Govt. must handle HIV-affected status, caste and income details sensitively, and in confidence, they say

The school education department’s ambitious plan to prepare a student database has raised concerns among parents and social activists in Chennai.

The department is about to complete the process of collecting details of students in schools, including private ones, across the State.

In October, the department began distributing a two-page form to students in the city through their schools. The details collected, according to an official, would be used in the ambitious Education Management Information System (EMIS), envisaging a comprehensive database on teachers, schools, students and the directorates by the end of the academic year.

According to an official, this database, which also includes details of private school students, would ensure that government welfare measures, including scholarships and grants, reach the needy. It will also aid in tracking drop-outs and issuing smart cards by the next academic year.

“The database will be updated every year, until a student joins an institution of higher education,” the official said.

Through this form, the department will also monitor admissions under the 25 per cent reservation for economically-weaker sections and disadvantaged groups mandated by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act.

P. Manorama, project director, Community Health Education Society, and former chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, hailed the project but cautioned against the collection and maintenance of sensitive information. For instance, the data on HIV-affected children in the State

Such information must be collected sensitively and, once collated, it must be protected, she said. “It is extremely important that the data, especially the photographs furnished along with the form, remain confidential at every juncture,” she said.

“In many cases where the children do not know they are HIV positive, the school must deal directly with the parents and make sure the information does not change hands,” she said.

Some parents too, did not seem very happy with the manner in which the data was collected. Priya, parent of a class V student in a CBSE school, was concerned about the confidentiality of details such as parents’ income and caste.

“I do not have any objection to the government collecting the information. But when handed such forms, students tend to exchange the information,” she said. Another parent, Radha (name changed on request), suggested that schools send the forms directly to the parents.

A senior department official insisted the data would remain confidential. “The data is being collected for the students’ benefit, and is a basic document of every child. Details on income and caste are furnished in so many places, and it is not something new,” she said.

Brushing aside objections on caste and income details, the official said, “Such data will help us identify students who are eligible for a welfare measure, but have not availed of it.”

When asked if these concerns, especially the ones pertaining to caste, were valid, V. Geetha, feminist historian and publisher of Tara Books, said, “The RTE too addresses caste realities; the government is bound by the statutory reservation mandate, and has to comply with official quotas, in addition to those defined by income.”

She said that caste was a part of the struggle for equality. “We need to ensure that children from dalit and OBC/MBC groups, who find it difficult to access educational resources, get to school and stay there.”

Such objections, she said, came only from urban, educated, middle and richer classes, as they would like to believe that caste played no roles in their lives.