Prior to 21st February 2018, I was one of those students who would sit in their rooms or in the library and study, who did not get involved in any political or cultural activities in college, and who never felt comfortable talking to other students in college. But on 20th February, I saw some posters on the college walls calling for a ‘University strike to seek social justice – against the upfront fee payment of GOI-PMS students’. I felt that this strike was for the right cause and that I should participate in it. Coming from the Nomadic Tribes category, I myself got admission through reservation under OBC category. Till my MA, I was getting scholarships from Maharashtra State under NT category, but after securing admission in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, we were informed that OBC(NC) students would not get scholarships, as the government of Maharashtra had discontinued scholarships for OBC(NC) students studying in private deemed universities in 2014.
During the protest on 17th March, we came to know that this was not true and that OBC(NC) students could apply for scholarships as TISS was a publicly funded university. The Social Welfare Department has been continuously sending letters to the Institute asking for the scholarship applications of OBC(NC) students. Why the institute kept these letters hidden from students is still a mystery to us. It is now the 34th day of our protest and still, the Institute is not responding to our demands. OBC(NC) category is not homogeneous and comprises of different castes, such as Nomadic and Denotified tribes, Dalits from Muslim and Christian religions, etc. Unavailability of scholarships affects all of them. Here, I want to share the experiences of students from Nomadic Tribes studying in TISS-Mumbai.
Nomadic and Denotified tribes are the communities that wander from place to place for their livelihood. These communities either do not have a permanent settlement or cannot settle at one place due to the nature of their traditional occupation. Children of these communities also migrate with their families. In the autobiography ‘Teen Dagadanchi Chul’, Vimal More, a woman from the nomadic tribes, narrates the difficulties in attending school while migrating with one’s family.
The formal education system is designed for the children of families who have a permanent home and a fixed job for earning a livelihood. It demands compulsory attendance at school from children who want to access education, thereby ensuring that many children remain outside the school. Children of nomadic tribes are unable to get an education as it is difficult for them to attend school daily. They also face economic challenges and cultural discrimination. First of all, it becomes difficult for them to attend school, and if they somehow manage to join and attend school, the absence of cultural and economic capital comes as another hurdle in their way.
Some children manage to get an education by facing all these hurdles, and with the help of affirmative-action policies such as Ashram schools, reservations, and scholarships. There are only six students from NT-DNT communities of Maharashtra studying in TISS-Mumbai. In the academic year 2017-18, only two are enrolled for post-graduation, no women are enrolled for post-graduation, and two women are enrolled for MPhil.
Four out of these six students are the first from their family, relatives or village to become a graduate. One of the students recalls: “After tenth, my father asked me to join him in shepherding, and decided to increase the number of sheep. But I wished to go for further studies. My brother was not educated, and in fact, I was the first from Dhanagarwada to complete 12th grade. When I go back to the Pala (temporary settlement where families of the nomadic community live) people call me ‘Saheb’ now.”
Since all these students come from vernacular-medium education, it becomes very difficult for them to cope up with an entirely different medium of instruction, and this develops into an inferiority complex. Vernacular language and poor quality in primary, secondary and higher secondary education make it difficult for them to survive in higher educational spaces. Out of the two students enrolled for post graduation in the academic year 2017-2018, one student failed in the first-semester examination and will have to repeat the year. In such cases, chances of drop-out increase as these students come from poor economic backgrounds and also not getting any scholarship. It becomes impossible for them to pay fees for the second time. One of the students says, “In Ashram school, there was only one teacher for all subjects. The Marathi teacher taught Chemistry, Maths, and all other subjects. Because of that, could not get even the basic knowledge of any subject, and never saw a single piece of equipment for doing our science practicals. There were no books available to do self-study, and the teachers just wanted us to pass the examination somehow. No one in my family or relatives is educated, and I could not get guidance from anyone. I did not feel any caste discrimination in Ashram school since all the students in that school were from NT-DNT communities. We had to eat whatever they provided. Sometimes the food was of the worst quality and we would find worms in the curries. I wanted to go to the medical field but did not know what steps to take or what exams to give. I took admission for BSc and began working in catering to pay for my room rent and college fees. Right from schooling days, I was out of touch with English, and in 12th science or BSc, we did not get good teachers or at least a teacher for each subject. So my English language skills were poor and other basic concepts were not clear. In TISS, I would hide in the classroom whenever the teacher asked questions.”
Four out of six students came from families having low annual income 1 lakh, and all of them are from the non-creamy layer category. All of them had to take a loan from the bank or borrow from friends or relatives for paying their fees. Also, five out of six students had to work during their school days as well as during graduation. One Student said, “I managed to access education because of the Ashram school scheme for NT-DNT students. Otherwise, it would not have been possible. During this whole period, I was working as a labourer so to pay for my education. I used to work full-time during Diwali and summer vacations and part-time during other days. For my MA, I got scholarship under OBC category, but now the government is not giving scholarships to OBC students. After my Masters, I worked for two years to save enough money to pay for my Mphil fees.”
All these students studied in vernacular schools with very poor educational facilities. Out of six students, two studied in Ashram schools run by a government scheme for NT-DNT children, since their families did not have a permanent settlement and kept migrating every three days. But the experiences of these students show Ashram schools have very poor facilities, with no teachers for all subjects, no good food, and no decent accommodation. One participant said, “During this whole journey, I had some lasting memories of Ashram School since our Ashram school was in the forest area. Wild animals would come to our rooms and one student was bitten by a tiger. Due to that fear, we could not sleep at the Ashram school and would go to a sugarcane farm instead. We also never got enough food – we were given only lunch – so we managed breakfast and dinner by eating sugarcane from nearby farms”. Yet, books and teachers were all that these students wanted from the government.
On the other hand, a girl student from a family settled in the village shared a different experience of poor educational facilities. “From eighth to the tenth standard, I had to walk five kilometers to attend school. There were 8-10 students at the beginning of 8th standard but after that, they began dropping out of school, and by 10th standard, there were only three girls remaining from my village. Out of these, one got married after 10th, while we two who remained, decided to go for further education. There was no school after 10th in the village where I was living with my grandfather, so I decided to go to my parents’ village. But due to continuous opposition from family towards my education, I could not manage to attend college in 11th and 12th. Later, I somehow managed to pass the examinations, but had to drop out from science stream and shift to Arts.”
Five out of the six students have been staying away from their families since their childhood. The families of two of the students migrate as part of their traditional occupation, and if their children wanted to get educated, they could not stay with the family. Due to staying away from families and struggling to get an education through economic hardships, these students live under constant mental pressure. They understand the difficulties of their families and do not want to bother their parents. This creates a gap between parents and children. One participant said, “After my tenth exam, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and we had to sell half of our sheep to arrange money for her treatment. My family was stressed because of our poor economic condition…. so for my eleventh standard, I decided to live in Ashram school in Satara. During Diwali and summer vacations, I would call my family and find out the address of the current Pala and would go there to help them out. During that time, I was in an ‘Earn and Learn scheme’ – I worked for four hours after school and earned Rs.70 per day…I took admission for BSc and started working in catering to pay for my room rent and college fees. I did not get exposure to English or good teachers during my schooling days, 12th science and BSc, and for graduation, I had to take an education loan of 3 lakhs for post graduation. We don’t have the money to pay. People suggest that we should sell our sheep, but if we sell our livelihood then how will we survive? When I receive calls from the bank, I get depressed. Because of this loan, many times, I cannot sleep. My classmates talk about their dreams and future plans, but my future plan is only to repay this loan.”
Another student said, “My economic condition was really bad, I remember how I spent two months with Rs.15 in my pocket. I was watching how other elite girls spent their money on shopping. I felt bad. My mother used to grow some vegetables in our yard and gave me money by selling vegetables. Grandmother was providing me clothes. After that, I started working part-time and from the 3rd year of graduation, I never asked my parents for money.”
Here, the irony is that TISS is running various projects on Nomadic and Denotified tribes. They earn profit from many such projects and hold seminars on issues of these tribes. One such seminar was held during our protest as well, but when it comes to higher education for children from the same communities, they want them to pay around 2.5 lakhs as fees for two years. They know that paying such huge fees is impossible for those coming from Nomadic and Denotified tribes. This means that they don’t want these students to obtain higher education from premier institutes like TISS.
It seems like they want these tribes to remain marginalized so that they continue to get new opportunities to run their projects in the name of marginalized people.
Arati Subhash Kade is an Mphil scholar at TISS, Mumbai.