Nitish Kashyap (Mumbai)
The suicide of darshan solanki, a first year B.Tech student at the top-ranked Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B, estb.1958) on February 12, has cast a spotlight on the issue of student suicides, especially students admitted under the Central government’s reservations policy.
Under this affirmative action policy, 22.5 percent of seats in all 23 IITs countrywide are reserved for school-leavers from the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) and another 27 percent for students of OBCs (other backward classes/castes). All aspirants for admission are obliged to write the IIT-JEE (joint entrance examination) and IIT-Mains — reportedly the toughest entrance exams worldwide — but affirmative action quota students have lower cut-offs.
Darshan Solanki was admitted under the affirmative action policy. Following reports of on-campus discrimination, an internal IIT-B committee investigating Darshan’s death concluded that there was no specific evidence of caste-based discrimination against the deceased student.
The committee’s report attributed his suicide to “poor academic performance” and “aloofness” and dismissed allegations of on-campus caste discrimination. It rejected a statement of IIT-B’s SC/ST cell to the committee that Darshan had suffered caste-based discrimination from general (merit) category students.
With admission into the country’s IITs highly prized – 1.2 million school-leavers write the annual IIT-JEE, of whom 2 percent are admitted — the generous reserved quota has always been resented by general (‘merit’) quota students who argue that merit, i.e, topping the entrance exams should be the sole criterion for admission into the much prized IITs. On the other hand, liberals contend that SCs, STs and OBCs have suffered caste-based alienation and denial of education from the upper castes for several millennia. Therefore, they deserve favoured admission.
This subject has often provoked nationwide agitations and numerous court-room battles until in the interests of balancing merit with social justice, in Indira Sawhney vs. Union of India & Ors (1992), the Supreme Court capped the reserved quota at 50 percent. And although IIT authorities are strictly prohibited from disclosing the caste identities and quota details of students on campus, merit students have devised ways and means to discover the caste backgrounds of quota students during the infamous ‘ragging’ of freshers (now tempered down), to label the latter and disparage them with snide hurtful remarks (see www.educationworld.in/pernicious-casteism.in-academia).
In this particular case, the haste with which the IIT-B internal investigation ruled out the caste angle has aroused suspicion against the management. Last year (2022), the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a student body at IIT-B, had complained to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) that the head counsellor of the institute’s Student Wellness Center (SWC) had signed a public petition to end caste-based reservation i.e, affirmative action, and posted it on social media. APPSC had highlighted in its complaint that this incident discouraged quota students from seeking SWC advice. It was also highlighted that none of the student counsellors were from SC or ST backgrounds and that for many backward class students, meeting them was causing more harm than good.
Taking cognizance of the APPSC complaint, on February 2, NCST questioned IIT-Bombay as to why a counsellor with “casteist sentiment” was allowed to continue working with the on-campus SWC.
Even as the education ministry informed the Rajya Sabha on March 30 that “no case of caste discrimination and alienation of SC and ST students has been reported from IITs in the last five years,” Union minister of state for education Subhash Sarkar informed the upper house, that seven cases of suicide have been reported in the IITs.
While there is no data maintained by the Central government regarding caste discrimination in Central universities, the number of suicides in the IIMs, IITs and NITs is alarming. According to Sarkar, 61 students from these top-ranking education institutes have died by suicide with IITs reporting the highest number at 33.
Meanwhile, despite IIT-B’s internal investigation committee denying caste oppression, the Mumbai Police has registered an FIR against unknown persons for allegedly indulging in caste-based discrimination after a special investigative team found a suicide note allegedly written by Darshan. Also while responding to the APPSC complaint, NCST made several recommendations to IIT-B to stamp out caste offences on campus.
That instead of being united on the issue of stamping them out, students in higher education are importing primeval social prejudices into institutions of higher learning, tells a sorry tale of their mindset.
New teacher recruitment initiative
Aartie Rau (Pune)
Confronted with scary data that learning outcomes of children and youth in India’s most industrialised state are in free fall, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena-BJP government has taken time off from politicking to address the problem.
On March 16, Deepak Kesarkar, Maharashtra’s minister of school education, announced that 30,000 teaching jobs will soon be filled by high-quality teachers who have cleared the stiff Teacher Aptitude and Intelligence Test (TAIT). He added that the task of conducting TAIT has been outsourced to the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS) and IT consulting and services behemoth Tata Consultancy Services, both of whom have excellent reputations to lose and can be expected to do a good job of teacher selection and recruitment.
With remedial education not addressed after the 81-week pandemic lockdown of schools statewide, learning outcomes in Maharashtra’s rural schools have regressed to pre-2012 levels, according to the authoritative Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022. From an already abysmal 27.3 percent in 2018, the percentage of class III children in rural public and private schools who can read class II level textbooks has plunged to 20.5 percent.
Moreover, according to a Multiple Indicator Survey (MIS) report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), released last month (March), 68.9 percent of India’s youth in the 15-29-year age group are unable to execute even basic computer functions. Another key finding of the survey is that the majority of a sample group —73 percent — lacks basic email skills.
Within academia and society, it is widely accepted that the major causative factor behind rock-bottom learning outcomes of children and youth is poor quality of teachers. Although a postgrad B.Ed qualification is mandatory for all primary and secondary school teachers, very few universities offer it as a study programme. Teacher training is provided by an estimated 574 private B.Ed colleges, most of whom offer it as a distance learning study programme, which is difficult to fail.
Moreover, with teachers remuneration in the country’s 1.20 million government schools linked with Pay Commission scales paid to Central and state government employees, government teachers’ jobs have transformed into high wage islands, with government school teachers earning 5-6 multiples of the remuneration of private school teachers. As a result, numerous teacher recruitment scams have broken out all over the country with politicians and bureaucrats pulling all strings to land kith and kin government school teaching jobs.
Against this backdrop of a downright mess in teacher training and recruitment, the Maharashtra government’s proposal to clean up the mess by getting IBPS and TCS — two highly reputable private sector companies — to impartially recruit 30,000 teachers is a promising initiative. Whether this initiative can be sustained or expanded — given the lucrative ‘business’ that teacher training and recruitment has become — is a moot point.