Scheduled Castes and The Access to Education. How Fair is India?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2008
21 Pages, Grade: 19/20



In this paper, I try to analyse the fairness of Scheduled Classes’ access to education. The paper starts with giving some introductive information about the cast system. Putting together the findings of several academic articles, different factors are then discussed such as the literacy level and school attendance of Dalit Children, the discriminative behaviours they face, some other important variables, the governmental initiatives and the discrimination on the labour market. It appears clearly that caste membership is still an important discriminative factor with regards to Dalit children’s access to education.

1. Introduction

India is often referred as the greatest democracy of the world. Indeed, an important number of arguments allow confirming this impressive status that India lays claim to deserve. For example, India has magnificently succeeded in putting the economic and political liberalism in phase while, for example, its Chinese neighbour is still having a huge gap between its economic liberalism and its authoritarian political system. Moreover, India has a free election system since 1951 and has a very decent rate of participation to the elections: 389mio of the 670mios of people in age to vote went to the polls in 2004. The presence of very powerful counter power such as a strong justice system and a free press also helps to build the image of a democratic India. However, all those formal institutions stack over a society which is unfortunately undemocratic.

The caste system still exists, indeed. No one would dare to deny it. Even if the Indian constitution has legally abolished the caste system half a century ago and promises to guarantee for its citizens “EQUALITY of status and of opportunity”1 the everyday reality of the Indian people sadly tells another story. Intra-caste marriages and avoidance of the “untouchables” - nowadays officially called the “Scheduled Castes” (SC) or more informally the “Dalits”2 - is part of the everyday Indian reality, especially in the rural areas. The reference of India has a democratic country may then tickle some suspicious minds and one could ask how the capitalism and the ideal of a democracy have been able to develop in such a socially archaic country.

The cast system still exists - yes - but it is changing. The accelerated modernization of India magnificently proves it. Indian society has moved slowly from a hierarchical - vertical - system of castes to a horizontal system. This “silent” (Jaffrelot, 2003), “democratic” (Varshney, 2000) and “unfinished” (Pai, 2002) revolution lived by India can be seen as a virtuous cycling process imposing and imposed by the necessary integration of lower castes in the education system as well as in the business and political circles. A real “democratization of the democracy” has been in process in order to spread the equalitarian ideal to the entire population. In 2006, on the 29 states of India, only 3 of them were still governed by a Brahman (Jaffrelot, 2003).

If this positive discrimination had an undeniable impact on the political representation of the different castes, this phenomenon has regrettably not spread as completely at the socio-economical level. For example, Mehrotra (2006) has made the following comment on the situation of Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states of India: “while UP’s mobilizers of the Dalits have focused exclusively on capturing power, the gains to the lower castes have been entirely of a symbolic nature”. These facts highlight the deep paradox of the caste system: While, with the help of the formal tools of democracy, caste has moved into an instrument of equalization and dignity (Beteille, 1996; Dirks 1997; Varshney, 2000), caste still symbolises a vertical unequal system on a social and ritual level. Between success and defeat, the battle for equalitarian rights is not over yet and improvements vary strongly between regions… as well as between analysts (Krishna, 2003).

2. Problem Formulation and Methodology

My introduction gave a very basic overview and understanding of the strong paradox clamping down in India with regards to the caste system. In the paper, I will to try to understand how far India is on the equalitarian path today with regards to the Scheduled Classes’ access to education. In order to not limit my analysis to a descriptive historical approach, I will also try to identify the different ongoing trends as well as the several obstacles that need to be overcome to change the defects of the stigmatized Indian socio-cultural situation. The goal of this difficult task is to open the reflection on what India would be like if it could resolve the caste issue in order to synchronise its socio-cultural environment with its liberalized economy and political system. In my sense, this accomplishment would finalize the Indian virtuous cycle towards an absolute democracy which would be economically efficient and which would not be compromised anymore by a socio-cultural dominance of higher castes upon lower ones. Thus, this paper is based on the assumption that the Indian caste system is “fluid in nature” (Jeffrey, 2001). This hypothesis is in phase with the findings of several observers such as Bayly3 (1988) who have demonstrated that the cast system is not - and has never been - an immutable “given”.

This paper has been written under the light of previous academic researches. I have tried as much as possible to appear critique when dealing with information from other sources such as Non Governmental Organizations’ publications or surveys from governmental initiatives. Indeed, I have found the findings of those sources either too pessimistic for the first or optimistic for the second when compared with academic findings. Those divergences are to be noted as they may conduct to completely different - even sometimes antagonist - conclusions.

The different issues discussed in this paper are very important. Indeed, consequently to the synergetic interactions between the economical, political and socio-cultural dimensions of India, awareness of those issues and of their potential outlets is paramount to understand the key dynamics of India’s modernization process and its probable evolution. Those issues are especially important in rural India where, as Srinivas (2003) pointed out, economic relations are usually embedded in social relations and those social relations are organised into a hierarchy which is based on the caste system4. Education and employment are the key factors influencing those dynamics and are in many ways the motor of development. While many studies have focused on education of Indian children “by inter alia”, further investigations still need to be undertaken in order to understand the importance of inter-community differences with regards to the school enrolment rates (Borooah & Iyer, 2005). My particular focus on the northern states of India can be explained by the fact that those states are the more in need for reformations - among others - of the education system. Nearly 60% of all SC children of primary school-going age live in the following states: Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Those states will therefore get a special attention in this paper. It also has to be noted that the latter 5 states arrive last in India across most social indicators (UNICEF India, 2006)…

The paper is divided into a further 3 sections. In the first section, I will introduce some important background information about the cast system. That information is paramount for the rest of this paper as it is necessary to have a good understanding of the importance that the caste system plays in Indian society in order to realize the issues that this system continuously raises. The second section is the main part of this paper. It will describe the current education received by young Dalits and their role in the economy. This section is divided into 6 sub-sections relative to different concerns that seem important for me to look at when analysing the very question of castes discrimination: the literacy level of dalits children, their school attendance, the discriminative behaviours they have to face, the other variables that count, the governmental initiatives and, last but not least, the discrimination that educated Dalits have to face on the labour market. Those issues will be analysed in comparison with the situation of Indian people from upper castes. In the third part of my paper, I will draw my conclusions on the issue of Dalits education in India.

Before starting the discussion, I would like also to point out that I am aware of the several criticisms made on observers who have centred their analyses on the caste system while trying to understand the Indian society. Examples of those criticisms include the discussions of Inden5 (1990) and Dirkes6 (1992), according to who the sole focus on castes as an organizational system has an undesired distortion effect on the understanding of Indian society. Those criticisms are justified and attention needs to be paid at those. The framework of this paper does not have the pretentiousness to explain all the dynamics of the India society through the existence and transformation of the caste system; although it argues that the role of this system is important. Thus, it does not have to be neglected either.

3. An overview of the Indian castes system

“When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make?

What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.

His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced”7

Extract from the Rig-Veda (hymn 10.90)

The Indian caste system “describes the social stratification and social restrictions in the Indian subcontinent”8. The word caste comes from the Portuguese word casta which means “pure breed”, “unmixed”. The word “caste” does not have an exact translation in Hindi. It gathers two concepts together which are linked but different and even sometimes antagonist: the Varna and the Jâti.

To understand the concept of Varna we need to look back at the Purusha Sukta which is the 10.90 hymn of the Rig-Veda, one of the holiest texts of Hinduism. This hymn is dedicated to Purusha, the “cosmic-man” (see the extract above).

In primitive Hinduism, people understood this text in the way that society needs to be organised on an organic schema and divided into 4 Varnas or castes. The highest caste is the one of the Brahmans and gathers all together people of intellectual activities such as the priests, the teachers and the professors. The second Varna - the Rajanyas - draws together the kings, princes, administrators as well as the knights and warriors. The Vaisyas is the third Varna and is composed of the artisans, traders, businessmen, farmers and shepherds. The lowest Varna is the one of the Sudras, i.e. the servants. The belonging of a child to a Varna is strictly dictated by his/her birth into a family of this particular Varna.

However, in primitive Hinduism, the code of conduct dictated by another important book, the Manu Smriti - also known as the Law of Manu - has led to the creation of a fifth caste (stricto sensu they are considered as “outcaste”) of people who do not belong to any Varna. Because they do not belong to any Varna, they have then been considered as impure and their visual and physical contact as a stain. This explains why they have been looked on as untouchables. Because of this outcaste status, those people have been imposed with the more undesired - impure - menial jobs.

The concept of jâti, which literally means birth, points out another hierarchical division of the Indian society into communities and sub-communities originally on the basis of the people’s professional occupations9 ; although the jâti system has usually been found to be hereditary. The membership to some linguistic or religious communities may also define a jâti.

Most of the jâtis does fit into the Varna system. However, it has to be noted that their ranking inside the Varna system is “fluid and ambiguous” as the jâtis present claims and counter-claims of their Varna affiliation (Kothari, 1997). The possible (rare though) ascent of their jâtis is the only way for lower-castes born people to climb up the Varna ladder. This particular upward mobility is called sanskritisation10 and can only be obtained under several strict conditions which include, among other things, the emulation of the rituals and practices followed by the higher castes.

4. Scheduled Castes and Education in rural India

This part of my paper is dedicated to understand how much the membership to a Scheduled Caste is determinant for the access and completion of education of a child in rural India and what other variables do matter with regards to education. I then explain what measures the Indian government is undertaking in order to close the education gap between upper and lower castes.

a. The Literacy Rate

The 1990s and 2000s have been great decades for education in India. The figures shown by the 2001 Census are really impressive. During the only 90s decade, the literate rate for men and women increased respectively by 11.8% and 15% so that, at the beginning of the millennium, 61% of the all Indian adult11 population was considered as literate. Those impressive achievements are worth noted but, over all, they demonstrate how far behind the Indian education system is compared to those of other Asian countries: the Indian literacy rate of 61% sounds indeed miserable compared to Thailand’s 92.6%, Sri Lanka’s 90.7%, Indonesia’s 90.4% and China’s 90.9% (Human Development Report , 2005; see also GRAPH1 in appendix).

The poor literacy rate of the Indian population is not equally spread over the all country. The northern states are in a lot worse situation than their southern counterparts. The two maps (MAP1 & MAP2) in appendix show this uneven dispersion of the literacy rate across regions in 1991 and 2001. As we see on those maps, in 1991 the higher literacy rates are mostly found in southern districts; although there are some few “pockets of high literacy” in districts from the North Eastern states and in the Northern state of Himachal Pradesh. On the other hand, lower literacy rates are concentrated in Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. An enormous gap separates districts with the highest and lowest literacy rates. The highest literacy rate was indeed of 95.72% in the Kottayam district of Kerala while it was only of 18.62% in the Nabarangapur district of Orissa. Fortunately, improvements in education during the 90s have significantly changed the appearance of the map in 2001. The more impressive changes are found in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. In 2001, the worst literacy rates were found in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Bihar and in some districts of Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The geographical disparity between Indian districts of the literacy rates has greatly decreased during the last 10years of the previous millennium; the gap between extreme values was also impressively reduced. In 2001, the highest literacy rate was still in Kottayam and stayed constant compared to 1991. The lowest literacy rate was of 31.02% and was found in the district of Kishanganj of the Bihar state. The relatively low level of literacy of Indian people raises several issues; most of which are reflected in school participation12 (Borooah & Iyer, 2005).

b. School Attendance

Approximately one quarter of Indian children do not attend school. When we look at the figures disaggregated by castes, the school attendance appears to be unevenly distributed: only 72.5% of SC children were attending school in 2005 according to the NSSO13 while this figure rises to 78.1% and 83.6% respectively for OBCs and upper-castes. This disparity has to be put in parallel with the figures concerning the children ability to read and write. According to the same survey, only 52.4% of the ST children and 58.2% of the SC children aged between 6 and 14 years old are able to read and write while they are respectively 62.8% and 72% in the OBCs and in upper-castes (UNICEF India, 2006; see also GRAPH2 & GRAPH3 in appendix).

The net enrolment rate for children aged 6-14 varies deeply among Indian states. In the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the net enrolment rate is respectively of 99% and 91% for boys and 98% and 84% for girls (Borooah & Iyer, 2005). In the north Indian states, where more than 40% of the overall population lives, 41% of children aged of 6-14 years old is out of school. This number rises to 54% among female children14.

Historically, Brahmins and other upper castes have insofar dominated other castes with regards to education matters; although lower castes and Scheduled Castes are quickly catching up. The functional literacy15 of those is coming nearer the level of upper-castes. Those gains in terms of functional literacy have been especially important during the last 20 years. SC and OBCs16 appeared to have increased their level of educational attainment more dramatically than upper and middle castes during the last two decades.

Indeed, from the cohorts studied in Rajasthan by Krishna (2003), none of the SC or ST people aged over 65years old had more than 5years education while they were 72% of the SCs members and 53% of the STs members for the age group between 18 and 25 years old. The study of this author also shows that the functional literacy gap between SCs and upper-castes was 32.6% and 37.8% respectively for the villagers aged over 65 years old and those aged between 55 and 65 years old. This gap has shrunken to only 8.6% among villagers from the 18-25 years old group. This educational catching up of SCs on upper-castes is also observed when we look on the entire “educational achievement” which is measured by Krishna as “the total number of years of school education”. Indeed, when we look at the older generations, we see that the upper-castes villagers aged 65 years and older had on average 3.6 years of school education while the villagers from SCs and OBCs had none. However, educational achievement seems a lot more fairly distributed among the younger generations. Indeed, according to Krishna’s observations, in Rajasthan, upper-castes villagers from the 18-25 year old cohort had an average of 7.1 years of school education which is only slightly above the 7.0 years of school education observed for SCs villagers from the same age group (Krishna, 2003; see also TABLE1 in appendix).


1 “EQUALITY” is emphasized in the Constitution itself. Relevant Constitutional sections include the Preamble, Article 17 and 330-42, the Constitution (8th Amendment) Act of 1959 and the (23rd Amendment) Act of 1969.

2 Dalits means “broken and oppressed” in the Marathi language (Jeffrey, Jeffery & Jeffery, 2004). Within India, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes has held that the term Scheduled Caste is the proper constitutional usage for those identified as Dalits in contemporary Western literature (Wikipedia).

3 BAYLY, C.A. 1988. Indian Society and the making of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 230pp.

4 SRINIVAS, M.N. 2003. “An Obituary On Caste As A System” Economic and Political Weekly. 38:455-460

5 INDEN, R. 1990. Imagining India. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

6 DIRKES, N.B. 1992. “Castes of Mind.” Representations. 37: 56-78.

7 English translation from the Sanskrit language made by Ralf T.H. Griffith (1896).

8 Wikipedia.

9 This system is thus very similar to a guilds system.

10 This term was first coined by the Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas to denote this particular upgrading process.

11 Here, are considered as adult people of 15 years old and older.

12 In Borooah & Iyer‟s paper (2005), school participation is defined as “the initial enrolment of a child as school”.

13 The acronym “NSSO” stands for National Sample Survey Organization.

14 Figures from the International Institute for Population Sciences (1995), p. 56. The reference year is 1992-3.

15 The functional literacy is defined here as the ability to read and write and work out elementary mathematics (Krishna, 2003).

16 The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are citizens of India - other than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes - that the Indian Constitution recognizes the necessity to extend positive discrimination to in order to ensure their educational and social development. (source: Wikipedia).

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Scheduled Castes and The Access to Education. How Fair is India?
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Maxime Dessy (Author), 2008, Scheduled Castes and The Access to Education. How Fair is India?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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