School education vouchers empower Dalits through choice

School education vouchers empower Dalits through choice

If a school provides low quality education or discriminates, Dalit students can move to a different school of their choice with vouchers

The poor social and economic status of Dalits in India is of serious concern. There is substantial well-documented evidence that a section of the Hindu community – the Dalits, are at the rock bottom on all social and economic indicators. For example, 37 per cent of people classified as Scheduled Castes (SC) are below the poverty line. In contrast, only 22 per cent of non-SC/Scheduled Tribes (ST) are below the poverty line. In about 84 per cent of Dalit households, the highest earning member earns less than Rs 5,000. 

However, the good news is that the Dalits have been catching up in recent years. In their paper Caste and Labour Mobility (2010), economists Hnatkovska, Lahiri, and Paul had found significant convergence in occupation distribution, wages and consumption levels of SC/STs toward non-SC/ST levels. For example, they find that SC/STs were over-represented in agricultural jobs as compared to non-SC/STs. However, between 1983 and 2005, the representation of SC/STs in blue and white collar jobs has improved. Similarly, they also find that the wage gap between SC/STs and non-SC/STs has declined for all income groups, except the highest income quintile. They point out that the sharpest decline occurred at the median of the distribution, where the wage gap has fallen by 15 per cent from 36 per cent to 21 per cent. 

Further, they are able to find that the primary reason for this convergence between SC/STs and non-SC/STs is due to the convergence in education. They find that the gap or relative discrepancy in the average years of education declined between the two groups by 83 per cent from 157 per cent to 74 per cent.

“In 1983, the average years of education of non-SC/STs were 3.62 relative to 1.41 years for SC/STs - a 157 per cent relative discrepancy. However, over the same sample period, there was a clear trend toward convergence in education levels of SC/STs toward their non-SC/ST counterparts as the gap declined to just 74 per cent by 2004-2005”

These results are important for several reasons. First, they indicate that convergence in income and consumption is possible. Once the class difference between the two social groups is eliminated, and SC/STs are at par with non-SC/STs, social interactions will increase.  There are no religious differences. This, coupled with an increasing trend of inter-caste marriages, urbanisation and an overhaul of occupation structure in the modern market economy will ensure that the caste system will collapse eventually.

Second, we now know that the education of Dalits is the key to achieve convergence of equality. Hence, there is a need for affirmative action in education for the transformation of the Dalit community rapidly. Unfortunately, the present affirmative action in institutes of higher education is a case of assistance available too late.

This is because a majority of Dalits suffer from extreme poverty and young Dalit children are left at the mercy of government schools only. They need to be enabled with multiple choices to get educational services. Several studies have shown that the quality of education provided in government schools is, on average, far below the quality of education provided in private schools. There are several reports of Dalit students facing discrimination in public schools too. Despite the poor quality of education and facing discrimination, Dalit students persist with government schools because they do not have an alternative choice. In rare cases, missionaries driven by their mission to convert, are able to provide some respite.

Poor primary education leaves Dalit students ill-equipped to take full advantage of reservations in higher educational institutes in India. They are often unable to compete with non-SC/ST students. Such a reservation policy in higher education also tends to disproportionately benefit the affluent sections within the SC/ST community (who are able to attend higher quality private schools) while completely leaving out the deprived and poor sections (who have to attend government schools only). This could also be a source of discontent in the non-SC/ST sections that sees the benefits of reservations going to affluent children who are well off in all other aspects. 

There is an imperative to ensure innovative affirmative action reaches all Dalit students as early as possible. In order to negate the caste system, it is critical that Dalit students have access to high quality school education which they will be deprived off if left at the mercy of public schools only. 

Hence, poor Dalit students should be provided with education vouchers to fund their school education. The idea of vouchers was popularised by Noble Prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman. An education voucher will empower Dalit students to attend a school of his/her choice. If a school provides low quality education or discriminates against students, the student can move to a different school of their choice. This will allow for healthy competition between schools to attract students. The school can simply deposit the voucher to the government and collect school fees. An education voucher will ensure a strong foundation for Dalit students to compete in higher education and employment.

TK Sundari Ravindran in her EPW article, Public-Private Partnerships in Maternal Health Services published in 26 November, 2011, argues that voucher schemes are a form of “demand-side-financing”. This can be provided to low-income groups to increase their purchasing power to choose from among a panel of service providers- schools. There is scope for quality assurance by contracting with facilities which meet minimum standards. 

This policy can be implemented in two ways. Provisions can be made in the Right to Education Act to give preference to Dalit students with vouchers instead of 25 per cent provision under RTE Act. The benefit of this approach is that it will not cost the state exchequer any extra resources. 

The government can also create a fiscal capacity to finance the school education of Dalit students. There are 20 crore Dalits in India. Assuming one-fourth of them are school going children and the government pays Rs 5,000 to every dalit child every year, this will translate in Rs 25,000 crores only for the state.  However, if we are able to provide a strong foundation to Dalit students with quality in school education, we will be able to negate the caste system and discrimination perhaps in a couple of generations. 

(Dr Ghanshyam Sharma is Assistant Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Legal Studies, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. B Chandrasekaran works in public policy.)

The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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