In the heartland of Bihar, a deep-rooted and disheartening issue silently plagues the educational landscape — the dropout crisis among Dalit students. Despite legal provisions on equal opportunities for all, this marginalized community continues to bear the brunt of social, economic, and institutional challenges that undermine their right to education. According to a recent study, the dropout rate among Dalit students in Bihar is staggering, with one in every four young minds forced to relinquish their educational journey prematurely.
This alarming trend, revealed in the report titled 'Rights of Dalit Children in Bihar: A Study Report from Ten Districts,' paints a grim picture of the prevailing educational inequalities faced by Dalit children. Conducted by the Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti (BDVS), a reputable NGO dedicated to advocating for Dalit rights, the study has cast a spotlight on the plight of these young learners who are being deprived of the chance to break free from the shackles of poverty and discrimination through education.
The study was conducted between October and November 2022 in 20 Gram Panchayats in 10 districts of Bihar (Darbhanga, Jamui, Khagaria, Madhepura, Munger, Muzaffarpur, Nawada, Patna, Samastipur, and Sheikhpura).
According to the findings of this study, about twenty-six percent (26.02%) of Dalit children dropped out of school. The study also explores the reasons for Dalit children dropping out, including lack of interest in the study (39.3%), the poor financial condition of the family (29.41%), discriminatory attitude of teachers (11.8%), abusive behavior by teachers (9.8%), and marriage or pregnancy (7.9%).
It is not that children from all Scheduled Castes are being forced to drop out of school equally. Among Dalit children, the school drop-out rate was found to be highest among the Musahar caste (37.06%). Chaupal, Rajwar, etc. are the locations. The best practices were found in children belonging to Dusadh (6.85 per cent) followed by Dhobi (12.50 per cent) and Ravidas (17.78 per cent). The survey also found that 42.02% of the dropouts had started working, and most of them (60.56%) migrated to other districts/states.
Dalits constitute 15.91% of Bihar's total population (about 10.41 crore). In the ten districts where the study has been conducted, the Dalit population is higher than or close to the average population of Dalits in the state. Explaining the purpose of this study, Father Josh Karikattil, Director, BDVS, says, "It is well known that the Dalit population is at the bottom of the Human Development Index, but we wanted to know a little more deeply about how and how much the rights of Dalit children are being violated from the family and society to the school level. How deprived these children are of their rights. The purpose of this study was to bring the status of Dalit children in front of society and the administration and to awaken them so that they can move forward towards ensuring these rights better.
Respondents were also asked about discriminatory treatment against Dalit children in schools. More than half (52.4%) of the respondents reported that only Dalit children are asked to clean the school premises, while nearly half (47.1%) said only Dalit children are forced to sit in the back of the classroom. Respondents complained that their children are subjected to caste-based taunts by their teachers in schools, including mocking their appearance and attire.
The study also involved focus group discussions (FGDs) with children and adult members of the Dalit community, as well as in-depth interviews with teachers of government schools in these panchayats where Dalit children attend. During the FGD with Dalit children, some children reported that their classmates from almost all non-Dalit castes, including OBCs, boycotted them. One in five children (21.75%) reported that their classmates do not sit, eat, or play with them or use the plate used by Dalit children. According to the study, among Dalit children, children from the Musahar caste face the highest incidence of discrimination. Nearly three-quarters (74.75 per cent) of Dalit children are still forced to defecate in the open, while the entire rural India, including Bihar, was declared open defecation-free a few years ago, according to data from the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin).
During the household survey, only a small number of respondents reported that their daughters or sons were facing sexual harassment. But, in FGD with children, 45.68% of girls shared their experiences of sexual harassment and reported that they faced harassment while going to school or returning. But the study says this does not mean that Dalit boys are not sexually assaulted. The survey found that some social and cultural evils that harm children and girls are still prevalent in the Dalit community. According to the study, nearly half (47.75%) of Dalit families believe that girls should be married off at an early age to avoid social humiliation. 69.25% of mothers and newborns are kept in a closed room for a week, and 51.75% of sick children are treated by first sweeping. According to the findings of the report, 95.41% of households were able to feed their children at least three times a day, and 97.3% said that their diet included green vegetables the day before the survey.
Apart from the violation of children's rights, the report brings to the fore the rampant illiteracy and landlessness among Dalits through new data, which found very high levels of illiteracy among Dalit families. Of those who were literate, about 2% said they could just sign.
According to the report, with a large population of Dalits (79.9%) not owning any kind of agricultural land, half (50%) of Dalits are agricultural laborers, and they also get seasonal employment as agricultural laborers. For this reason, they market for food security, and they were also found to be dependent on government schemes.
Another statistic that was alarming was that 21.25% of Dalit families interviewed reported that their infants had died. According to an analysis of NFHS IV (2015-16) data on under-five mortality based on children's social background, Bihar had the highest infant mortality rate (IMR) among Dalit children among all states in the country.
Experts at The New York Times believe that the data of this new study paints an even more worrying picture. Also, 19.25% of the families surveyed reported that their women had abortions, which suggests that Dalit women still do not have adequate antenatal check-ups and care.
The survey found that a small proportion (8.30%) of Dalit women sell snacks and low-cost items of daily use through small shops located outside their homes. Sunil Jha, the researcher, and author of this study, says, "This study examines the violation of the rights of Dalit children in Bihar from a multidimensional perspective. This small study seeks to look at the violation of the rights of Dalit children in a comprehensive and systematic way rather than just in the mirror of various issues and problems.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Patna)