IITs should end outdated academic assessment to stop loss of Dalit lives

Why are IITs following a discriminatory system of relative grading, following a bell curve, wherein the last 10-15% students in class are deliberately made to fail?
IITs should end outdated academic assessment to stop loss of Dalit lives
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The caste system has long cast a dark shadow over Indian society, perpetuating discrimination, inequality, and social divisions. Despite constitutional safeguards and measures of affirmative action, the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities continue to face insurmountable challenges, particularly when pursuing higher education. Nowhere is this more evident than within the hallowed halls of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), where the persistent caste discrimination faced by SC/ST students is exacting a heartbreaking toll on their lives, pushing some to the brink of suicide.

The most recent and heart-wrenching incidents involved Ayush Ashna and Anil Kumar, both from the Scheduled Caste community and promising students of the Mathematics and Computing department at IIT Delhi. Ayush Ashna took his own life on July 9, 2023, and Anil Kumar followed suit on September 3, 2023. These young lives, brimming with potential, have been extinguished, casting a shadow of despair over IITs as institutions.

The cruel reality:

The suicides of SC/ST students in IITs are not isolated incidents but symptomatic of a deeply entrenched problem. Several factors contribute to the harrowing experiences of these students:

Academic pressure: IITs are renowned for their rigorous academic demands, often causing immense stress. SC/ST students, who may not have access to the same resources or support systems as their peers, bear the brunt of this pressure. Academic environment in IITs is like a boiling cauldron where students are put under unwarranted academic pressure. This must change and the environment must transform into student friendly.

Social isolation and discrimination: Many SC/ST students encounter isolation and discrimination within the IIT campus. Stereotypes, biases, and systemic prejudices make them feel like outsiders in their own academic community.

Lack of mental health support: IITs often fall short in providing adequate mental health support. The scarcity of counsellors and the stigma surrounding seeking help exacerbate the suffering of SC/ST students.

Financial struggles: Economic disparities persist, with SC/ST students grappling with financial burdens that affect their ability to focus on their studies.

The consequences of this ongoing discrimination are heart-wrenching, as SC/ST students, overwhelmed by the challenges they face, are driven to take their own lives. Each suicide represents not only the loss of a promising young life but also a stark indictment of our society's failure to eradicate caste-based discrimination.

A call to action:

Awareness and education: We must raise awareness about the deep-rooted discrimination faced by SC/ST students in IITs and the devastating consequences it can have. IITs must implement anti-discrimination policies, enforce stringent measures against offenders, and foster an inclusive environment where every student feels valued and respected.

Institutional reforms: IITs must do away with the discriminatory and outdated policy of academic assessment. Why are IITs following a discriminatory system of relative grading, following a bell curve, wherein the last 10-15% students in class are deliberately made to fail? Why can't every student entering IIT get his BTech degree, whether it is in four years, five years or 6 years. It is common in top universities in the US for students  to complete their four-year degree in five to six years. Yet these universities are top universities globally. Why can't IITs follow a similar system? It is now amply evident that the IITs are following this discriminatory assessment policy where the last 10-15% of the students are deliberately failed and kicked out to ensure that all the SC/ST students who enter IITs do not go out with a BTech degree in hand.  

Recruitment of SC/ST/OBC faculty: IITs have surreptitiously bypassed the constitutional provisions of providing representation to SC/ST/OBCs in their faculty positions. Ninety Five percent of IIT faculty belong to the Savarna castes like Bramhins, Baniyas and Rajputs who are less than 15% of India's population, whereas 85% of SC/ST/OBCs of India have less than 5% representation. This dacoity on the jobs and constitutional rights of SC/ST/OBCs must stop once and for all.

Mental health support and counselling: Immediate and robust mental health support services should be made available, with a focus on accessibility, confidentiality, and destigmatization. The suicides of SC/ST students in IITs are a stark reminder of the urgent need for comprehensive reforms. Caste discrimination should have no place in our educational institutions, and it is our collective responsibility to dismantle the barriers that continue to plague the lives of students from marginalised SC/ST communities. Only through concerted efforts, awareness, and meaningful change can we hope to prevent further loss of young, promising lives to this cruel and senseless tragedy.

Jayant Ramteke is a graduate of IIT Bombay and Founder and Managing Director, Meritorium Knowledge Academy. He is also President, SINPACT Foundation, Mumbai.

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