India's Planning Commission has someone as Member Education who claims to hail from the same community. He has written books and got honours for claiming he comes from that community and look how far he has come in India. I asked him to do something for his own community he left behind. It has not interested him yet! How do we get him interested to at least help his own?
Mumbai: When 11-year-old Durga Jadav awoke to find that she'd begun to menstruate, she wondered if she'd return to school.
"I like school," she said. "Unlike some girls, who only go because their parents make them." The Annual Survey of Education Report, or ASER, published by the non-profit organization Pratham in January, shows that girls aged 11 to 14 years old are most likely to drop out of school in India. The "monthly," as Ms.Jadav refers to her menstrual cycle, is one reason why.
The Jadavs are Mati Wadars. Mati means soil, and people of this impoverished low caste have traditionally dug and leveled soil. Girls are married off young, and may have as many as three children before they turn 21.
One reason they get married early is their poor access to housing, which leaves girls vulnerable to predatory men as they go about their daily life. A lack of employment opportunities has forced them out of their villages and into urban areas. But if in the village they were made to live apart from their neighbors of higher castes, they have also been marginalized in cities.
The Jadavs live on a pavement under a bridge that spans a busy highway in suburban Mumbai. There are nine of them and a dog called Rani. Their shelter is made out of cement sacks held up by sticks purloined from construction sites. At night, the shelter is given over to the oldest married son, his wife, and three children. Everyone else sleeps in the open. To protect themselves from rats, the family swaddles itself in blankets. They also keep a bamboo pole handy. Despite precautions, their lives remain precarious. A neighbor's baby was killed instantly when a drunk driver crashed into their shelter five years ago. A teenager Durga knew was abducted and raped. And in 2009 some people who live in the apartment building behind them decided that they were "dirty" and should move. "They poured kerosene over our belongings one morning," recalls Durpada Jadav, Durga's mother. "We lost our home, utensils, clothes. I saw my wedding sari burn to ashes."
Given the reality of Durga's life, Pratham's figures shouldn't come as a surprise. But the results of the 2011 Census had expectations up. According to the Census, 74.04 percent of Indians are now literate, up by 9.21 percentage points from 2001. Women's literacy is at 65.46 percent, up by 11.79 points.
But these numbers represent a population of 1.2 billion people, of which half are under 25. Given India's size, and its outsized global ambitions, raising the numbers is a big challenge for the government.
In April 2010, the government implemented the Right to Education Act to address this problem. It promises a free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14. The law was preceded by several other government programs, including a free lunch scheme that had already put more than 90 percent of Indian children into classrooms.
Durga studies for free at a local government school. To ensure that her family doesn't incur any costs for her education, she is given 27 essential items every year including a uniform, hair ribbon, backpack and umbrella.
The government's initiatives to get children into school have been well received. But they do not address the underlying causes of why girls from very poor families drop out of school.
If Durga is indeed married off, it will not be because her parents think it's good for her. Durpada told me that she wants Durga to study further. "I can't even sign my name," she says. "And I've spent my life on the footpath. I don't want her to end up like me. I know a man who educated his daughter. She got a job in a factory. If she can do it, so can my Durga."
But Durpada says that living as they do - eating, sleeping, even bathing in full public view - prevents them from protecting Durga. If she got into an undesirable relationship, with a man of a different caste for example, their community would shun her. If her parents supported her, they, too, would be ostracized. Caste may be confining and restricting, but it is their only identity. Their fellow caste members, they believe, are their only hope for survival in a society that has condemned them to inter-generational poverty and humiliation. Marrying Durga off would indicate that she was out of bounds.
There are other obstacles. Durga is now considered nearly adult - too young to be hired for construction labor, working as her mother and sister-in-law do, but old enough to stay home and look after her nieces during the day.
The money addresses the primary reason Durga may never return to school. Whatever its future promise, education does not currently put food in her mouth. The free lunch scheme gives children in government schools a cooked meal at midday. But between one lunch and the next, Durga often has so little to eat that by the time she makes it to school the next morning, she's lightheaded and listless. As her schoolteachers drone on, Durga dozes off. While the other children play catch in the corridors Durga sits at her desk eyes fluttering.
Her class teacher Dominic Gonsalves isn't complaining. "At least she comes to school," he says. "Most children like her turn up on the first day, collect their free goodies, and never return."
When there's nothing to eat at home, Durga goes around the neighborhood asking better-off neighbors for leftovers from their meals. If she's lucky, she receives a couple of chapattis and a spoonful of dal. On a really rough day, the Jadavs swallow tablespoons of atta, or wheat flour, mixed with water, and go to bed early.
It would help her family, Durga knows, if she, too, could work and earn money. She knows exactly how, since so many of her friends do so. She could beg at a traffic light or at one of the three temples within walking distance of her shelter. She could collect trash and sell it to the recycler her friends call "Mr White" for his fair skin.
But, at least so far, her parents haven't asked her to work.
Because her parents stayed silent, Durga's fears were not immediately realized, and she did return to school after her first menstruation. But not for long. According to community tradition, after a girl completes her second menstruation, she must take time to celebrate. She is dressed like a bride and escorted to the temple. After prayers, friends drop in, and the mood is festive.
"People will bring ladoos," Durga says, referring to the round wheat-based Indian sweets, her eyes glistening. "And many other foods as well."
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