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Bringing Equality in Schools

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Dalit children attending middle school in Batiagarh village, Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh in central India, suffered caste discrimination at the hands of the staff, while all the schoolchildren received poor-quality food. With the support of PACS and partner Jan Sahas, local woman Aarti Valmik and her women’s self-help group, successfully complained to the authorities to improve standards.

Aarti Valmik (left) and her women's SHG complained to authorities to end inequality in the village school.

Discrimination during midday meals (MDMs)

Aarti Valmik’s house is a tiny, two-room hut, the ceiling barely high enough for anyone to stand upright. But this is home to six people: Aarti, her husband Raju Prasad Kacchuaha, her two sons, Begi Arman and Begi Ankit, and her in-laws. One room accommodates Aarti and her family, the other, her in-laws. The latest addition to the house is a new toilet, built outside the house. 

Aarti sits in the small but neat courtyard, under the shade of a Shahtoot (King Mulberry) tree; soon, the courtyard is filled with women from her Dalit Vanchit Vikas Manch self-help group (SHG), formed in 2012, which she leads as president. It was the 10 women members of this group who mobilised the community when they learned of the discrimination practised by school teachers from the Batiagarh Middle School while serving dalit school children midday meals (MDMs).

The women's SHG meets to discuss village issues.

She explains: ‘The school MDM programme had become a platform for discrimination against people from subjugated castes, especially dalits. Because people from these castes traditionally did jobs considered unclean (such as sweeping the streets or cleaning people’s homes), people from the dominant castes considered us as dirty and refused to share food and drink with us. This mindset continues to this day, despite what the law may say.’

Mobilising local women

It was this caste-based discrimination – now illegal in India though still persisting in many areas, especially rural ones – that Aarti mobilised her group to fight. Sachiv (secretary) of the group, Sit Bai, says: ‘In the school, children from dalit families told us how those from dominant castes refused to eat food cooked by cooks from castes considered lower; how the dominant caste cook and kitchen helper kept a separate set of utensils to serve food and drink to children from other castes; local communities resisted hiring dalit women as cooks in the schools; and how the women from dominant castes hired as cooks ended up discriminating against dalit children during the MDM served in the school. Children from castes considered lower were required to bring their own plates, and they were not only served separately but from a distance – literally having food thrown at them. This was because the cooks made sure that they or their ladles did not touch the plates of the children they were serving.’
 
The discrimination was one problem; the other was the low quality of food that was served to almost all students. Bhagbai Bansal, an SHG member, says: ‘It was common for children to complain of poor quality food: the dal (pulse stew) was often watery, the chappatis were either burned or under-cooked, and vegetables were rarely cooked. The menu, as given by the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Department, says that the children must also be served kheer/halwa (sweets) as well as fruit, but they were rarely available. Often, the poor quality of food and lack of quantity, led to fights among the children for food. It was sad and pathetic, and we decided we had to act against the treatment meted out to our children, day after day.’

One day, the women from the group went to the school to see the situation for themselves. Aarti reports: ‘We witnessed various discriminatory practices in the school, but discrimination was most obvious when the children were served during the MDM. We found that children from our (Dalit) communities often would be served last, for example, and there was discrimination in the attitude of those serving them food. The cooks avoided touching their ladles to the plates of lower caste children, and the children told us that if, by mistake, their plates touched the ladle with which the food was being served, they would get a scolding. One day, a young boy was really hungry and so stood at the front of the line to be served first. But the teacher in charge flew into a rage and told him: “don’t you know your place’? How dare you come and ask for food before the upper-caste children are served?”’ 

Involving the authorities

On witnessing this first hand, the women immediately marched to the block development office, taking them watery dal and burnt chhapatis with them. ‘We showed the block development officer what children were being served at school. He was aghast and phoned the education department for a report. Nothing happened for three to four days, but later, the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), tehsildar (district revenue officer) and other important functionaries descended on the school, accompanied by a large team from various government departments, such as education and ICDS. They were there to investigate how the school was being run and to look into our complaint.’

The fact that the SDM sat with the children and ate the MDM has become a legend in the village; equally legendary is his reaction after tasting the food. ‘He found it deplorable’, says Aarti. This provoked an immediate response: improvement in the services and the behaviour of the school teachers towards children from loweroppressed  castes. Gone were the watery dal, under-cooked or burned chhapatis and the poor attitudes of the teachers. 

Aarti continues: ‘On several occasions, we saw the school staff siphoning off and selling the MDM supplies openly, in the market. When confronted, the woman running the school kitchen denied the allegations and tried to cover it up by saying the food items actually came from her farm, not the school! But I pointed out to her the difference in the quality of the two food grains: the one supplied by the ICDS department was coarser than that grown on farms, anyone could tell the difference easily. It did not help that the women belonged to the ruling party in the state and was its block president in addition to running the SHG that was contracted to run the school kitchen. When there was no escape, she expressed her frustration at how “people from small castes were now looking those from the higher castes in the eye, and could not understand how and when this change had happened”.’

Improved standards

Ever since Aarti’s SHG intervened, there has been a perceptible change in the behaviour of the school staff and the food served to all children. Teachers and other students no longer address these children using derogatory terms for their caste or community; even and there are plates available meant for the all lower-caste children have now made an appearance, brought out of the trunk in which they were packed away. 

Imrat Choudhary, Field Coordinator with local PACS partner Jan Sahas, explains how important it is to stamp out these practicses, which can have a long-term impact on individuals and communities. ‘There’s a cost to this kind of discrimination,’ he says. ‘Children from lower oppressed castes, forever scolded and taunted, eventually stop going to school and drop out because of rampant bigotry and discrimination. The obnoxious treatment forces them to stay away from school, leading to increased truancy; eventually, they drop out of school all together.’ 

Twins Karan (right) and Arjun feel they are welcome in school now.

Santosh Rohit, PACS Block Coordinator, explains that although such discrimination has been outlawed in India (via the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) Act in 1989, and safeguards within the Indian Constitution), most legislation is poorly implemented and dDalits continue to suffer discrimination and exclusion. This is why communities need to take up the fight at local level.

For the children of Batiagarh village, it is certainly an important achievement. Arjun, in grade three, says: ‘We get all meals in school; no longer are we made to wash our own plates. There is a separate person to wash the plates, while the teacher is in charge of cooking the meal.’ His twin brother, Karan, adds: ‘The best thing is that we do not flush the toilet for teachers. I hated doing it but there was no way I could say anything to the teachers. Now we feel welcome.’ 

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