HARDLY A WEEK goes by without an email asking me for guidance on overseas higher education. And then there are emails seeking help in raising funds for studying abroad. Lately, several such fundraising requests from Dalit and Adivasi students have received attention. Many students from poor and marginalised sections of society are exploring possibilities of pursuing their dreams of acquiring quality education in the world’s leading institutes.
When I decided to pursue higher studies abroad, I did not know the difference between countries and the courses I was applying for. I just wanted to go to a foreign country like Dr Ambedkar did. I was aware that going abroad is not a cup of tea for people like me who come from a Dalit background, having grown up in Marathwada’s slums (Nanded), and born to a father who was a bank peon-cum-compounder. It was an uphill task, and I had to make my way past rules, bureaucracy, ignorance and non-accessibility to resources. There were some professors and state employees who offered support through government schemes.
For the past 10 years, I have been conducting seminars for students, encouraging them to pursue foreign education. The aim is to prepare the next generation of SC, ST, OBC leadership, which is educated and socially responsible. Similar efforts can be seen at Ivy League institutions such as Harvard University, where efforts are being made to help SC and ST aspirants navigate their way through the cobweb of the admission process. The result is that SC, ST, OBC, Pasmanda and tribal Muslim students are at least aiming for the top. For a landless, poor, working class Dalit, education is the top asset for upward mobility. Without that, they would be condemned to the tradition-imposed, enslaving jobs.
We do not know how much tax the country’s SC-ST population puts in State coffers each month. The government and thinking Indians should find ways to compensate these incredibly talented people of India — the SC and STs who have toiled round the clock to make India a modern nation.
Prime Minister Modi’s Stand-Up India plan was meant to “transform the lives of Dalit and tribal communities”. While launching the scheme in 2016 he had said that “Dalits and poor people, if given an opportunity, can bring in various reforms in the country. That’s my vision for Stand-up India…” This can be amplified if the current regime understands the importance of international higher education and its output in the nation becoming a self-sustaining economy. The Indians who effectively utilise their caste capital to loot the banks and abscond, remain impediments for State operatives to effectively overhaul affairs.
In European, African, North American and Australian universities, one can noticeably see the heavy population of Chinese students, researchers, and exchange visitors. China has pushed for certain vocations. Thus, they have global partnerships with educational institutions across the world. Colleagues in the American academia are enthusiastically invited by Chinese schools to offer short-term and long-term courses so that students are exposed to the curriculum and learning patterns of US schools.
If India wants to stay relevant in the world, it will need children of poor and Dalits acquiring higher education worldwide, and not limit the opportunity to only elites who have been attending Etons and Oxbridges forever. There is no dearth of budget for deserving students from the SC and ST population.
The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of SC and ST students at the undergraduate level, which stands at 23% and 17.2% respectively, is unsatisfactory — both numbers being short of the national average of 26.3%. These undergraduates are aiming to cross the seas to develop their skills and be part of new ideas, research and innovation. If every deserving child gets the desired support, imagine how much talent and energy will be added to the engine of India’s new growth story. This cannot happen through people’s charity. It is the duty of the State.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 25, 2021 under the title ‘Quality education for SC, ST community is State duty’. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column