Caste aside? Many worries over new education policy

The draft NEP hasn’t clearly addressed caste-based issues and inequalities, say activists.

Published: 14th July 2019 04:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th July 2019 04:34 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

The draft NEP hasn’t clearly addressed caste-based issues and inequalities, say activists. They are also unhappy with the emphasis laid on merit-based admissions and lack of commitment to increasing public spending in the sector

CHENNAI: Amidst the furore over the proposal to make Hindi learning compulsory in the newly-released draft National Education Policy, the lack of a strong strategy to address caste and its impact on access to quality education went unnoticed. The draft policy largely looks at social backwardness exclusively as a product of economic status, ignoring the role of caste. A quick glance through the 484-page document, in fact, reveals a solitary mention of “reservation” and that too only to say that private institutes of higher education need not follow reservation. At present many professional private institutes implement the reservation policy for disadvantaged communities in the seats they surrender to government quota.

Educationalists and Dalit rights activists observed that the draft policy’s outlook on caste is vague and limited, lacking entirely in seriousness. While it tiptoes around caste, reservation and secularism mention “merit” — a word often inaccurately used in opposition to reservation — in about 40 places, repeatedly advocating for “merit-based” admissions and recruitment. This suggests the policy evolved from the caste-blind notion that merit is a direct result of an individual’s hard work, completely ignoring the reality of social structures that mould it. The repetitive focus on merit-based admissions indicates that the system is likely to best benefit those who have already beat the odds of social oppression. In contrast, only half a page in the entire document is exclusively devoted to addressing education of children belonging to SC communities and OBCs, while one page speaks of education of tribal children.

Bone of contention

This outlook is in stark contrast with some other policies, such as the National Curricular Framework for Teacher Education (NCFTF) 2009. In a paragraph on page 13 of the NCFTF that specifically looks at caste and acknowledges the consequences of social oppression, the framework said, “The second and more insidious pattern of exclusion is the social exclusion of children who come from socially and economically deprived backgrounds — Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), minority and other communities, girls and children with diverse learning needs. There is a dire need to equip teachers to overcome their biases in this regard and to develop professional capacities to address these challenges. The education of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, especially the SCs/STs and minorities has remained a primary national concern of education for several years.”

“The (draft) NEP does not adequately address any caste issue prevailing in the education system, particularly those surrounding Scheduled Castes,” charged Christodas Gandhi, a former IAS officer.
Exemplifying this, the word “caste” appears only six times in the entire document. Aside from a mention in the glossary, index of contents, a walk-through section on the consultation process and in the title of the section on education of SC children, the word only appears twice in the content of the policy itself.
Similarly, the word “reservation”, appears only once, that too only to say that private institutes of higher education “shall not be mandated to adhere to reservation guidelines other than those stated in this Policy and their formative Acts with respect to local State students”. However, E Balagurusamy, an educationalist and former Anna University Vice-Chancellor defended the draft policy on that front, stating that an education policy had no business talking about reservation as the quota system could not be changed without changing the constitution.

The caste-blind nature of the policy is most exposed when discussing the perceived crisis in literacy and numeracy (pages 56–57). In this context,  six “causes” are outlined: lack of school preparedness, too little curricular emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy, teacher capacity, teacher deployment, health and nutrition. However, there is no acknowledgement of structural issues that may fuel deprivation. The policy limits its views on caste to seeing it as hurdle for school enrollment, an important reason for discrimination in classroom seating and as a basis for proposing that more teachers from lower castes ought to be trained and recruited.

“Caste inequalities have started manifesting in novel ways in new-age India and it is rudimentary to assume that people from backward castes are less represented in the education system due to reasons of monetary barriers or supply scarcity or social taboos only,” said Gandhi, pointing out that the draft policy only recommends monetary solutions such as scholarships and grants. “It is a conscious policy construct, egged on by corporate lust for cheap labour, to trample the educational aspirations of marginalised people like SC/STs, by preempting their claim to superior occupations,” he charged.

Vocational courses

Another manifestation of this attitude in the policy is seen in its recommendation that vocational courses, such as pottery, gardening, wood-work and electric work be taught by community skillsmen and women, to even elementary students, said educationalist Prince Gajendrababu.

He pointed out that while children living in urban elite areas may find a new hobby in these vocational courses, kids from rural areas, many of whose parents follow these professions, will be entrapped in these professions. “The same way a singer’s child may pick up singing, a farmers child may up those skills from home. In an aspiration to break the vicious cycle of poverty, they send their children to school to acquire new skills to follow a different profession. A rich man’s son is not going to become a carpenter because he learnt that skill in school. But chances are high that a poor man’s son may just have to take that up professionally. So the government wants people to continue being in the same level without significant social mobility,” said Gajendrababu.

Some of the criticism of the draft from these perspectives have found place in a report submitted by a team of educationalists led by V Vasanthidevi, former Manonmaniam Sundaranar University Vice-Chancellor. “The draft speaks of making education universally accessible, but makes no commitment of a big increase in public investment, which alone can ensure it,” the report said.

“Instead, it votes for greater role for private sector,” it added, pointing that crucial reforms in education system that can reduce inequality, had been left out of the policy, leaving it to the responsibility of citizens and “local heroes”.

Gender and caste

How the draft policy could have addressed the issues related to caste and education could be seen in its handling of gender, another basis for structural oppression. The draft policy treats caste as an implicit issue and people from lower castes are clubbed under the category of “Under Represented Groups (URG)” — an abbreviation invoked frequently through the policy. On the other hand, it has a more progressive stance on gender equality. For instance, on Pg 145, the policy says, “in order to achieve gender equality in education, the policy aims to integrate gender as a cross-cutting priority for all aspects of policy implementation”. That gender must be integrated into all policy planning and implementation is an important view, that ought to have been adopted with respect to caste as well.

This gap in outlook can also be seen in the draft policy’s views on embedding issues such as gender discrimination, equity and inclusion, in the upcoming vision of the curriculum. For instance, the draft, on page 101, says that articles addressing patriarchy and even racism will be part of the curriculum, but makes no mention of caste or casteism.

As part of this understanding, the policy, on page 137, says “Unfortunately, prejudice and bias, based on gender, social and economic status, and special needs, among other factors, often affect people’s capacity to benefit from the education system.” Grouped in the same category as URGs are “those having given gender identities (including women, and transgender individuals), given socio-cultural identities (such as SC, ST, OBCs, Muslims, migrant communities), given special needs (such as learning disabilities) and given socio-economic conditions (such as the urban poor)”. Yet, it fails to provide nuanced solutions to address the diverse and often intersecting needs of the peoples, raising worrying questions if it sees a one-size-fits-all approach as sufficing for all.

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