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School Where Caste Doesn't Count

By Cameron BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 1992


HEADMASTER Mansingh Rahi is an untouchable, but high-caste parents send their children to his school. Mr. Rahi "proved his worth" as a teacher, in the words of a local doctor. The lethargy of India's bureaucracy is legendary, but Rahi succeeded in having the authorities construct a new school building in this north Indian village.

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"These things don't happen easily," says the doctor, Divya Pal Singh, who left a practice overseas to return to a nearby village.

Rahi sits on a wooden chair behind a small desk on the school's veranda, which serves as an office and classroom. The class he teaches, about a dozen fifth-graders, is lined up in two rows, facing him. They are sitting cross-legged on a couple of long, thin burlap rugs, and everywhere there are blue splotches from their fountain pens.

The headmaster, a round-faced man whose strong glasses make his expression a little hard to read, seems entirely matter-of-fact about the caste controversy. He explains that the primary school at Rasmai is his 10th post and that high-caste parents have always been sensitive about entrusting their children to him. He comes from a sector of Indian society that is still responsible for the handling of feces and dead animals. He acknowledges that he had to "make constant efforts" to get the new school built,

but that's about all he says about it.

Rahi is much more easily drawn out on the problems he faces as a teacher in a village school in India. He wears a traditional dhoti - the long, pleated loincloth worn by Hindus - and a narrow white cap called a Gandhi topi.

It's an appropriate outfit, since Rahi seems to have benefited from Gandhi's attempt to abolish caste, and because Rahi is quietly outspoken in a way the Mahatma might applaud. He gripes about the meager, misguided assistance he receives from educational bureaucrats, says he has a hard time maintaining discipline, and complains about the lack of respect and remuneration accorded members of his profession.

Schoolteachers are not the only critics of primary education in India. Swami Agnivesh, a one-time minister of education for Haryana state and now a child-labor activist, says that primary education has been "left to fend for itself" in favor of spending on college-level education. Statistics on education in India tell an old story: More than half of Indians older than 15 are illiterate; the primary school dropout rate in 1988 was 39 percent, one of the highest in the world.

Rahi supervises two teachers at the Rasmai school, who each simultaneously handle two of the school's five grades, but Rahi says his first priority is more teachers. The school has 123 students, and the average class size is about 24. Rahi knows, however, that he isn't likely to get any more assistants, since the state guidelines say that a student-teacher ratio of 1 to 40 is acceptable - which means that the Rasmai school is entitled to only three instructors.

Rahi and Ram Prakash Kulshreshth, one of the assistant teachers, bring out a box marked "Tool Kit," a recent provision from the state educational department. It contains a child-sized hammer, an undersized pair of pliers, even a small electric drill.