A law making education free and compulsory for all Indian children is failing millions of low caste, tribal and Muslim children who are dropping out of school because of rampant discrimination, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.
The Right to Education Act (RTE) came into force four years ago and makes education the fundamental right and duty of every child aged between six and 14.
But while government figures show almost 100 percent primary school enrolment, a report by HRW says discriminatory practices such as verbal and physical abuse, segregation and denial of school meals are forcing many marginalised children to quit school.
“India’s immense project to educate all its children risks falling victim to deeply rooted discrimination by teachers and other school staff against the poor and marginalised,” said Jayshree Bajoria, HRW’s India researcher and author of the report.
“Instead of encouraging children from at-risk communities who are often the first in their families to ever step inside a classroom, teachers often neglect or even mistreat them.”
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 80 million Indian children drop out of school before completing elementary education. Many are from low caste or Dalit communities, Muslims and indigenous tribespeople, who have long faced mistreatment because of deep-rooted prejudices.
The report “They Say We’re Dirty” is based on nearly 160 interviews with children and parents from such underprivileged communities, teachers and principals, academics and child rights activists in the states of Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
It details how children as young as seven were told they were “dirty” or “lazy” and treated harshly by teachers and other school staff.
“The teacher didn’t let us go to the toilet. One day, I asked her for permission to go to the toilet but she said, ‘Sit down, go later,'” the report quoted Vijay, a 14-year-old boy from the low-caste Musahar community in Uttar Pradesh state, as saying.
“So I urinated outside the window and she hit me so hard with a stick that my hand broke. I went to the hospital to get my hand bandaged. I had my hand in a bandage for 10 days.”
Another Musahar boy in the same class told researchers the teacher would make them sit in a corner of the room and throw keys at them when she was angry.
“We only got food if anything was left after other children were served. The teacher hit my classmate so hard that she broke his hand. After this incident, gradually all Musahar children stopped going to school.”
Other children spoke of being forced to sit separately and subjected to insulting, derogatory remarks by teachers and other staff.
In some schools, such children were never considered for leadership roles such as class monitor because of their caste or community, the report said. Many children were expected to perform unpleasant jobs such as cleaning toilets, it added.
This demoralises children and leads to low self-esteem, possibly to truancy, and to early employment and marriage.
India’s literacy rates have surged since independence from Britain in 1947. The national literacy rate is 74 percent compared with 12 percent almost seven decades ago.
India has doubled its education budget to implement the RTE, 11 million more children are enrolled in school, and most rural Indians live within one kilometre of a primary school.
Yet regular attendance and retention remain major challenges, and human rights groups say there is no system in place for tracking attendance, mapping exclusion, and setting up additional courses so that children who drop out or start school at a later age can catch up.
“Non-discrimination and equality are fundamental to the Right to Education Act and yet the law provides no penalties for violators,” Bajoria said.
“If schools are to become child-friendly environments for all of India’s children, the government needs to send a strong message that discriminatory behaviour will no longer be tolerated and those responsible will be held to account.”