Education among Underprivileged in India: Issues, Challenges and Way Forward



Education is the means through which individuals and groups achieve social mobility in modern societies such as ours. It is also instrumental in re-structuring the social order which is generally hierarchically organised and where inequalities are ubiquitous. In the Indian society which is essentially and historically structured along the caste lines, social inequalities are produced and reproduced along the caste lines primarily. Certain castes are privileged and certain others are not, in terms of economic means, social status, political participation and educational opportunities. Similarly, another group which had been on the margins of the Indian society at large is the Scheduled Tribes, that lived in geographic isolation, away from the so-called ‘settled’, ‘mainstream’, ‘civilized’ societies, in forests, hills and terrains that are not easily accessible, with their unique cultures, religious practices, languages and ways of life. While these groups have had a life that was distinct from the rest of the social groups in the Indian society, they had a unique synchronous of their life with the nature surrounding them. The geographical isolation however, led these groups to unequal participation in social, economic, political and educational spheres of the developing society.


While in some respects, these groups have achieved some educational advancement, they lag behind in certain other respects which continue to keep them on the margins of the educa- tional, developmental and social mobility processes, thus leaving much to be desired to make members of these castes and tribes as equal members of the hitherto unequal Indian society.

a.   Enrollment Rates

One area where these groups have shown tremendous progress is in terms of enrollments at all levels of education. In primary education, at the first standard of entry into structured and formal education, the enrollments match the most privileged, but by the time they arrive at standard five, their numbers seem to dwindle. For example, the Government of India Report on ‘Education for All: Towards Quality and Equity’, published by National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) in 2014 documents this trend between 2000-01 and 2013-14.

Interestingly, the Report does point out an increase in the GER of girls in comparison to boys among SCs, substantially higher for SC girls than that of the SC boys (48.6 per cent for SC girls and 18.8 per cent for SC girls). That means, the parents and communities from among the SCs and STs are enrolling their children, both boys and girls, in the elementary (both primary and upper primary) school class and are exhibiting eagerness to make them literate and educated.

b.  Drop-out rates

The gains in the enrollments looks dim when one observes the drop-out rates at the elementary stage. While the drop-out rate for all categories of children was 42.3 per cent in 2008-09, it is 47.9 per cent for the SC children and 58.3 per cent for ST children. That means nearly or above 50 per cent of those who enter into the elementary school leave it by the time they complete that particular stage of education. Some analysts may claim that inspite of such high levels of drop-out, there indeed was a decline of the trend over the   years.

However, this reasoning and justification does not help in the overall achievement of universalization of elementary education. Thus, it continues to be a major hurdle for the country to claim provision of basic education for all its children. This issue of drop-out and retention accelerates as children move up the higher levels of education ladder.


For children of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, while access, both physical and social, has been largely attended to, thanks to a series of initiatives like Operation Blackboard (OBB), National Literacy Campaigns (NLCs), District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the school remains an unattractive space for them to remain in and complete at least the basic levels of education. No doubt, schooling has become accessible physically for children from SCs and STs more now than before, but the school as a space for equal educational experience for all children, more so for SC and ST children, did not transform as much. The structures of poverty, social class, caste and social identities reproduce in ways that further widen the inequalities among the children from various social backgrounds and be- tween the teachers and children as also teachers and the parents of the children. Clubbed with this, teacher’s apathy and differential treatment deter the children from these communities, away from the school, making it a hostile space for learning notions of teachers which view children from these communities as ‘unintelligent’, ‘unworthy’, and ‘unfit’ for learning and education and that they are fit to be performing their traditional menial jobs or to stay around the forests and hills.

The Way Forward

In order to retain children in schools and halt their drop-out from schools, it is imperative for the governments, schools and communities to provide egalitarian schooling experiences for all children, more so for those coming from SC and ST backgrounds. If school remains an unattractive and hostile space for these children, the overall educational participation of these children in schooling will remain much to be desired and, as stated earlier, may even further widen disparities. There is thus, a need to move beyond mere enrollments at elementary and subsequent levels of education. Once the school becomes a place for joyful and inclusive learning experience, it will facilitate children from these groups to move onto higher levels of education, which in turn will ensure their absorption into the educated labour market. Already, we find the SCs and STs breaking the barriers to enter higher educational institutions in larger numbers than before, are entering into diverse subject areas and those which are sought after, which will eventually alter the occupational and economic structures of Indian society that in turn will make a pool of skilled and educated human resources that can contribute to the overall development of the country.

One important challenge however, is to make special efforts to include and make schooling accessible to a large number of girls from among the SCs and STs as these girls are double or triple disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts. Girls from among these communities are disadvantaged in terms of caste, tribe, gender and social class, which compounds their educational exclusions. Any process of change thus, has to carefully look into the combined effects or inter-sectionality of caste/tribe, gender and social class. For both Dalit and tribal boys and girls, school must be a liberator from their deprivations accrued from their historical antecedents and by virtue of their birth into a particular community. Both school and society shall thus need to be more inclusive, just and fair to children from these communities so that the Indian society can then truly claim itself to be a democratic society where all its citizens are treated equal.