In a new report, the Human Rights Watch has claimed that school authorities in India persistently discriminate against children from marginalized communities, denying them their right to education.
Four years after an ambitious education law went into effect in India, guaranteeing free schooling to every child ages 6 to 14, almost every child is enrolled, yet nearly half are likely to drop out before completing their elementary education.
The 77-page report titled "They Say We're Dirty': Denying an Education to India's Marginalized," documents discrimination by school authorities in four Indian states against Dalit, tribal, and Muslim children. The discrimination creates an unwelcome atmosphere that can lead to truancy and eventually may lead the child to stop going to school. Weak monitoring mechanisms fail to identify and track children who attend school irregularly, are at risk of dropping out, or have dropped out.
"India's immense project to educate all its children risks falling victim to deeply rooted discrimination by teachers and other school staff against the poor and marginalized," said Jayshree Bajoria, India researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
"Instead of encouraging children from at-risk communities who are often the first in their families to ever step inside a classroom, teachers often neglect or even mistreat them," he added.
Detailed case studies examine how the lack of accountability and grievance redress mechanisms is continuing obstacles to proper implementation of the Right to Education Act.
Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Delhi, interviewing more than 160 people, including children, parents, teachers, and a wide range of education experts, rights activists, local authorities, and education officials.
The Indian government should adopt more effective measures to monitor the treatment of vulnerable children and provide accessible redress mechanisms to ensure they remain in the classroom, Human Rights Watch said. According to the government, nearly half - over 80 million children - drop out before completing their elementary education.
In drafting the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the central government recognized exclusion of children as the "single most important challenge in universalizing elementary education." But many education department officials at state, district, and local levels have been unwilling to acknowledge or accept that discrimination occurs in government schools, let alone attempt to resolve these problems, Human Rights Watch said.
"The teacher tells us to sit on the other side," said "Pankaj," an eight-year-old tribal boy from Uttar Pradesh. "If we sit with others, she scolds us and asks us to sit separately. The teacher doesn't sit with us because she says we 'are dirty.'"
Marginalized groups continue to face discrimination in India despite constitutional guarantees and laws prohibiting discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. School authorities reinforce age-old discriminatory attitudes based on caste, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Children from Dalit, tribal, and Muslim communities are often made to sit at the back of the class or in separate rooms, insulted by the use of derogatory names, denied leadership roles, and served food last. They are even told to clean toilets, while children from traditionally privileged groups are not.
"Non-discrimination and equality are fundamental to the Right to Education Act and yet the law provides no penalties for violators," Bajoria said.
He further said, "If schools are to become child-friendly environments for all of India's children, the government needs to send a strong message that discriminatory behavior will no longer be tolerated and those responsible will be held to account."
Most state education departments have failed to establish proper mechanisms to monitor each child, and intervene promptly and effectively to ensure they remain in school, Human Rights Watch said.
Because there is no common definition for assessing when a child is considered to no longer be attending school, various states have different norms: in Karnataka, students are regarded as having dropped out of school after seven days of unexplained absence, in Andhra Pradesh it is a month, and in Chhattisgarh and Bihar it is three months. This lack of a common definition hinders efforts to recognize and address the problem.
The Right to Education Act provides that children who have dropped out of school or older children who never attended school should be offered "bridge courses" to bring them up to speed so they can return to mainstream schools in an age-appropriate class. But state governments do not maintain proper records of these children, provide the additional resources needed for appropriate bridge courses, or track these children through completion of elementary schooling once they are in an age-appropriate class.
Children of migrant workers, many belonging to Dalit and tribal communities, are most vulnerable to dropping out due to lengthy absences from school while searching for work with their parents. Yet the state governments do not keep track of these children in any systematic manner to ensure that they continue their education. The labor departments at state level are not properly carrying out programs meant for bringing child laborers back to school. And state education departments are not following up once a child is admitted to a mainstream school, which often results in the child's return to work.
Central and state authorities are not adequately supporting creative community-based mechanisms envisioned under the Right to Education Act such as "school management committees." Parents told Human Rights Watch that they do not have adequate representation on these committees, and so they do not complain when there is injustice against their children because school authorities ignore the complaints or even reprimand the students. Guidelines adopted to address grievances have often not been implemented.
India is a party to core international human rights treaties that protect children and provide for the right of everyone to education, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. International law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, social origin, or other status. The Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates India to take measures to encourage attendance and reduce dropout rates, and ensure that the rights of the children are protected through effective monitoring.
Prior to the national elections in India in April 2014, the major national parties made commitments in their election manifestos to improve elementary school education. The central and state governments should create clear indicators to detect and address discrimination in schools, and to lay out appropriate disciplinary measures for those found responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
The government should create a system to monitor and track every child from enrollment through completion of elementary schooling, up to Grade VIII. The government should initiate proper training of teachers, so that they end exclusion and facilitate greater interaction among children of different socio-economic and caste backgrounds.
"India's political parties focused on education during the election campaign," Bajoria said.
"But whoever takes office will need to do more to ensure that children attend classes. An important law is set to fail unless the government intervenes now," he added.