Most dalit and adivasi stu dents in India would recognize Rohith Vem ula’s loneliness and despair. The story of the research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University who committed suicide on January 18 is depressingly common: a dalit family that seizes on what looks like the only way out of an otherwise bleak destiny -education. And then finds that the environment in the institution unforgivingly hostile -there is administrative injustice, no support system and all-round isolation for their ward. In extreme anguish, a student may take Rohith’s path but in most cases, heshe simply merges into the faceless mass of India’s secondclass citizens.
The surge in education among India’s most deprived communities, the dalits and adivasis, is re markable: between 2001 and 2011, the share of dalits attending college zoomed up by a staggering 187% and adivasis, by 164%. The comparable increase for all other castes put together is 119%.
So, a large number of dalits and adivasis entered colleges and universities, many of whom would have been first-generation entrants like Rohith. This is all the more remarkable considering the difficult conditions they live in 21% dalit families live in houses with thatch or bamboo roofs compared to 15% overall, 78% stay in one or two roomed houses compared to 69% overall, 35% have a drinking water source within their home compared to 47% overall, 41% do not have electricity compared to 33% overall, and 66% do not have toilets compared to 53% overall.
While school-level enrollment for all castes and communities is roughly the same, there are many more dropouts among dalits and adivasis. Among dalits, the share of school students drops from 81% in the 6-14 years age group to 60% in the 15-19 group. It plummets further to just 11% in the 20-24 age group in higher education. This fall is noticeable across communities and castes but it is the sharpest among dalits and adivasis.
According to an NSSO survey, nearly two-thirds of male dropouts from school and college said that they were needed to supplement the household income while nearly half the female dropouts said that they were needed for domestic chores. The same survey also showed that attendance rates in educational institutions were about 50% in the poorest 10% families but rose to nearly 70% in the richest 10 per cent. Poverty is thus the biggest barrier to pursuing education, and poverty levels are highest among dalits and adivasis. Besides this, these groups also face social discrimination and sometimes, abuse. At a public hearing organized by the People’s Trust and CRY in Salem, Tamil Nadu, a young dalit girl, who dropped out of school, said students like her were often taunted and abused by teachers as well as students. She had started working in brick kilns or fields. Shockingly, the same atmosphere prevails in centres of higher education as incidents from various universities and the IITs show.
So, on an average, very few –about one in 10 -students at the higher levels of education are from dalit or adivasi communities. This heightens the sense of isolation among disadvantaged students. And then you have the discrimination, the high costs, the pressure to perform, and perhaps -as in the case of Rohith’s alma mater -even official hounding.