India is burdened by distinct, rigid social hierarchies that mark almost all bureaucracies and institutions in the country, of which academia is certainly not an exception. For the longest time, the popular discourse has been that schooling and education in general, bring about certain benefits that ensure a secure route to upward social mobility (Froerer, 2012). This dominant perspective has found its way to the cognizance of the common folk, especially the country’s backward population that now views education as a powerful, transformative force that would ultimately erase their woes. However, India’s history is marred by disdain for these communities and despite a myriad of alleviation schemes, such deeply entrenched is this antipathy that education does very little to eradicate it. According to The Hindu, India ranked 76th out of 82 countries in the Social Mobility Index compiled by the World Economic Forum (2020). Although absolute indexes are not optimum techniques to measure the intersecting factors of caste, class and gender that hinder routes to social mobility, they do, in fact, point towards a certain supposition, education acts as a way to increase social stratification and leads to a vicious cycle of reproduction of the very inequalities that it promises to erase.
This essay will aim to critically analyse how educational institutions continue to uphold harmful social structures that in turn stifle any hopes for upward social mobility. It will first assess how capitalist practices and political economies gatekeep access to education, and will then move on to inspect how caste and gender inequalities are both manifested and reproduced in educational environments. Lastly, it will evaluate the consequences of such patterns and its implications on the economic and social development of the country.
Business or Service? Commercialization of Education
Privatizing education is a matter of contention in all countries, but most of all in India, for it seems to multiply existing inequalities. As is, students belonging to caste and religious minorities find it incredibly difficult to gain access to education, but underfunding of the public educational sector considerably increases their hardship. In the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, despite meritocratic admission policies being in place, the youth are slotted into different colleges based on their ability to pay (Kaur and Sundar, 2016). More than 350 private colleges have mushroomed in Meerut and other cities of Ghaziabad, Dehradun and Bhopal, all set up by businessmen and leaders who evade taxes in the name of social service, naming institutions as charitable organizations (Kumar, 2019). Because of the severe lack of government colleges, students are forced into seeking admission into these private institutions. The predicament here is that these institutions charge exorbitantly high fees, and only students who come from generational wealth (mostly Upper Caste Hindus) are able to afford it. Social Welfare Schemes are usually exploited, as is the case for colleges in Uttar Pradesh which hire consultants to make a list of SC students and enrol them in vocational courses that qualify for subsidies, only on paper, however, to avoid actually schooling these children. (Kumar, 2019).
In 2019-20, India spent only 3.1% of its GDP on education, where over one million government schools remained poorly funded (Khaitan, 2021). The State refuses to spend enough resources on higher education, which sets up an uncomplicated path for private institutions to seek profits. But the dilemma does not end here. The result of the gap between demand and supply for public education has led to an explosion of private tuition classes and coaching centres which aim to prepare students for the entrance tests that admit them into prestigious universities (Bagchi, 2010). In addition to this, secondary schools and colleges have re-oriented their teaching styles to help students ‘crack’ these entrance exams, which has led to the commercialization of education, leading to the establishment of expensive private schools down to the elementary level (Upadhya, 2016).
The effects of these capitalist and neoliberal market tendencies can then be seen in the social mobility trends of India, where affluent upper-caste children are fed their educational journey on a silver spoon, ranging from urban elementary schools to privatized universities. On the other hand are the Dalits, Adivasi groups and Muslims who are stripped off of their aspirations very early on, because they cannot afford the educational pitstops that have now become necessary to climb the ladder for academic and social success.
Caste in the Classroom
The constitution of India has provided reservations of seats in educational institutions and in public employments to Schedule Castes, Scheduled Tribes and people who belong to socially and educationally backwards classes. Such affirmative action policies have existed in India for decades, yet according to a report by the National Sample Survey Organization, there still exists a large gap between certain social groups in terms of higher education (Kishore & Jain, 2015). There are several flaws in these policies that need to be addressed in order to ensure equalization of academic opportunities for all children in the country.
Caste-based reservations become limited in their effectiveness when they are only offered in the public sector (Borooah, 2010). Although state governments made it mandatory for technical institutes and colleges to provide reservations, private educational institutions were not mandated by central law to do so until 2019 (Chopra, 2019). There is no mechanism in place to track the implementation of the Right To Education Act in private, unaided schools (Saraogi, 2021). Therefore, children and youth belonging to disadvantaged communities find enrolment in government schools and colleges, to escape the social exclusion faced at privatized universities. Reservations also seem to be ineffective when the educational base of beneficiaries is low. Literate parents of disadvantaged children appreciate the value of education regardless of social identity, as opposed to illiterate parents. This leads to a cycle of passive exclusion, where attitudinal differences deter parents from sending children to school despite affirmative action policies in place, thus also excluding them from jobs which need educational qualifications (Borooah, 2010). In addition to this, there also exists the ‘creamy layer’ critique which asserts that those who are affluent among minority groups claim certain valuable opportunities, thus, creating inequalities within these groups.
Caste-based discrimination is rampant in higher educational institutions. In a report prepared by the Union Government, 85% of Adivasi and Dalit students studying at AIIMS, New Delhi felt that internal examiners had discriminated against them while awarding grades, while most of them agreed that the faculty subjects them to unfair practices (Hari, 2021). According to a report by The Wire, the University of Delhi has a strength of 264 professors, out of which only 3 professors belong to SC while none belong to the ST backgrounds (2021). The unfortunate institutional murders of Payal Tadvi and Rohit Vemula, demonstrate the lack of inclusive environments among educational institutions. Sanskritized ideals, such as Brahmin holidays, barring non-vegetarian food and selective punishment based on how “bright” one is, lead to inconspicuous propagation of Brahminism (Naraharisetty, 2021). The curriculum consists of reductive information taught by privileged teachers, which strengthens biases and unjust social structures. Thus, the educational environment, instead of destroying hierarchies, acts as an active upholder of caste-based inequalities masked under the garb of inclusivity and growth.
Mobility through Marriage
According to a report by UNICEF, girls in India are twice less likely as boys to receive at least four years of schooling, with 30% of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds never setting foot in a classroom (Gohain, 2020). In most rural areas, opportunities for social mobility presented to girls are limited to a good marriage proposal instead of the alternative route of education and eventual employment (Froerer, 2012). For most women, schooling and education are only a form of cultural capital that can eventually be transformed into better future prospects through marriage. Women are thus coerced into performing household tasks and assisting with domestic labour while simultaneously treating formal schooling as only a routeway towards acquiring paper degrees which could then be exchanged for a desirable marriage proposal. This is precisely why secondary education is not valued in these areas, families do not want a bahu (daughter-in-law) who is overly educated and hence, primary schooling is considered sufficient to both attract suitors and yet not intimidate them (Froerer, 2012). Any skills beyond primary schooling are thus considered useless, for they do not hold any active exchange value.
It is also important to note, however, that families in the village possess a limited amount of resources, which they prefer to spend on the male children rather than the daughters. A reason for this could be the widely held belief that women can find alternate ways to social mobility, in this case, marriage, while men need a formal education to better their livelihoods and move towards higher social status. Contrary to this belief, studies show that marriage is not an avenue of upward mobility for women (Vaid, 2018). There is also the lack of economic and social capital, which usually acts as an obstruction to girls’ aspirations. In Froerer’s article on social mobility, she mentions the case of the daughter of a local shopkeeper who failed to obtain a teacher’s post due to her lack of connections and material wealth. She could not attract any proposals due to her higher levels of education and was considered a “burden” on her family (2012). Dalit women usually fare worse, because while the upper strata can afford to educate their women and marry them into the upper caste to gain upward mobility, the lower strata do not want to take the risk (Still, 2011). The risk here refers to women possessing unattainable aspirations, which would eventually lead to them missing out on decent marriage proposals. Education can only act as a means towards mobility if the girl has dowry to match, and since poorer Dalits cannot afford this dowry, they prefer to discontinue their daughters’ education (Still, 2011).
Apart from this, there are gender biases that exist inside the classroom. Teachers breed a gender-insensitive classroom, often implying that men fare well in science as compared to women (Ralhan, 2017). The curriculum depicts women in traditionally feminine roles, perpetuating widely held gender stereotypes. Classrooms invariably promote inequality, thus leading to pervasive, negative views about sex and gender.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, it would take 7 generations for a member of a poor family to achieve average income in India. (Misra, 2020). It is fair to say that social mobility in India has various caste, class and gender blocks. In Divya Vaid’s book named “Uneven Odds: Social Mobility in Contemporary India”, she describes how education has remained largely unsuccessful in removing these blocks, and how caste and gender identities continue to hinder the country’s progress towards upwards mobility. Education in urban areas is far more salient in class destinations, and although women’s access to it remains restricted, it produces higher relative mobility as compared to rural areas (Vaid, 2018). Indian culture is riddled with such inequalities, and low social mobility will only lead to economic inefficiency as it will undermine the use of individual talents in the country (Chapman, 2020). The implications of the existing unequal privileges in education and the workspace will only lead to friction within and between certain social groups, eventually inhibiting social change. With certain reforms, educational environments can accomplish what they set out to do in the first place, and if not, then India will, unfortunately, continue to retain its unyielding and cureless reputation.
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