A debate rages on over the National Education Policy and the conspicuous near-absence of the word caste in the policy document. It is at this juncture that a teenage girl from Tamil Nadu has rekindled the debate on social versus economic deprivation.
Dhanalakshmi is a tribal girl belonging to the Irula community. Her repeated attempts to secure a community certificate—so that she can get a college education—have hit a wall. While the right to education has been guaranteed by the Constitution to Scheduled Tribes, one of the most disadvantaged groups, the system, more often than not, ensures they do not get access to that right.
Even if the parents have community certificates, an Irula child can secure one for herself only if she manages to convince a team of anthropologists that she, indeed, is a tribal child. There are reports galore of these children being asked to catch rats and snakes to prove they are tribals.
Access to education—the greatest social equaliser—is still dependent on adherence to deeply-entrenched caste practices for these tribal students. Naturally, Dhanalakshmi had to fight to get a certificate. When she was summoned for an inquiry, a group of men from dominant castes gathered outside the RDO and asked her to withdraw her demand. When she refused, she was attacked.
To put things in perspective, the new education policy is coming at a time when tribal girls seeking a higher education and better future continue to be assaulted by men of dominant castes. It comes at a time when some people from other castes bribe and cheat to obtain community certificates, denying the privilege to the real beneficiaries.
It is high time that the discourse over caste-based reservations is tweaked to make the public understand that the policy is not about disincentivising a merit-based system, but about incentivising education for those who cannot afford it, through scholarships and stipends. Our previous experiments have failed to deliver social justice to the most downtrodden effectively. The new education policy has to fix that.