When I tell this story, it does not belong to me alone; it is a story shared by millions of others who come from similar backgrounds and aim to dream big. My story starts in the hamlets of Buldhana district of Vidarbha region; born to illiterate farming parents, education seemed like a distant dream.
The prospects of quality education in villages and cities seem negligible; and if one aims to dream, Pune and Mumbai seem like the only resort. The cost and standard of education are sometimes higher than the value of our dreams themselves. Yet, some brace themselves for the challenges and costs these cities throw at them. Others? They get thrown out of the streams of education or settle for less.
And those who, despite struggles and difficulties, find their initial footing in Pune are introduced to a new kind of social and cultural complex when adjusting to the city. In such surroundings, students develop an inferiority complex looking at the culture, food habits, clothes, language, accent, and ways of the city.
They are faced with a strange state of being and not-being — where they are unsure whether to maintain their homegrown identity or try to blend in with the city, except the city itself is in constant flux.
I attempted a similar trajectory to pursue my education. I was determined to study in Pune, but selecting an apt college and course required access to knowledge I could not even imagine having, owing to my lack of network and access. I soon dropped out and completed my graduation in a distance learning mode from an open university.
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The question of merit
The Indian education system has not yet devised a framework to gauge the merit of its vast demography of students. Even though this notion of merit dominates policies and discourse in our system, it settles for convenience over equitable distribution of its resources.
Such a conventionalist system does not account for students emerging from first-generation, rural, tribal, and marginalised backgrounds. The system is designed in ways to cater to status-quo — the student demographic hailing from an upper-class-caste background with an urban upbringing ends up accumulating most of the limited educational opportunities available.
In such conditions, the role of social and cultural capital favours only certain classes. These are intangible dividends, passed on to you based on your ascribed caste and class location in a society — access to knowledge, opportunities, networks, technology, and so on. You cannot use the same yardstick to measure the competencies of lesser-privileged background students against the Indian urban students.
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The nectar of demographic dividend
According to the latest Oxfam report, the economic disparity in India is going through one of its worst phases, consequently, the ultimate brunt of it is faced by the marginalised.
India is now the most populous country in the world. But more importantly, India is a nation of youth; its young population alone can be a standalone continent. And numbers like that are translatable to a high demographic dividend. Yet, in this potential superpower land of dreams and opportunities, there lies a grey zone of access and resource mobilisation.
It raises a range of unacknowledged questions — demographic dividend for who? Is the major chunk of the young population covered under it? Which strata of the young population is the dividend catering to? Is it a formalised term legitimising access to cheap labour and easy exploitation?
The dominant caste-class nexus still dominates society in every social, political, educational, cultural, and economic aspect. Making it harder for the marginalised caste-class (70 per cent of the country’s population) to gain access to education, opportunities, resources, and jobs.
After considering the structural stratification, data, and present scenario, the promises of a republic seem to fail the majority of its youth. The nectar does not seem to trickle down.
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Letting the numbers speak
According to a survey by Nature, PhD enrollment in the five highest-ranked Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), hovers around 10 per cent for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and a mere 2 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (STs). The remaining IITs and IISc do not fare any better. Since the researchers from the marginalised castes form a bare number, any scope of them converting into faculty level is cut short too.
The same data suggests, 98 per cent of faculty at the professor level and more than 90 per cent at the assistant or associate level hail from the dominant castes. In fact, there are some premier institutes with zero representation in the faculty from marginalised castes.
According to a reply given in 2019 by then-minister of human resource development in the Rajya Sabha, of 20 Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) in India, 12 did not have a single faculty member from SC and ST communities. Among a total of 1,148 sanctioned faculty, only 11 hailed from SC and ST backgrounds.
This is the functioning of a vicious cycle, the doom of which follows like a shadow in every other industry.
Education is the only way
Throughout the history of time, social and human development has always worked in tandem with cultural hegemony — those in possession of it end up prioritising their needs and caste-class nexus.
Consequently, it created a wide divide between what political scientist Gopal Guru described as “theoretical pundits” and “empirical shudras”. I have felt and realised this divide at every step in my decade-spanning work in the Indian higher education sector.
Understanding this stark inequality and the need to amend, the Bahujan organisations have taken on higher education as their core focus — including Nalanda Academy, Eklavya India Foundation, CEDE, Trutiya Ratna, and Bahujan Economists. Even the most popular leaders of the community like Savitri and Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Ambedkar, and Periyar have proposed education as the only path to liberation.
Bahujan organisations are determined to change the demographic, which is disproportionately skewed in favour of the dominant caste-class groups. Educational access and opportunities will help generations of students and families to uplift themselves from the shackles of the caste system and their marginalisation.
Taking pages from the life and legacy of anti-caste leaders, education seems like the fair and only way for the oppressed to fight this system.
Raju Kendre is the founder of Eklavya India foundation, which works towards the democratisation of higher education. He tweets @RajuKendree. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)