Reserving places at universities will do little to aid 'untouchable' children who cannot even get basic schooling, writes Sarah Bancroft
In a hot, airless classroom in Nuapuki, deep in rural Orissa on India's east coast, Sunita, 13, is bent intently over her textbook. Her parents labour in other people's fields, and are lucky if there is work for more than six months of the year.
The family gets by on just 3,000 rupees a month (pound;40). Sunita dreams of becoming a teacher but it's an uphill struggle. The school's well is dry, its roof and windows broken. Worse, while the children turn up each day with books and bags, they often wait in vain for staff to arrive.
Recently, Sunita wrote to Abdul Kalam, India's president, asking: "Sir, with good teachers and other facilities, I will also be a great person like you. I just wish my school to remain open every day."
For the past two months, although she does not know it, a battle has been raging in her name in India's cities. It began when Prime Minister's Manmohan Singh's government - elected on a mandate to serve the the common man - announced its intention to extend the quota system which already reserves 22.5 per cent of places in higher education for India's village tribes and Dalits, the lowest of Hinduism's castes: a further 27 per cent of places were to be set aside for "other backward classes", which include cultivators, shepherds and artisans.
The proposals sparked furious protests against the "death of merit" by students at India's elite universities and medical and other training institutions. Hospitals were paralysed by strikes of sympathetic doctors.
Quota supporters launched counter-demonstrations and hunger strikes. But no matter who wins the battle the victory will be pyrrhic, because reserved places in higher education will make little difference to the mass of poor children who drop out before the end of primary school.
Free compulsory education for India's 212 million 6-14s remains a government aim and more than 90 per cent of six-year-olds enrol in school.
But by age 11 more than one in three children drops out. Among Dalit and tribal children the figure is more than half, with another 15-20 per cent leaving before 14.
According to Vimala Rama-chandran, a researcher on the independent Annual Status of Education Report 2005 produced by Pratham, a non governmental organisation, there is no political will to provide good education to the poor. "India's school system is dysfunctional. Absenteeism among teachers is high. Many just don't teach anything."
Even when education is free, families cannot afford to lose the income a child might earn by working instead of going to school. Too many state schools teachers are taking advantage of job security and poor monitoring to coach private pupils when they should be in class.
Padma Yedla, head of Save the Children's education programme in Orissa and Andra Pradesh, said state teachers are better qualified and better paid than most in private schools, but there remain ingrained prejudices against lowest caste children to overcome. "Instead of finding out why a child hasn't completed their homework, or recognising that they cannot get help from an illiterate parent, the teachers resort to verbal abuse and humiliation. It's a vicious circle that gets only a bad response from the child."
The charity helps children, parents and teachers in rural villages re-examine their rights and responsibilities, using accountability to turn things around. Ms Yedla said in 175 schools in which Save the Children has worked over the past three years its approach has stimulated enrolment, cut dropouts and improved exam results.
Sunita's school was one of these. The intervention stopped her from becoming one of the millions who disappear from the school system every year. But it is painstaking work. The two states between them have some 120,000 schools.
Gautam Thapar, a prominent industrialist with international interests in paper, engineering and software, says that, as manufacturing facilities are based in areas with large populations of "backward classes", affirmative action is crucial, but the government's "ham-handed" initiative will benefit only those who can afford to stay at school.
Professor A Vaidyanathan, a development economist, says a quota system would be much more effective if the state paid for poor students who do well at school to get extra coaching, as well as providing grants to see them through higher education.
Sunita was lucky when Padma Yedla walked into her classroom, but she may need a great deal more luck before she can take up one of Manmohan Singh's reserved places at university.
CASTE: A BRIEF GUIDE
India's traditional castes:
Kshatriya: ruler, warrior, landowner
Shudra: artisans, land labourers
Modern India's lowest social classes include:
Other "backward" classes: crop pickers and tillers of the land, pastoralists, artisans
"Scheduled" castes: Once shunned and known as untouchables, because they work with dead bodies (animals and humans) and clean up waste. Now called "Dalits"
Scheduled tribes: village tribes