What does an education officer do when he retires? Travel the world, holiday in exotic places or visit all those friends? No, let’s volunteer to go to India and teach in a school for children from really poor backgrounds.
In July 2007, I retired as a chief education officer in the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. My wife Elizabeth, a science teacher, and I had applied to a group, Operation Mobilisation (OM), to teach for seven weeks in a school in India to broaden our educational experiences. It was set up as a response by a Christian organisation to provide schools for the Dalit (scheduled tribal and “untouchable”) children of India.
This would not be our first visit to India. Twice before, mainly as tourists, we had “discovered” India. On our second visit, we learnt about a different India to the one of tourist spots and the western style hotels, thanks to our relationship with an Indian family. Everywhere I travelled I had to come to terms with the poverty, the homelessness, the children on the street who should have been in school and, for me, the unacceptable living conditions of so many. Some jobs, for example on building sites, dealing with garbage and sewerage, that would be done by machines in western countries were done by hand. Who were these people?
Our hosts did not share the concerns we had for these people who were mainly untouchables, known as Dalits, and lower caste Indians, . They believed that people are born into their caste from a previous life and that, according to actions in this life, they could be born again into a better or worse one. As Hindus, they often argued that the caste system has been corrupted from its origins into a class system, but as people benefiting from being at the top of an entrenched religious and social order, they were not inclined to support change.
We learnt that the Dalit Freedom Network was established in 2003 to assist Dalits in the areas of education, social justice, economic development and healthcare. All religions were invited by the Dalit leadership to educate their children by establishing English medium schools. In response, the All India Christian Council set a target of 1,000 schools and Operation Mercy Charitable Company (OMCC), the development and education associate of OM India, is moving to contribute to this target with 67 schools established to date. It was in one of these Dalit Education Centres (DECs), Kindergarten to Year 10 schools, that we were to teach.
Who are these people?
There are estimated to be about 250 million Dalits in India. Most western people hear that untouchability no longer exists in India. The Constitution and Government outlaw untouchability. In the front of the students’ textbooks is written “Untouchability is a sin. Untouchability is irrational. Untouchability is a crime. Untouchability is anti-national”, but passing a law does not easily change entrenched social practices.
Then why does caste and untouchability continue? Dalits have carried out the work that no one else would do. Their jobs were dirty, hard labour and for small wages. Traditionally they have not been able to drink out of the same cup as a caste person, live in the same area, or even draw water from a common well because they would contaminate these things.
Hinduism in its many forms remains the dominant religion of India. Many of its priests continue to teach about and uphold the caste system and therefore, by implication, untouchability. Examples of discrimination on the basis of caste can be seen across the social structures of India. Even marriage outside of caste is difficult.
While the Government and the law is focused on change to guarantee equality, many argue that the practices in the cities and villages of India have made only small advances. Caste and untouchability are still significant underlying influences on society in both rural and urban India.
India today and tomorrow
How would we find the people, and particularly the children, of India as we taught in a school? Would the Dalit Education Centre be different? How does all this information fit with the current economic view of India as an emerging superpower?
As one of the oldest religions, Hinduism has a history of changing and mutating to accept political and social change, even adopting some aspects of other religions. No doubt economic change will improve the lives of many Indians and bring new opportunities, but I am not sure the growth rate will be as high as in China or that the poor will be major beneficiaries of these changes, not that I am sure that they are in China either. The redistribution of income will be one of many challenges for these governments.
For many Dalits, their acceptance of caste and social position results in little incentive to change, a lack of desire to gather the resources for change and less access to employment opportunities that lead to higher incomes.
Anyone wishing to enquire further about the work of Operation Mercy Charitable Company (OMCC), or in sponsoring children to attend a Dalit Education Centre or who may wish to volunteer to be involved in this work can contact Operation Mobilisation Australia through the website www.om.org.au.