How Dravidian movement scripted Tamil Nadu’s success in education

The NITI Aayog’s school education quality index ranks TN, alongside Kerala, as the best in India when it comes to school education.

Published: 15th October 2022 04:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th October 2022 02:30 PM   |  A+A-

Higher education, university, college

Image for representational purposes. (Express Illustrations)

Two areas in which Tamil Nadu has achieved tremendous success helping shrink traditional cleavages of caste, religion and gender are the attainment of educational outcomes and healthcare. In both, TN’s performance compares with that of OECD countries. The focus of successive Dravidian governments on education has made Tamil Nadu one of India’s leading states in human resource development. For instance, according to RBI data, TN has the highest Graduate Enrolment Ratio (GER) in India at 52% against the national average of 27%. 

Another unique accomplishment of the Dravidian movement in education is its inclusion of marginalised communities and women in attainment of educational outcomes. While enrollment of girls in high school stands at 85% (compared to 50% in Gujarat), enrollment of women in graduate programmes stands at 46%, the highest in India. TN also has the highest percentage of Muslim graduates at 36% compared to the national average of 16%. 

The NITI Aayog’s school education quality index ranks TN, alongside Kerala, as the best in India when it comes to school education. As per the National Sample Survey, the average household expenditure of a higher secondary student in a government school in TN is Rs 2,800, less than half the national average of Rs 6,916. In Maharashtra, the figure is as high as Rs 8,788, while it is a whopping Rs 9,179 in Gujarat. This is possible due to targeted welfare schemes. 

Rightly understanding that education is the key to social mobility, the Justice Party, more than 100 years ago, democratised education through a series of interventions that sought to upend the status quo in which members of a single community disproportionately occupied positions in government and academic institutions. These interventions include issuing the Communal Government Order, which sought to increase representation of people belonging to diverse castes and religions, provision of mid-day meals and provision of free and compulsory education for children aged five to 12 and penalties for parents who withdrew their children from schools.

Subsequently, the Dravidar Kazhagam and DMK further democratised education. Protests by Periyar, CN Annadurai, and MK Karunanidhi resulted in the first amendment to the Constitution of India. The amendment to Article 15 (4) allowed for the Union government to create affirmative action policies for socially and educationally backward classes and SCs and STs. After coming to power in 1967, the DMK government set up a Backward Classes commission. Based on its recommendations, the reservation for OBCs, SCs and STs was increased. Over the years, successive Dravidian governments introduced different interventions aimed at removing structural inequalities in education. These include expanding caste-based reservation up to 69%, abolishing entrance exams and providing special reservation for government school students.

Chief Minister MK Stalin, on the principles of the Dravidian Model, has given a renewed push for education. Schemes such as Illam Thedi Kalvi, Pudhumai Penn Thittam and free breakfast for primary school students are revolutionary and aimed at ensuring that TN attains educational outcomes similar to those of developed European countries.

The free breakfast scheme is a policy initiative with far-reaching consequences for both education and public health. Research has shown that consumption of a nutritious breakfast improves a child’s learning outcomes. Apart from also improving school enrollment, the scheme will also contribute towards the overall development of the child. 

Under the Pudhumai Penn Thittam, the government offers Rs 1,000 a month for every girl student from government/aided schools during her college education. Although TN, with a labour force participation of women at 30%, trumps the national average, it still lags behind the global average. This scheme, apart from improving enrolment of women in schools and colleges, will also improve women’s participation in the labour force. When the percentage of women who participate in the job market increases, so will the freedom of women.

Education is a public good. CM MK Stalin has said, education is the real wealth that cannot be stolen. Any expenditure on education comes with lots of positive externalities. Better-employed people pay higher taxes, and, in cases of brain drain, we have remittances coming in from those who are abroad. A well-educated society is key to a state’s prosperity. 

Footnote is a weekly column that discusses issues relating to Tamil Nadu.

Salem Dharanidharan is an executive coordinator of Dravidian Professionals Forum and an alumnus of the University of Oxford.

Development for all Another accomplishment of the Dravidian movement in education is its inclusion of marginalised communities and women in attainment of educational outcomes. Enrollment of girls in high school stands at 85%.

India Matters


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  • Saravana K

    Not mentioning the role of kamraj and inc who played pivotal role in increasing education coverage seems to suspect partisan portrayal!
    7 months ago reply
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