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Education

Why Higher Education Is Still a Distant Dream for the Tribal Communities of Kerala

Despite the state’s achievements in the education sector, the poor socio-political condition of marginalised groups keeps them out of the mainstream, with the pandemic making the situation worse.

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The 2021 Kerala Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examinations recorded an all-time high pass percentage of 99.47% compared to earlier years. Although this calls for celebrations, a scrutiny of the results shows that students from the state’s tribal communities performed proportionately poorly. This begs an important question: why?

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Central Board of Secondary Education and the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education to cancel their examinations this year. However, the Kerala Board of Public Examinations, realising the importance of examinations, instituted health precautions and successfully conducted the SSLC examinations.

Despite a liberal exam policy which included questions that would double the score of the maximum marks while keeping the maximum marks for the examinations the same as the years before, one district underperformed: Wayanad, the district with the highest population of tribal communities in Kerala. More than 86% of the students in this district who failed the SSLC examinations in 2021 belong to the scheduled tribes (STs). This is significantly higher than the 74.9% who failed in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education website. Given that Kerala is always at the top of national education-related indicators, if this is the educational situation of tribal communities in the state, then the condition of tribal communities in other states is probably far worse.

Prospects of higher education

Even if more students from the tribal communities had passed the 2021 SSLC exams, the chances of them getting admission in the higher secondary schools would be poor because of a lack of seats.

Half the districts of Kerala do not have enough higher secondary institutions to accommodate all the students seeking admission in any year and in Wayanad, one in four students is always denied higher education in a public school. Given that 17% of the total population of Wayanad is from tribal communities, this further aggravates the exclusion of tribal students from mainstream education. In addition, the existing reservation quota of 8% has always been proportionally less than the total number of students who have cleared the SSLC exams.

Also read: A Cost-Benefit Analysis Can’t Capture the Social Justice Aspect of Scholarships

“The dropout syndrome (a term coined by the ST department) is highest among the Kattunaika, Adiyan and Panian communities of tribes,” said the Kerala Economic Review 2020. In the 2019-2020 school year, the dropout ratio among students from the tribal communities was 1.16%, much higher than the state average of 0.11%. In Wayanad, 83% of all the dropouts were from the tribal communities. For these children, higher education is still a distant dream, particularly education that is imparted online as the pandemic continues to rage.

One of the major issues to hold back the online education of children from the tribal communities is the need for a local mentor to translate the online lessons into local aboriginal dialects. Filled with uncertainties about lessons imparted in languages they do not understand, the students usually end up helping their parents in their daily work. Also, since many of the male members of their communities lack an income due to alcohol addiction and the tribal communities are now almost completely dependent on government kits and rations for survival, the children’s education is disrupted and their mental health is affected.

According to Rejini, the coordinator of the Adhishakthi Summer School that supports students from tribal communities under the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, initiatives such as Gothrasaradhi, a project that transported Adivasi students from their villages and remote areas of the forests to school in vehicles, have been stopped due to the pandemic. This means that the students have been isolated in their homes since last March, with ill access to basic amenities and digital gadgets.

Rejini added that even though Adivasi students receive ‘food supplements’ from their schools to help meet their nutritional needs during the pandemic, they are not enough. Also, because they have poor access to digital gadgets and poor understanding of the internet, the students have not been able to take full advantage of the scholarships distributed by E-Grantz, an online centralised system for the disbursement of scholarships for all pre- and post-matriculation students of the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward communities of Kerala.

Impact on the Knowledge Economy Mission

Despite a threefold increase in the number of students with “A+” scores in all subjects as shown by the 2021 SSLC exam results, the quality of education in Kerala hasn’t improved during the pandemic. Rather, the pedagogical shift to virtual learning platforms only hampers the academic potential of students at the higher secondary level. This further alienates students from the tribal communities from pursuing higher education, especially science subjects which involve technical knowledge that can best be learned directly from teachers.

In addition, a lack of academic standards in higher education has forced students to emigrate outside the state. This is reflected in the low gross enrolment ratio of Kerala in higher education (37 %), which is way behind that of Tamil Nadu, its neighbouring state (48.6%).

Also read: Why Aren’t Enough Students From Tribal Communities Receiving the National Overseas Scholarship?

To revive the higher education sector and solve the problem of the high ‘educated unemployment’ rate in Kerala, the Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council recently launched a Knowledge Economy Mission to properly utilise human capital. Higher education is one of the pillars of this mission, but if tribal communities remain underrepresented in higher education, the vision of the mission will not be properly achieved.

Tribal communities constitute only about 1.5% of the total population of Kerala. This means they have very little influence in democratic decision-making. Moreover, they do not possess enough class consciousness to become an organised force and seek their rights. The education that determines our future as a nation must be treated as a public good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Any vision that does not begin with inclusivity would be educational elitism. Thus, as a preliminary step, the government must increase the number of seats for the higher education of the tribal communities and open learning centres in remote areas.

Although though the primary concern of the mission is to foster science and technology, we must not forget the importance of languages, arts, and aesthetics. The aboriginal languages of the tribal communities are dying. The death of a language means the loss of an entire argosy of knowledge of the life and culture of its people. The tribal communities are also blessed with many beautiful art forms including Nellukuthu Pattu, Kolkali, Vattakali, Gadhika and so on. The government must take measures to preserve and encourage the use of these tribal languages, arts, and crafts and promote efforts to create a multilingual curriculum.

The drastic cut in post-matriculation scholarships for the scheduled castes and tribes by the Union government in the budget for 2021 combined with the encouragement of private players in the education sector will further increase inequality. Thus, the proper disbursement of a digital access grant that will pay for data packs and digital gadgets would permit students from low income, minority and marginalised groups to continue their education with ease.

As human beings, we have a moral obligation to help the poorly represented tribal communities out of their various predicaments through active interventions. Hopefully, the present and future governments will work to ameliorate their condition and include their needs in our missions.

Shravan M.K. is pursuing a masters’ degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Sivanth is a final year philosophy (honours) student from Hindu College, Delhi University.