Case studies

Fighting inequality in schools

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In Chirakhan village, people from lower castes make up the majority of residents, yet continue to face blatant discrimination at the hands of their neighbours. Prior to intervention from PACS and partner MPVHA, Dalit schoolchildren were made to sit at the back of the class, eat sub-standard food, and use separate utensils. Shocked by their treatment, PACS and MPVHA used local media to publicise the issue and helped educate people about anti-discrimination laws. Children now mingle freely at school and eat the same food, but the challenges continue in the wider community.

The village of Chiralhan, racked by caste discrimination, fought back with help from PACS.

Rapidly changing society

The small village of Chirakhan, located in Handiya tehsil, Harda district of Madhya Pradesh in northern India, is home to 192 families. Scheduled Castes (SC) constitute 39% of the total population, while Scheduled Tribe (ST) families make up 37%.
Chirakhan epitomises the small village in Madhya Pradesh: fresh air, verdant fields of soya and vegetables, farmers tending their fields, women drawing water from hand pumps and wells while village urchins splash about, buffaloes wallowing in the mud. Hectic city life is  conspicuous by its absence. 

But underneath the “rural idyll”, is a community in flux, coming to terms with a rapidly changing economy and societal structure, which involves the stamping out of caste-based discrimination, practised for centuries, but no longer acceptable. This example from the local government middle school demonstrates the upheaval caused in a small community.

‘Untouchability’

Community member Prem Narayan explains: ‘For ages, Dalit and other “lower castes” have had to adhere to the stringent principles of the caste system and to rigidly maintain the historical notions of purity and pollution. We still continue to live in separate areas of the village based on caste composition, follow restrictions in accessing public water sources, shops and visits to dominant caste members’ houses, and even have separate temples during fairs and festivals. While in school, till recently, our children had to bear the humiliation of untouchability when it came to serving midday meals (MDM), seating, drinking water or tasks given to children. Traditional tasks associated with the Dalit community were allocated by the teachers – who came from dominant castes - to further exemplify their low position, like sweeping schools, cleaning toilets, fetching water and so on.’

Discrimination at school

Ravi Chouhan, a pupil in class 10, describes how he and his fellow classmates – all Dalits – were treated: ‘In school, even our touch was considered “polluting”– a breach was often followed by verbal abuse by the children of dominant castes and/or the teacher,’ he says. ‘A common practice was the requirement for Dalit and children from other ‘lower castes’ to sit at the back of the classroom. There was active connivance by the teacher when it came to discrimination: often, we were told by the teacher to sit at the back with children from the same caste. Many times, the only SC teacher in our school passively participated in discrimination by expressing his helplessness against the dominance of the upper caste and their social rules; often, he ended up defending their place in the front of the classroom.’ 

He adds that the teacher barely noticed their presence, answered their questions or helped with classroom activities. ‘For many of us, learning became difficult because we could not raise questions, read the blackboard easily or follow the teaching.

Discrimination was especially bad in school.

‘Similarly, we were banned from entering the school kitchen or touching the vegetables, fruits or utensils,’ he continues. ‘Often we would find worms in the food because we were served stale food, the quality was so poor that many children – despite being hungry and attending school only for the midday meal (MDM) scheme – preferred to go hungry. If we complained, the usual retort was “you get free food and you still complain”. Our parents visited the school to complain, but to no avail.’ 

Neha, a class 6 pupil adds: ‘We had separate seating and serving of food during MDMs; sometimes, we were made to sit in separate circles or rows, and told to ensure we did not touch any child from the dominant castes. The teachers threw food on our plates from a distance, so they did not have to touch our plates; we were forbidden to touch food and water belonging to the dominant caste or to serve, or be served by, them. We had to wait at a distance till children from dominant castes finished drinking before we approached the taps or the hand pump. However, dominant caste children were allowed to stand on the hand pump platform while we finished drinking.’

Discrimination in the wider community

Amra Bai, an anganwadi worker, reports that what was practised in school was also common in at home. For example, even now, if a Dalit child drinks from the cup of a dominant caste, the cup is thrown away. Similarly, in panchayat (village council) meetings, ‘lower castes’ are asked to drink tea or water in glasses or plates kept separately for them, often cracked or chipped, to avoid ‘accidental pollution’. This is also the case in hotels and tea-shops, where Dalits are allowed to buy food or drink only if they are prepared to use separate utensils and wash them up themselves. Sometimes, these are thrown away, anyway.

When it comes to fetching water from the village well or hand pump, local resident Karan Kumar explains that those from dominant castes fill the pitchers of the lower castes – albeit from a distance – or the latter have to wait until those from the dominant castes have finished filling water.

Villager Brinda Ram adds that tasks such as filling the teachers’ water pots at school were reserved for the dominant caste children while the dirtier jobs, such as cleaning the students’ or teachers’ toilets, or sweeping the classrooms, was done by children from Dalit communities. 

Challenging power dynamics

In 2012, Sairam Chouhan, Cluster Coordinator with the Madhya Pradesh Voluntary Health Association (MPVHA) – a local CSO and partner to  the PACS programme – came to the village. He was horrified to hear about the level of discrimination against Dalit and other ‘lower caste’ communities in the village. 

‘Caste-based discrimination in schools came out in our preliminary meetings as a huge problem that needed urgent attention,’ he says. ‘However, the community was not sure how to approach the issue, since the dominant castes held all the cards and generations of being subservient to them had conditioned those from Dalit and other socially excluded communities to accept the injustice. Though there was frustration and angst, most did not know how to channelize it to arrive at positive outcomes.’

Sangeeta Chouhan is one of the CBO members who fought against discrimination.

Sairam organized community-level meeting with all stakeholders and explained the situation to them. He also familiarised them with the legal aspects of the constitutionally forbidden practice of ‘untouchability’ and caste-based discrimination. ‘It does not take much imagination to see how the atmosphere in school is actually an extension of the ghettoised existence of people in the segregated spaces in the village,’ he explains. ‘When I asked them if they had complained to the relevant government authorities about the treatment meted out to them, most replied that they “can’t fight the dominant castes”. This showed a certain reluctance in these communities to “take on” the dominant castes in order to change the power dynamics of the village; it also implied a sense of frustration and helplessness.’ 

The power of publicity

Not willing to let matters lie, Sairam and other NGO workers called a meeting of all community members to plan the way forward. Sairam says it was apparent that something had to be done since it was plainly unacceptable that such social practices could be accepted and condoned in modern day India. 

‘No-one had said anything against untouchability for years,’ he says. ‘So I decided on a plan of action: I called a stringer from The Hindustan Times to the village to show him first-hand how untouchability was thriving in a village barely 40km from the district headquarters, Harda, and only 120km from the state capital of Bhopal. He recorded his interviews and impressions on his phone and wrote a strong article the next day. As soon as the news broke, everyone – including the district collector – made a beeline for the village, expressing their incredulity that such a reprehensible practice could be allowed to continue and flourish under their very noses. The collector not only visited the village and went to the school to speak directly to the teachers and other staff, he even shared the midday meal with the children.’ 

The collector was shocked by the quality of the meal served, and expressed outrage at the state of affairs at the school. He ordered an immediate inquiry and demanded the teachers mend their ways immediately. This was a turning point in the village: no incident of untouchability or discrimination has been reported at the school since this time, and all the children now sit, eat and mingle freely in the school premises, while the teachers are now very careful of their conduct in the school.

Ongoing challenges

The school may have made significant progress, but the community has not yet abandoned the practice of untouchability. Villager Sangeeta Chouhan says: ‘The cloud of fear in Dalit children will not dissipate so easily. Untouchability is still practised by many in the village. Even today, we cannot touch utensils in the houses of the dominant castes, nor sit inside their homes. Even fetching water from hand pumps has to be within the norms laid down by the dominant castes. Until this changes, we can never say it is over for good.’

Brinda concludes: ‘We had all accepted untouchability as normal. This allowed it to take root in our society. We never fought it. It is only now that we have taken action, but the practice still flourishes in village life. We even have separate temples during festivals like Durja Pooja or Deepawali, and we consider it “normal”. Only when this changes will there be a change in the children’s overall perception about discrimination and they will learn to live normal lives, free of fear and humiliation.’

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