NEET snuffed a Dalit life in the Indian State of Tamilnadu

Valson Thampu
S. Anitha decided to give up. At ‘sweet seventeen’ she chose to make a NEET exit from live. Thanks to our idea and idolization of merit, a young, promising life has been snuffed out.

Yes, she had to punish herself for aspiring. Imagine, the daughter of a daily wage worker harbouring the audacity to dream of becoming a doctor! No, no! We know how to avert such calamities. The solution is systemic. Create a system which will effectively and ruthlessly crush such potential infiltrators into circles of privilege. We can do that in the name of merit; for merit, after all, is not meant to be a commonplace thing. (What everyone has cannot be ‘merit’!) It has its own preferred haunts, habitats and habiliments. How can my son be meritorious without your son being merit-less?
Anitha had 1176 marks out of 1200 in her class XII exam. NEET reduced her to 86 out of 700. She has been shown her place. Enlightened so NEETLY, sense dawned on her. And she decided to do the needful: needful, as farmers in similar states of desperation and hopelessness in this country know it.
I have been in education long enough to know this. So, let me tell you this. Our hypermarket of education is custom-designed to handicap a vast majority of children in this country. It serves to aggravate social and economic inequalities and undermine the health of our society. Education, as it is practised today, serves to institutionalize social injustice. Barring exceptions, it feeds the obese and swats away the hungry. Even among the SC/ST, it is the privileged who corner all benefits.
The apologetic fig-leaf used for this purpose is MERIT. NEET is nothing in itself. It is all-important as a deadly means for inflicting the current notions and biases about merit on the underprivileged sections of our society, who have been degraded through centuries of discrimination and socio-economic disability.
All the while I was in higher education (from 1973-2016), I was uneasy about how we understand, use and misuse merit. Through my admission policy in St. Stephen’s I challenged this tyrannical and biased dogma and proved beyond any doubt that merit is a social construct. It is loaded with centuries of discrimination and injustice. George Bernard Shaw’s remark on the predicament of the Blacks in the US is relevant here.
“You allow the Black boys to only shine your shoes,” Shaw challenged the thick-skinned US Bible-belt Southerners, “and then you insist that they are good enough only to shine shoes.”
When I removed, in part, the hindrances in the path of the children from the poor and SC/ST backgrounds, who are deemed meritless, St. Stephen’s witnessed a revolution. The ‘merit-gap’ between the upper class and the lower classes, the upper caste and the lower castes, children narrowed incredibly fast! Hand on heart, I testify: give them comparable opportunities from the start, the so-called low class, low caste children will outsmart their social betters.
Come to Anitha’s suicide. There has not been a suicide -thank God- on account of admissions-related selection to St. Stephen’s College. But I have had to see scores of rejected candidates break down and weep bitterly; several of them in my office. (I could not admit them; but I could meet them.) They would say, “Sir, we have worked so very heard for four years, dreaming of getting into St. Stephen’s. Tell us, what more are we to do?” I did not have a word of advice or comfort for them.
The tears that stream down the cheeks of these frustrated and wounded candidates, have their origin in the national approach to education, which is best described as driven by the ‘filtering-out’ intent. The system is so designed as to filter out as many as possible. That is why out of the 100 children admitted to Class one, only 1 finally make it to an institution of higher education.
Don’t be misled by the enrolment ratio of 24%! Enrolment ratio means how many get into higher education out of, say, 100 eligible candidates. It does not take into account the millions that get discarded, or drop out, before they reach Class 12.
Modi waxes eloquent about his sava sau karod Bharatwasi (or, 125 cores of Indians). I’s sure you know history. Whenever a ruler in the past or now refers to the size of the population in his country, it is only to brag of his importance. It is like how the wealth of a chieftain was measured in old days. He has a hundred buffalos. When it comes to such reckoning, fellows and buffalos are alike. It is a matter only of the bigness of numbers. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with his concern for, or commitment to, the people. Frequent references to sava sau karod does not mean that facilities for their welfare will be created or their suffering alleviated. You, your children, your parents, me, my kith and kin, are all there only swell the numbers. If you die of desperation it is sava sau karod minus one. It is as simple as that. The PM would not have made any reference to India’s demographic size, within the country or overseas, if we were a small country of some 10 million people.
Do you really think that the government cannot create enough good colleges to meet the educational aspirations of our children, rich or poor? That this cruel imbalance between demand and supply in respect of education cannot be remedied? No! It is not money that we lack; it is the political will enlivened by a sense of justice and honesty. We think that the poor are a liability to be endured, not a resource to be developed and deployed, or a responsibility to be addressed in light of social justice.
For the Modi government, education is the last priority. When, today, regulating education is talked about, the reference is not to guarding the standard or quality of education, but controlling the aperture of education, constricting the entry-points into higher education so that it is out of reach for even the middle class; leave alone children like Anitha, who are doomed to heartbreaks for daring to drag themselves out of their socio-economic morass.
So, folks, it is not just NEET in the end that is responsible. NEET is a flower that stands on the poisonous tree of education as a means for discrimination and disempowerment.
This poor are, and will stay, victims. For people like us, who have struggled lifelong to bring social justice into higher education, she is a martyr.
It could take many a martyr for a calloused national conscience to be pricked into sensitivity. So, don’t think you have seen the end of the story yet….