Dalit Quota Opens Doors But Reservations Remain

The number of Dalit students in IIT has risen but the subtler battle over prejudice remains

November 11

Most of them did not attend fancy coaching classes to prepare for the Indian Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). So they did not have much hope of getting in. In fact, they were told that IIT would be beyond their reach and it would be more realistic if they aimed for regional engineering colleges. Competition in the five IITs in the country, they were assured, would finish them before anything else did.

Still, Dalit students like Kiran, Ramesh, Sanchita and Manali persisted. They answered the JEE, were among the roughly 3,000 students from a total 1.5 lakh who got through and then got a lesson in how elitism and casteism works in IIT-Powai, never mind being toppers or earning laurels in sports and other activities.

‘‘IIT-Powai is supposed to be the best for students who enter through the reserved category. Professors here are more helpful, less biased and generally

the faculty makes sure that we adjust socially and academically,’’ says Ramesh. ‘‘In fact, when I hear some of the IIT-Kanpur stories from my friends

I think I’m lucky. But I’m not as lucky as a non-cata student who is consistently at the bottom of the class,’’ he reflects.

A ‘‘cata student’’ in IIT parlance is one who is admitted through reservations

for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students. Of the total seats in each IIT, 22.5 per cent is reserved at all levels of the academic programme.

There is truth in what Ramesh says. IIT-B is the best of the lot. For the last three years, it has had the highest number of Dalit students in both the reserved and general categories. Not only that, the number itself has risen during the same period. Though it is nowhere near the stipulated 22.5 per cent, the number of freshers this year is an all-time high of almost

10 per cent. Of the 4,178 students in IIT-B at the under- and post-graduate levels this year, 426 are Dalits.

Of course, the situation for women students remains dismal, with less than 200 among the almost 3,000 students in the bachelor’s and master’s programmes.

For Dalit girls, things are even more bleak. The first Dalit girls, numbering all of three, were admitted in 1997. Since then, their number has increased

by one every year.

On how the caste factor works in subtle ways, Sanchita says: ‘‘If you are in a coveted department like Computer Science and Engineering, the guys wonder aloud how a woman could get through and if they know you are a cata student, there is an audible ‘ohh’ which seems to answer their question.’’

The ‘ohh’, she says, can be translated variously into ‘Ohh because you are a cata student you are here’ or ‘Ohh you won’t have to experience the same stress we do’ and even ‘Ohh you have to do so little and yet you cannot manage it. (As a concession, Dalit students are allowed 22 credits versus 28 per semester)

Not surprisingly, IIT-Powai does not have any Dalit teaching staff, even though 22.5 per cent of posts are reserved for them. Faculty members feel that the ‘‘IIT’s standards will be compromised if reservations in this area are implemented,’’ says a faculty member, with pride.

Cata students are ‘counselled’ to join the prep course that helps them brush up on English, mathematics and science in which they are ‘‘quite deficient’’. They also prepare to answer the JEE a second time so that they can qualify for the general category and stand a better chance of getting the department of their choice. This year, 61 students are doing the preparatory course, including six girls.

Most of them do not mind spending an extra year doing the prep course and taking five, instead of four years, to complete their engineering. Still, educators wonder why the prep course is restricted to reserved students.

Moreover, they say, the reservations are not reaching the target group they were intended to include in the mainstream: None of these 61 students or the 36 who have entered the B Tech programme directly are first generation learners. In most cases, either one or both parents are IAS or IPS officers or doctors and engineers. ‘‘Apart from this, they are also from urban middle-class environments and have received a part of their education in the English language,’’ says IIT-Powai’s dean of the academic programme, M S E Bose. ‘‘Their families are not economically or educationally backward as mentioned in the reservation clauses.’’

Over the years, though positive discrimination has brought Dalit students into the ambit of the IITs, it is still a niche group of second and third generation learners. But, the students argue, the biases and social stigma remains.

Names of the students have been changed


Though reservations in the IITs were made since they were instituted in the 1950s, it was only in 1973 that IIT-Powai admitted the first 15 Dalit students in the B Tech programme — after much haggling among Senate members, who felt the quality of IIT education would plunge if a Dalit quota is intoduced. IIT-Madras followed suit. The average increase in the number of Dalits is about three in IIT-Powai. Under 15 Dalit women students have been admitted since 1973.

(Story downloaded from Indian Express, Mumbai, dated 13 Nov. 2000.)

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