Negatives in affirmative action

Updated - December 25, 2009 08:47 pm IST

Published - December 25, 2009 08:41 pm IST - Chennai

BOOK REVIEW: Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India - Valuable research.

BOOK REVIEW: Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India - Valuable research.

Scholarships for Dalit children are seen as enabling incentives provided by the State to facilitate their education, but there can be a flip side too to these incentives, as an essay included in ‘Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India’ ( reveals.

Discussions around scholarships largely centre round their meagre value, lack of adequate coverage, delay in receiving funds, and malpractices, the essay’s author Geetha B. Nambissan notes. What appears significant and little commented upon is the manner in which scholarships tend to reinforce stigmatising of Dalit identity as ‘lower castes,’ she adds.

“Ironically, to claim incentives under affirmative action programmes and facilitate inclusion, those who have suffered from disadvantage must publicly proclaim identities that are still the target of discriminatory practices. They are often required to do so in the school assembly and before their classmates, ostensibly to ‘facilitate’ their identification as SC students and thereafter to receive fellowships and other incentives.”

Findings of Nambissan’s survey show that the majority reported of having ‘suffered considerable anguish their identities are brought into public ‘gaze’ again and yet again, and they are constantly at the receiving end of disparaging barbs from peers, office staff, as well as teachers.’

Disappointed that caste-based discrimination in education does not find a mention in policy documents, the exploratory study discussed in the essay discovers that exclusionary practices continue to flourish in the spheres of water and food, the traditionally potent sites of discrimination.

Disturbing examples include: ‘the washing of taps after Dalits drink water and forcing them to give right of way to general caste students,’ and not permitting ‘Dalit children to enter the mid-day meal kitchen while it was possible for other caste children to do so, making it easier for the latter to ask for and receive an extra helping.’

Teachers and school administrators have a responsibility in building a culture within schools that encourages participation of children from hitherto educationally deprived and socially discriminated groups and an environment that values their dignity and provides social respect, the author urges.

“When teachers fail to confront, ignore, and actually indulge in unequal treatment of Dalit children, they give legitimacy to sites of exclusion and reinforce discriminatory practices within schools.”

The book, edited by Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine S. Newman, with a foreword by Kaushik Basu, has insightful other essays, too, on topics ranging from jobs to markets, from health care to property rights.

Valuable research.

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