: 26 May 2017, 11:00 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Segregation in Indian society dates back to our ancient history where the division of society on the basis of caste was a dominant characteristic. Though our Constitution is drafted on the basis of ideas of equality before the law, socio-economic-political justice, and freedom from oppression, India, 70 years hence, still stands as an example of a highly divided society.

Since the 1970s, segregation in Indian schools has been on the rise due to the rising number of private schools which are very ‘exclusive’ in nature. Several studies suggest that the choice of schools, whether government or private, is not just a product of economic status, but of caste dynamics.

The children belonging to upper castes predominantly study in private schools and those belonging to lower caste attend government schools.

In the absence of any common platform for interaction during formative years, the age-old traditions find their roots in the minds of children, thus perpetuating the cycle of oppression. Video Volunteers, a YouTube channel, has done incredible work of documenting such stories.

Delhi can be a textbook case for this contention with inequality staring in the face of the nation’s capital. The Capital, a residence of the seat of world’s largest democracy that claims to be an emerging superpower, is also a home to 90 lakh slum dwellers or residents of colonies without basic civic amenities, and 25,000 homeless who are often found sleeping under the flyovers.

A solution?

Section 12(1)(c) Right to Education attempts to put an end to an ‘economic and social apartheid in schools’ by compelling integration in private schools through mandating admission of children belonging to socially disadvantaged and economically weaker sections for one-fourth of the seats in entry level classrooms.

Such diversity in classrooms ensures interaction between children belonging to different social groups and thus helps in the demolition of excesses of the hierarchy of caste and class.

It is not a coincidence that Finland, a country often held out as an education success story, has the lowest degree of socio-economic segregation in schools amongst countries that participate in PISA.

Diversity of our schools is not just correlated with our shared value system but also the academic achievement as multiple studies in different contexts including that of Delhi by Dr Gautam Rao from Harvard University has established.

However, several years since the act has come into force, nearly 1,000 private schools regulated by the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi (collectively called MCD from here) remain a mystery.

According to a research study this author published about the status of implementation of this provision in Delhi for the 2015-16 academic year, less than 10% schools regulated by Municipal Corporation of Delhi were in compliance. The admission process is marred by issues of lack of transparency and a city-wide violation of the law.

There is no information on the MCD portal regarding the number of seats in each school under this provision. The MCD has been making absolutely no effort to actively make people aware of the provision and work with them or even monitor the implementation of the provision.

In the absence of information about the admission process, and seat availability, private schools enjoy a free hand to hoodwink parents by means of their false claims. Parents having no credible source of information to dispute or corroborate their claims. Most schools do not have any notice board outside their gate that displays the number of seats.

The absence of information ensures the denial of the right.

MCD doesn’t have any helpline to assist parents whose rights are being violated, nor is the portal responsive, despite several complaints being filed, indicating that their grievance redressal portal is nothing but a farce.

When a series of interventions like petitioning, writing letters, meetings, research study, adverse media reports, failed to make an impact, it led to the filing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Delhi High Court in December last year.

On 26 April, the Acting Chief Justice delivered a judgment directing the MCD to make information regarding seat availability in each school public by 31 December annually and upload compliance report by 30 April every year.

The court has also asked MCD to improve its grievance redressal mechanism failing which the Court would initiate contempt charges against the Director (Education).

This judgment is historic for multiple reasons. First, it secures the rights of more than 12,000 children in the city of Delhi itself for whom the hope expressed in the law remained a mere text thus far.

Second, it sets a precedent for similar PILs to be taken up in other states too. This assumes importance considering 18 states remain in violation of the law denying the Eklavyas of today their right to study with the children of the royalty, the upper caste and class.

The question, therefore, this country faces is who we choose to empower – the Eklavyas or the Dronacharyas.

This may well determine the envisaged pluralistic and harmonious nature of our democracy. There will be no reward or punishment for compliance or violations, but only the consequences. Time is a cruel judge.

The author was the main petitioner of the Public Interest Litigation in Delhi High Court. He previously worked with Indus Action, a not for profit organisation working for social integration in schools. He is also the founder of Election Promises Tracker which tracks governments’ performance against their promises and also fact-checks the claims of governments, media and politicians.

First published: 25 May 2017, 16:48 IST