Opinion: Board Exam Solutions Discriminate Hugely Against These Students

The debate on the best way to deal with board exams - whether to hold them, the formula for deciding a student's marks, the need for monitoring internal school assessments and so on has many interested participants and is being settled by the Supreme Court. But how relevant are these questions for poor students and specifically for Adivasi students?

In underdeveloped rural areas where the majority of Adivasis live, there were just three percent internet connections according to a household survey conducted a few years ago. Not many Adivasi families have smartphones. Even today, around 47 per cent of Adivasi households depend on kerosene for lighting. Clearly, the world of online education is closed to Adivasi students. This is not just a digital divide. In the absence of government intervention, it is a demolition of the entire framework of the Right to Education for most poor families, and certainly for students in India's Adivasi households.

From March 2020, when the first lockdown was declared, and schools were closed and classes shifted online, 90 to 95 per cent of rural Adivasi students have been deprived of any education whatsoever. Class X and Class XII final year students have not been able to attend classes or give any pre-board online exams. So schools cannot make internal assessments of the Adivasi students regardless of the weightage given for such an assessment. The Tribal Affairs Ministry has accepted that even in the schools considered the best models, namely the Eklavya Model Residential School (EMR), only 17.7 per cent of total Adivasi students enrolled have been able to access online classes. Athough some schools opened for a short period after the first phase of the pandemic, they had to be shut down again this year.

So what were the Adivasi students doing? A most disturbing picture emerged from the reports made at a recent online meeting of activists of the Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch from 11 states. They said in most areas, because of the acute financial distress caused by lack of work and livelihood, students have turned into labourers, looking for any work available. In many states, January-June is the season for gathering and collecting minor forest produce. Students staying at home became gatherers deep in the forests. The cumulative dropout rate from Class 1-X of Adivasi students is as high as 62.4 percent. The apprehension is that unless governments take proactive measures, more children may drop out after schools start functioning.

What has worsened the situation is that scholarships for these students have been cut drastically. The ratio in payments for scholarships between the central government and states is 75:25. In a scandalous example of a truth deficit, the Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, Renuka Singh Saruta, informed the Lok Sabha in March this year that during the pandemic 2020, 35.5 lakh Adivasi students were given their scholarships amounting to 1,986 crore rupees by the centre. Since this is in such complete variance with ground level reports from activists, it became necessary to check with the Ministry's website.

It seems that there were substantial arrears in payment of scholarships to Adivasi children. The amount mentioned by the minister is not for scholarships owed to students for 2020-2021, but includes scholarships for the previous year 2019-2020. Of the total amount disbursed in 2020-21 for pre-matric and post-matric scholarships, only 35 per cent was for scholarships due for 2020-21; as much as 65 per cent was for payment of arrears. And in the case of Telangana, it also included money released for the financial year 2018-2019. Also, the total disbursement for scholarships in 2020-21 was less than the disbursement in the previous year. In case of pre-matric scholarships, the disbursement in 2020-21 was 43 per cent less than the disbursement in the previous year. A comparison of total payment of pre-matric and post-matric scholarships for 2019-20 with total payment of scholarships for 2020-21 suggests that at least 65 per cent of the total scholarships amount due for the pandemic year remains unpaid. In complete contrast to what the minister claimed, students are being deprived of their scholarships through such delayed payments.

It is also not clear what the government is giving students who used to live in hostels, now closed, and were getting a higher scholarship amount than day scholars. Have their scholarships continued, been reduced or completely eliminated? Activists reported that after hostels closed, students have not received any money. For the current financial year, in the first quarter, not a single rupee has been given for any kind of scholarship. The dashboard shows 0 allocations in 2020-2021. This means that during the second pandemic phase, Adivasi students have received no scholarship money. This is a government that can so blatantly lie and make false claims even while depriving the most vulnerable, young Adivasi citizens of what is their right.

Yet another right has been denied to them. Under the Food Security Act, mid-day meals are a legal right. With schools shut down during the pandemic, large numbers of children have suffered the loss of at least one guaranteed nourishing meal. Some states, notably Kerala, have ensured doorstep delivery of dry rations in lieu of mid-day meals, including to Adivasi hamlets. This has been a great help. But the centre has no such programme. The NFHS (4) had shown that among all social categories, the highest numbers of malnourished children are among the Adivasis. Lack of government intervention during the pandemic will worsen this situation.

There are solutions. Even with its limited resources, Kerala has shown the way. It has ensured that each child has access to education. There are several methods being used: village-level classes through dedicated TV channels; TV sets are provided and ensured to centres within the village supervised at the panchayat level; village-level surveys are conducted to ensure that all children are attending classes; the government has encouraged a social campaign for donations to provide smartphones; and it is ensuring internet connections. Where there is political will to back and implement a vision of education as a universal right, hurdles can be overcome.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 31 of the 47 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. Today, they are conspicuous by their silence when Adivasi students need their elected representatives to speak out for them against the bulldozing of their rights by a callous government.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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