Swallowing the humiliation

The mid-day meal, meant to encourage attendance, has had the opposite effect on Dalit schoolchildren

For 11-year-old Raja, a Dalit student, mid-day meals at school can be a painful and humiliating experience. He and other Dalit children are made to sit separately. Sometimes the food is almost thrown at his plate from a distance. Frequently, most of the food is given to upper-caste children. Raja's parents speak of differential treatment meted out by teachers and mention that their son often feels disturbed and avoids going to school. Yet, as daily-wage agricultural labourers, they depend on the school to take care of at least one meal for Raja. Their complaints have been ignored. In fact, teachers advise students not to complain to their parents.

Raja's story is borne out by a survey of 122 schools across seven states, from November 2011 through March 2012, by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS). The states include Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. As part of the survey, 1,275 parents were questioned. It threw up several notable findings. For one, Dalit children faced various forms of differential treatment. Twenty per cent of respondents said Dalit children were left hungry as they got inadequate quantities of food, certainly less than children from upper castes. Another 20 per cent said Dalit children were not allowed to serve food; 14 per cent complained of separate seating arrangements during meals. Close to 13 per cent reported Dalit children had food dropped on their plates from a distance. About 9 per cent of respondents said Dalit children had to bring plates from home so their dishes would not get mixed up with those used by upper-caste children. Around 8 per cent said upper-caste children were served first.

Such discrimination has had clear consequences. Fifty-two per cent of parents mentioned this humiliating treatment discouraged children from going to school. Ten per cent said discrimination had affected their children's academic performance. Nine per cent reported school had become a painful experience for their children ó the unkind treatment had affected their psychological state and created tensions among students. The purpose of the mid-day meal had been to improve attendance and reduce the number of children dropping out. In these cases, the result has been the opposite.

The other important finding is people from the upper castes pressured organisers not to employ Dalits as cooks or helpers. In the surveyed states, nearly 20 per cent cooks belonged to SC communities while the rest were from higher castes. Respondents stated if Dalits were appointed, upper-caste children would stop eating mid-day meals. Moreover, 70 per cent organisers and individuals in charge of mid-day meals belong to upper castes. A 2004 study, based on 531 villages across Rajasthan, Bihar, UP, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, by Sukhadeo Thorat and Joel Lee, had also reported similar discrimination.

The good news is, taking note of such forms of discrimination, the HRD ministry has issued anti-discrimination guidelines, directing states to take corrective measures and set up mechanisms to address caste-based discrimination against Dalit children. These guidelines cover a wide range of discriminatory practices. They prohibit teachers from announcing the student's affiliation to a community, caste or tribe, passing derogatory remarks about the student's social background, and discriminating among students, especially at mid-day meals and sports facilities. States are expected to establish systems to address discrimination complaints within 60 days of their being filed.

Such initiatives will hopefully encourage progressive attitudes and equal, non-discriminatory access to mid-day meals. It should become an enjoyable experience that encourages Dalit children to go to school. Meanwhile, Raja says he wants to become a teacher, so that he can remedy the problems he sees in his own classroom.

Sabharwal is director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Delhi. Diwakar is associate fellow, IIDS

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