CHENNAI, India — When it comes to dealing with his fellow students at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Warner, a 21-year-old aerospace engineering major, says the fact that he comes from a group of farmers known as the Pallar community means nothing.
But when it comes to his enrollment status as a student at IIT, it makes all the difference in the world.
The Pallars are among the groups recognized as a “scheduled caste” by India’s government.
Such groups, according to “Improving Access and Quality in the Indian Education System,” — a new paper by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and development — are considered the “lowest group in the caste hierarchy.”
There also is a set of groups referred to as “scheduled tribes,” and another referred to as “other backward classes,” or “OBCs. The word “backward,” despite its negative connotation, has a meaning somewhat similar to “disadvantaged” in the United States.
Under the law of the land with variations by region about 49.5 percent of all seats in institutions of higher learning are reserved for such students. Collectively: 15 percent are for scheduled castes, 7.5 percent are for scheduled tribes and 27 percent are for OBCs.
This is affirmative action, Indian style.
Officials say the entrance exams of members of the scheduled castes and tribes and OBCs are ranked separately from those of other students, although reports indicate that is not always necessary to achieve diversity.
“Many belonging to these groups also get admitted in the general merit,” says Professor V. G. Idichandy, the interim director at IIT Madras.
For Warner, being able to gain access to the elite IIT Madras is part of fulfilling a childhood dream that began when he took his first plane ride and became enamored with aerodynamics.
As he strives to reach new heights, Warner’s climb also represents an attempt to break free from the financial constraints of doing the work traditionally done by his forefathers. His story is just one of many that are reshaping the social landscape of India and eating away at the rigidity of its ancient caste system.
“My education will take me to a better level than my father was,” Warner says during a brief interview at the student cafe at IIT Madras.
As a banker, Warner’s father already took an important first step toward breaking the caste mold when he decided to do something other than farming. He says his father encourages him to go even further, telling him that higher education “gives you a social and financial advantage.”
“The financial condition of people involved in farming and agriculture is not good,” Warner says. “They are in a poor state.”
Warner said he became interested in aerospace engineering after he took his first flight when he was 12.
“I was around my ninth grade, then I started liking aircraft and space shuttles,” Warner says.
Warner says his education at IIT is doing much to prepare him for the career of his dreams.
“It gives me all the basic fundamentals I need to design an aircraft. Basic principles in aircraft flying,” Warner says. “As time goes by, I will become more well-versed in the physics behind the aircraft structure and its competence.”
Warner says, historically, it has been relatively rare for members of the Pallar community to go into higher education.
“In the last five years or so, it has increased,” Warner says. “Before that, it used to be pretty low.”
The reason, he says, is because of “very poor exposure to the current scenarios in India.”
“Most of them are following their father’s footsteps into farming and agriculture,” Warner says. “And very few people come out of the village and continue their schooling. They drop out at eighth or 10th grade. So there are very few people who go to college.”
Though official data on the matter was not immediately available, similar observations are made in the OECD paper on improving access and quality in India’s education system.
“School retention rates are … improving, with the proportion of children, starting school who reach the final year, of a given level rising markedly through the 2000s,” according to the paper.
“Nevertheless, in absolute terms they remain low, with on average only three quarters of children who started grade one in 2003-2004 reaching fifth grade by 2007-08, and an even smaller proportion of children from minority groups.
“Retention rates drop off at higher levels of schooling, with only a little more than half of those who started primary school in 2000-2001 reaching eighth grade in 2007-08. Nevertheless, transition to tertiary education have risen over the past decade and are relatively high by international standards, with around half of all students who complete secondary school now taking up tertiary studies.”
The paper concludes “improvements in school enrollment and completion rates will likely lead to much higher participation in tertiary education.”
At IIT, Warner says his caste doesn’t really enter into social interactions with his fellow students. It does, however, bring tuition waivers, stipends and a reserved seat.
“Other than that, the way students behave with you is not much different,” Warner says.
However, just as affirmative action in higher education is a contentious issue in the United States, so it is here in India.
As evidence, consider the controversial Hindi film “Aarakshan” that was released this year. The title is a Hindi word that means “reservation.” The movie deals with tension between affluent students and those from the “backward” castes following a decision by India’s Supreme Court to uphold the reservation system.
The film was actually banned in a couple of states in India, including in Uttar Pradesh, where government officials reportedly feared it would “create a law and order problem.” In Mumbai, the movie opened in cinemas among a heightened police presence.
What’s more, legislators are looking at whether it’s necessary to revamp the law — particularly its 50 percent ceiling on reservation seating.
As for Warner, who was interviewed before the movie was released, he is focused on following his father’s advice to take advantage of higher learning in order to make a difference for his fellow Pallars.
Warner adds: “He thought if someone from the community is in a good position, financially and socially, they can help the community.”
For story on the status of women at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, click here.