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Baked cod, miso and bok choy: unpacking Japan’s healthy school lunches

Japans state-run kyushoku system combines flavour with fresh ingredients and high nutritional value at low cost

The list of dishes reads like a health-conscious menu at an upmarket cafe: mackerel cooked in miso, a light salad of daikon radish and sour plum, thinly sliced pickled vegetables and a selection of fresh fruit. But the restaurant is actually a classroom at Konan primary school in central Japan, where the pupils need only the gentlest encouragement to eat their greens.

When the Guardian visited the school in the Pacific coastal city of Fukuroi, the classroom, momentarily transformed into a lunchtime cafeteria, reverberated to a chorus of Itadakimasu a polite Japanese term for lets eat.

On the menu today is baked cod, sauted sweet corn and bok choy, minestrone soup, a small carton of milk and, as a Friday treat, a slightly less wholesome combination of white bread with a soy-based chocolate cream a challenge to spread evenly on the bread with chopsticks.

The portions are modest, but then so is the total calorie count 667 kcal for a meal that will sustain the 11-year-old children until they get home.

Something different every day

Konan is not the only school in Japan producing a range of lunches or kyushoku that combine flavour with fresh ingredients and contain levels of iron, calcium and fibre stipulated by a government-run programme for children attending kindergarten through to the end of junior high school.

The kyushoku system was introduced in the 1950s to ensure that children did not have experience the dietary privations of the immediate postwar years. More than seven decades on, the programme is credited with contributing to Japans impressive life expectancy, and child and adult obesity levels that are among the lowest in the OECD group of nations.

Lunch served to 11-year-olds at Konan primary school: bok choy and sauted sweet corn, baked cod, minestrone soup, milk, white bread and soy-based chocolate spread. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Local officials refer to their school meals as the healthiest in a country with one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. It is no empty boast: last year Fukuroi won a World Health Organization best practice award for promoting healthy dietary habits among schoolchildren, with the help of local producers.

The citys school lunch centres prepare and send out more than 10,000 lunches to kindergartens, primary and junior high schools every day. Most of the meals are inspired by Japanese cuisine, with the occasional inclusion of Chinese, Korean and European dishes. Parents pay 250 (1.70) a meal, about half of what they cost to make, with the local government contributing the rest.

We devise the monthly menu so that there is something different every day, says Koji Ishizuka, the manager of the school lunch division at the citys board of education. And each month differs depending on whats in season.

In 2005, the government took its school lunch programme a step further by requiring school boards to educate children about the provenance and composition of their lunches.

As the children at Konan tuck into lunch, Mihoko Kobayashi, one of two nutrition educators in Fukuroi, tells them where the bok choy they are eating was grown and why, despite clear reservations among some pupils, they should eat every last morsel.

Please remember that a lot of people were involved in preparing your lunch, she says. Especially when you come across a vegetable you think you wont like.

The joy of no choice

The bok choy converts have Toshiyuki Suzuki to thank for a portion of their lunch. The local farmer sends 4 tonnes of the leafy vegetable to Fukuroi schools every year. Freshness is absolutely essential, he says. The vegetables I sell commercially have to go through a distribution system, but I sell directly to schools, so the vegetables the kids are eating are the freshest around.

Working closely with the citys board of education, Suzuki and other farmers in the area have helped push the proportion of locally grown vegetables in school meals from just over 13 % in 2012 to almost 32% last year.

Children generally acquire their long-term eating habits by the time theyre 10, so thats why we think school lunches are so important, says Ishizuka. The results of regular health checks on the children are generally good, and we believe school lunches have something to do with that.

Since its inception, the kyushoku programme has been taken up by almost all primary schools and about 80% of junior high schools, according to education officials.

Ingredients in school meals are locally grown Photograph: Brown/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Dr Atsushi Miyawaki, a health policy specialist at Tokyo Universitys graduate school of medicine, says removing choice from the menu and banning packed lunches are the most remarkable features of the programme.

It offers a uniform menu to all children in each school five days a week, unlike the cafeteria-style school lunches often found in the US and UK, Miyawaki says. That means the children have no choice regarding menu items, or whether to eat school lunch or bring it from home.

That helps avoid an imbalance in nutritional intakes. And the lack of choice can help hide disparities in the childrens socioeconomic background that may be evident in packed lunches.

The lunch break is coming to an end for year 5, class 3. There is not a single leftover vegetable or cod flake to be seen, supporting staff claims that the children eat 95% of the food theyre given. A quick survey of the Guardians dining companions reveals, unsurprisingly, that the bread with chocolate spread is a big hit.

The lunch monitors load trays of empty plates on to trolleys and wheel them to the kitchen while their classmates file out to complete the final task of their days food education: brushing their teeth.

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Solar Panels Power New Schoolsand New Ways of Learning

Dressed in pastel pink and green for an early spring day, second-grader Katherine Cribbs was learning about energy on a virtual field trip—to her own school.

With a flurry of touch-screen taps, she explored the “energy dashboard” of Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. On her tablet, she swiped through 360-degree views of her school, inside and out. She clicked on icons embedded in the virtual classroom to learn about energy-saving features such as LED lights and super-insulated exterior walls made of concrete-filled foam blocks. Exploring the virtual school kitchen, she could read about how the lack of a deep fryer means less energy is needed for venting grease from the air. Another swipe whisked her up to the school’s roof, where about 1,700 solar panels spread out before her.

Angelique Coulouris, a second-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary, guides students on a virtual tour of the school's roof-top solar lab.
Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

After a few minutes, she looked up from her computer to explain her progress in a confident voice that rose above the second-grade din. “I learned that our solar panels rotate,” she said. “So, wherever the sun moves, the panels go, too.”

In addition to this virtual tour, Discovery’s dashboard displays, in real time, the school’s energy generation. And in colorful bar graphs and pie charts, it also tracks energy use—broken down by lighting, plug load, kitchen, and HVAC. The tally reveals that Discovery generates more energy through its solar array than it uses over the course of the year.

Buildings that make at least as much energy as they use are called “net-zero” (and “net positive” if they make more than they need). And nationwide, K-12 schools are leading a fledgling “net-zero” building boom that has grown from a few proof-of-concept structures a decade ago to hundreds of buildings completed or under-construction.

Dozens of these ultra-green schools are going up in every sort of district—urban and rural, affluent and lower income, blue state and red state. Much of the advocacy for net-zero buildings has focused on environmental and economic incentives. K-12 schools run up a $6 billion annual energy tab every year, the Department of Energy reports—more than they spend on textbooks and computers combined, and second only to the cost of teacher salaries. But the K-12 schools leading the net-zero charge are uncovering major educational benefits as well.

While Discovery’s second-graders scoured their school for light and heat energy, a group of third graders huddled around a table to brainstorm fraction “story problems” using the school’s energy data.

They suggested using fractions to find out how much of yesterday’s solar energy was used up by the school, to compare one hour’s solar energy to the whole day, and to show how much of the school’s energy use was from lighting. Their numerators and denominators could come from the dashboard.

“Everywhere you walk through this building, you can learn from it,” said Discovery’s principal, Erin Russo. There’s a large-screen energy dashboard by the school’s main entrance, and the building’s mechanical systems, including the geothermal pumps and the solar inverters that change direct current to alternating current, are prominently displayed behind large glass windows in the hallway.

Learning about the behavior of light, Discovery’s fifth graders have visited the schools’ rooftop solar lab (a handful of adjustable panels that are metered separately) to see how angling the panels changes their power production.

“Energy is normally so invisible,” said a fifth-grade science teacher, Andrew Bridges. “But the kids can see these solar panels right outside their window. They can see the energy production dipping on cloudy days.”

Bridges’ students also looked for patterns of electricity use and tried to deduce why it was so much heavier on Saturdays than Sundays or why it spiked at 5 AM. “I didn’t give them energy-dashboard tests, because that’s not what we’re after,” said Bridges. “My goal as a teacher is to grow good critical thinkers, and I think the energy dashboard opens their eyes to something most people don’t think too much about.”

Still, Discovery’s teachers do need to cover the Virginia state learning standards, and matching these standards with dashboard lessons can be tricky. At one point, third graders were set to learn graphing with the school’s daily energy tally, but the plan was scrapped because the dashboard gives that data in bar graphs. Virginia’s third-grade standards call for using line graphs to track change over time.

Discovery’s math coach, Angela Torpy, and technology coach, Keith Reeves, help teachers weave the building’s data into standards-based lessons. Students learn the statistical measures of mean, median, and mode using the school’s energy consumption numbers, or demonstrate transparency, translucency, and opacity by covering solar panels with different materials and predicting the energy production.

Besides aligning with state standards, Discovery teachers must also contend with the dashboard’s occasional technical glitches—it tends to conk out due to server strain if too many kids are working on it. So teachers usually have students team up or rotate so one group hops on the dashboard while the rest of the class works on other tasks. Or they simply distribute screen grabs of dashboard data.

Still, according to Torpy, the upside of students learning from their own building outweighs these challenges. “You can see their level of excitement when they bring up the energy dashboard, and they’re making their own word problems with real data about their own school,” Torpy said of the students. “It’s empowering to them.”

The authenticity of these lessons is reinforced by a schoolwide focus on sustainability. In lieu of a school council, Discovery has an Eco-Action club whose members do annual audits of the school’s energy use, trash, food waste, water consumption, and other metrics. They did the school energy audit early in the school year, explained a fifth-grade Eco-Action member named Charlie Dantzker. “Basically, we walked into every classroom, counted the lights, checked to see what was plugged in, and looked for vampires,” Dantzker said. A vampire, he explained, is a device that draws power even when it’s turned off but still plugged into the wall.

But the students didn’t find a lot of waste in the audit: Discovery is already ultra-energy efficient. The school’s “energy use index,” a measure of power use per square foot, is about a third of the average for district elementary schools. The district plans to build on that success.

Arlington is a fast-growing district, and Discovery Elementary opened in 2015 as part of an ongoing school-building program (it shares a campus with a middle school with a trailer park to accommodate its overflowing student population). Below the schools’ shared athletic fields are geothermal wells that use a groundwater loop to provide cooling in summer and heat in winter.

Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, is among a growing group of "net zero" K-12 schools, which produce as much solar energy as they use (or more) over the course of the year.
Chris Berdik for The Hechinger Report

The district had not set out to build a net-zero school, but the Charlottesville architecture firm VMDO told them it could be done below their budget. Cathy Lin, the energy manager for Arlington Public Schools, regularly leads tours of Discovery, including a rooftop viewing of its 500-kilowatt solar array made up of about 1,700 panels. Another net-zero elementary school, also designed by VMDO, is to open in 2019. And as the district keeps growing, Lin is pushing for more.

“I tell the board [of education] if I had all Discoveries, I would spend less than $1 million [a year] on utilities. Now, we spend close to $7 million a year,” she said.

This calculus increasingly makes sense to growing public school districts, according to Ralph DiNola, CEO of the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit that promotes and verifies net-zero buildings. Because schools are designed to be used by the same owner over many decades, there is plenty of time for energy savings to surpass the extra upfront expenditures, which in any case have plummeted in the past decade. The cost of solar power is way down, and, according to DiNola, the necessary energy efficiency, “doesn’t require bleeding-edge technology. You can use standard building materials that are commonplace in the market today.”

Comparing the initial cost of building a net-zero school to that of a standard school is tough, because construction costs vary widely as do the energy-efficiency challenges between climates One constant, however, is that the priciest piece of a net-zero building is the solar array. For instance, Discovery’s construction cost for the building and the solar array came to about $316 per square foot, but the building alone cost $262 per square foot, according to VMDO architect Wyck Knox, who led the project design team (numbers don’t include the cost of the school’s two turf soccer fields). Often, districts will opt to build ultra-energy-efficient “net-zero ready” schools that could become net-zero if and when the municipality raises additional money to add the solar power.

According to a March 2018 NBI report, there are 89 verified or “emerging” net-zero schools (emerging means under construction or too new to have been verified yet). And school buildings are the leading type of non-residential net-zero building, representing 37 percent of all projects tracked by NBI. Supporting these efforts, the Department of Energy published a how-to report on building net-zero K-12 schools in 2016 and created a “Zero-Energy Schools Accelerator” program to give districts technical guidance.

While the net-zero school trend is still relatively small, it has thrived in districts of every geographic and socioeconomic description. The school district of Horry County, South Carolina, which counts the majority of its 43,800 students as impoverished, opened three net-zero schools in 2017, one in 2018, and has one more under construction. In San Francisco Unified, where half the students receive free and reduced-price lunch and a quarter are English language learners, the district is building three net-zero schools, including one retrofit of an existing elementary school. At Sandy Grove Middle School, a net-positive building in Hoke County, North Carolina, where nearly 60 percent of students are low-income, the grade levels face off in friendly energy-saving competitions. And at New York City’s first net-zero school, the Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability (P.S. 62) on Staten Island, rows of yellow stationary bikes, both indoors and on the playground, generate pedal power displayed on a big screen.

Although energy dashboards are a popular way to turn these buildings into teaching tools, they’re not necessary. Oregon’s Hood River Middle School created a food and conservation science program several years ago after it added a net-zero science and music building that includes a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse. Hood River students engineer and build net-zero heating and cooling systems for the greenhouse, such as solar heat collectors made of foam boxes lined with soda cans spray-painted black, and a solar-powered “climate battery” that pulls super-heated summer air into layers of dense rocks that gradually radiate the heat back into the greenhouse as the weather cools.

In addition to maintaining an aquaculture system and growing fruit trees, grapes, tea and other crops, the Hood River students have a perennial challenge from their teacher Michael Becker: to grow tomatoes year-round. They haven’t quite succeeded, but they’re getting close. Last year, they had tomatoes ripening on the vine well into December.

“My lesson plan is: Here’s a problem. Solve it,” said Becker. “We are hyper-aware of our net-zero energy budget, so the kids have to become super-sharp engineers and find non-traditional solutions.”

Back at Discovery, educational strategies are expanding, too. Last year’s school management plan included the expectation that teachers give at least one sustainability-focused lesson every quarter—but several teachers described that as a low bar.

“We’re shooting for sustainability to be taught every day,” said Bridges, the fifth-grade teacher. To bolster those efforts, Reeves is making changes to the energy dashboard, trying to add in student-collected data on the school’s trash production, water use, and transportation. The teachers would also like to make it easier for students to get the raw data that feeds the existing dashboard, so they could make their own, customized dashboards, possibly in conjunction with Virginia’s new K-12 computer science standards.

In the spring of 2018, Discovery staff began a more comprehensive effort to craft standards-based sustainability lessons, by working with Jennifer Seydel, executive director of the Green Schools National Network. Discovery will join GSNN’s recently-formed “Catalyst Network”—about 100 schools that are meant to showcase the best-practices in sustainability education and to jump-start studies into how it stacks up against traditional schooling for student learning.

“Right now, we have a lot of anecdotes,” said Seydel, “but the gold-standard research is not there.”

Starting in 2019, the plan is for all students to do sustainability audits, not just the Eco-Action club. Each grade level will use their audits to identify problems and issues they can confront with collaborative mastery projects using the problem-solving steps of “design thinking.”

Discovery art teacher Maria Burke has already led her students through several design-thinking projects, such as creating outdoor sculptures with the right mix of shapes and colors to attract pollinators back to a school garden that fell victim to overzealous pruning.

“We want to give students the skills to be innovators, to find solutions,” said Burke. “We want to them to be thinkers for the future and to collaborate and innovate with the world in mind.”

This story about environmental education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Singapores Aging ‘Time Bomb’ Will Tick Louder in 2018

Next year marks an ominous turning point for Singapore’s graying population, according to research by Francis Tan, an economist at United Overseas Bank Ltd. in Singapore.

In 2018, the share of the population that’s 65 years and older will match those younger than 15 for the first time, Tan wrote in a report on Wednesday. As the elderly population starts to crowd out the youth, the “demographic time bomb” may mean changes to taxes, immigration rules, and social services, he said.

“Singapore is facing one of the toughest economic and social challenges since its independence in the form of a rapidly aging workforce and population,” Tan said.

At this rate, seniors in Singapore’s population will make up more than double the share of the youngest residents in 2030. Tan uses a compounded annual growth rate rather than adjusting for potential policy changes or alteration of trends such as fertility rates, meaning officials could still help redraw those lines, or at least make them appear less menacing, over the next decade.

With already the oldest population in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Singapore of 2030 will probably look a lot like the demographics-embattled Japan of 2016, Tan’s figures show.

That’s all making policy more complicated as the city state seeks to ensure that the elderly population is cared for without curbing the well-being of younger residents.

One way to increase the labor supply would be to ease immigration restrictions, a move that would have to be done at a managed pace to avoid worsening the “foreigner assimilation issue” in Singapore, even though the country can’t afford zero immigration, Tan said. Singapore tightened rules on the hiring of foreigners in the wake of the 2011 election, amid voter discontent over gridlock and competition for employment, property and education.

Few Chefs

Tan uses the analogy of a restaurant’s kitchen for the economy to show how aging threatens growth, and the quality of that output.

“If there are fewer new chefs coming into the kitchen to cook the massive pot of broth (because of low birth rates and low levels of immigration), the existing pool of experienced chefs are aging and retiring, and there is no improvement in labor productivity, the amount of broth (GDP) that will be produced in the next period will certainly be lesser, or worse still, be of inferior quality,” he wrote.

The stark trend also helps explain why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said tax increases are not a matter of if, but when. His remarks were echoed by other government officials, suggesting that a boost to the goods and services tax, among other proposals, is being considered for implementation as early as next year.

Tan sees the government increasing the GST next year to 8 percent from 7 percent, with an equal boost in 2019.

While Tan’s warnings carry a dark tone, he’s optimistic that the government has time to enact changes that will mitigate the negative effects of aging.

“The demographic time bomb only starts ticking in 2018 — it does not mean that it will explode yet,” he wrote. “There is still a sizable percentage of working-age population supporting the economy. That said, one will have to understand that this cannot last forever.”

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    ‘A violence no autopsy can reveal’: the deadly cost of India’s campus prejudice

    Many Dalit students regard university as a place of ridicule and abuse. Amrit Dhillon investigates the aftermath of two suicides and asks: is it time to make campus caste discrimination a criminal offence?

    Vikas Kumar Moola has been troubled by two questions ever since his best friend Muthu Krishnan, a postgraduate history student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), killed himself on 13 March. What could I have done to stop it? Should I have done more to help him make friends?

    Theirs was an old and close friendship based on caste (both are Dalits, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system), poverty, missed meals, penny pinching and dreams. I knew he was unhappy, he was lonely, but what else did I miss? asks Moola, a PhD sociology student at JNU.

    List typical characteristics of Dalit students across India, and you can tick them all off against Krishnans name. They are first-generation school-goers; they come from rural homes with no toilets or electricity; their command of English is often weak; and their poor, rural origins imply a lack of social sophistication.

    Muthu Krishnan, who died in March. Photograph: Facebook

    On top of this, their self-esteem and confidence already bears the weals of daily brandings: being seated separately at school, served food in different utensils, having to wear wristbands that mark them as Dalits, being singled out to sweep classrooms and toilets, and seeing classmates refuse to eat meals prepared by Dalit cooks.

    Jitendra Suna, a Dalit former student from the same department as Krishnan, describes the level of segregation that he encountered as soon as he started at JNU. When I was allotted my hostel room, I walked in and the boy I was going to share with asked me my caste immediately then said I had to get out. There is ghettoisation there.

    The structural violence leaves invisible marks on a Dalit students body and psyche that no autopsy can reveal, wrote Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, who teaches poetry at New Delhis Ambedkar University.More than anything else, it is this burden of accumulated structural inequity that Krishs suicide has exposed.

    Saving money like an ant

    The caste system has been entrenched in Indian society for centuries. Based on their occupations, people belong to one of four main castes. The first and highest are the Brahmins, who are mainly teachers and priests; the next group are the Kshatriyas, mainly military and administrators; the third are the Vaishyas, traders; and the last and lowest are the Shudras, the people who do menial work. Outside this system altogether are the Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, who form about 16% of the Indian population.

    When Krishnan announced the news of his acceptance by JNU last July on Facebook, he was deluged with praise from friends. He was a hard-working Dalit student from the poor rural village of Salem in Tamil Nadu province; many described his determination as an inspiration.

    Jitendra Suna, a Dalit former student, says there is ghettoisation on the campus of JNU. Photograph: Jyoti Kapoor/Getty Images

    He was the first-generation learner in his family. According to his multitude of Facebook posts, he had skipped many meals in order to afford his earlier degree at Hyderabad University, working menial jobs and drinking countless cups of heavily sweetened tea to kill the hunger pangs. He described saving money like [an] ant and begging people to get money to reach JNU, one of Indias premier universities.

    Krishnan was so determined to achieve his dream that he apparently wrote his proposal 38 times before making it to JNUs Centre for Historical Studies, for an MPhil programme in modern history. He had struggled for years to get a grip on the unruly English language; in an earlier interview for JNU, Krishnan said he had been criticised for speaking simple language.

    English is a monumental mountain for Dalit students to climb: Even the best Dalit students are not judged to be any good because of their weak English, says Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a public intellectual who has added Shepherd to his caste name as a snub to upper-caste Hindus (he comes from a goat shepherding family).

    No matter how creative a Dalit can be with English, they are judged not on merit, nor depth, nor originality but on their accent and fluency in English, Shepherd adds. The same intellectuals who damn English as a colonial, imperial legacy are the first to penalise Dalit students for not speaking it.

    Sitting in his small study, working on an article about the entrenched discrimination faced by Dalit students in institutions of higher education, JNUs emeritus professor Dr Sukhadeo Thorat recalls meeting Krishnan just before his untimely death.

    Thorat, who is honorary chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, remembers this tall and striking student walking over to him after a lecture to shake his hand and ask the origin of a particular quote he had referenced: When equality is denied, everything is denied.

    A procession to honour Dr BR Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian constitution which outlawed discrimination based on caste. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

    I told him it was from Dr BR Ambedkar [Indias most famous Dalit, who renounced Hinduism to escape the caste system and converted to Buddhism]. He knew his works well, but hadnt come across this quotation. Krishnan repeated it in his final Facebook post.

    In 2007, Thorat had authored a government-commissioned report, the first of its kind, into caste discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the Indian capital. The report found that 72% of students (primarily Dalits) complained of discrimination, and more than 90% said they were humiliated in practical and oral examinations. Hostels were segregated, and Dalit students were socially isolated and excluded from sporting and cultural events.

    The report offered a number of recommendations, including remedial coaching in English and guarding the examination system against caste bias. Yet 10 years on, little appears to have changed in Indias higher education system. Indeed Thorats son Amit, an assistant professor at JNU, is now working on a pilot study for University College, London, to understand why universities become places of social defeat for so many Dalits.

    The early findings of this study entitled Discrimination, Distress and Higher Education in India suggest deep and complex pressures. Amit Thorat says it is hard to understand the emotional stresses these students go through concerning their identity: how they look, the clothes they wear and how they speak. They are made to feel a lack of identity, he says, and are disabled through structural and institutional mechanisms.

    Anisa Rao, an upper-caste history student at Hyderabad University, says the differential treatment in university classrooms jumped out at her immediately: Lecturers are just nicer, friendlier, more interested and more supportive towards us than towards Dalits.

    Dalits stick together

    Krishnans interest in Dalit history was something he shared with his friend Rahul Sonpimple, a second-year MPhil student at JNU. On the day Krishnan ended his life, they had met for breakfast at Jhelum Hostel.

    Sonpimple says his friend seemed in good spirits, putting on sunglasses and mimicking the Tamil film actor Rajnikanths dialogue (he was said to look a bit like him). But their discussion soon turned to the pressure they both felt to do well, to help their families escape extreme poverty.

    We sat outside to enjoy the winter sunshine and have poha [savoury puffed rice] and milk, Sonpimple recalls. Then Krish said he had to go to the library; he was always breaking off to go and study. He said it had taken him five years to get into JNU, and now he had to prove himself.

    A protest demanding the resignation of the Hyderabad University vice-chancellor in January 2016, following the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula. Photograph: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

    Owing to the heatwave outside, we are talking inside the cavernous dining hall of the Brahmaputra Hostel for male students. The male kitchen staff, some wearing only vests under black aprons, fling steel plates, thalis and serving dishes on to shabby trestle tables in preparation for lunch. Huge mounds of boiled rice are placed more carefully on the tables. The clatter of steel adds to the din of the whirring fans.

    Dalit students stick together, Sonpimple says over the noise. Upper-caste faculty and students dont socialise with us. Krish and I werent close friends, but we shared the same ideas over Dalit ideology.

    Even the food Dalits eat has caused them to be singled out for unfair treatment. Dalits have traditionally eaten beef because it is their job to remove dead cows; hence it was, and continues to be, the cheapest source of protein for them. Yet high-caste groups in Hyderabad and other campuses have tried to stop Dalit students eating beef on campus, by getting it removed from the refectory menu and stopping Dalits cooking it in hostels.

    Krishnans Facebook posts were full of stories of his excitement whenever his family were cooking maana (the word for beef in his Tamil dialect). But he also relayed one anecdote about boarding a bus carrying five kilos of beef in a black plastic bag and spotting an old school friend, then thinking he would be able to pass the journey talking to him. The friend ignored him, and looked for an alternative bus.

    Krishnans posts offer a chronicle of how being a Dalit shaped his life even once he had reached the supposedly enlightened surroundings of Indias higher education system.

    According to Sonpimple, he was particularly upset by the decision of the national University Grants Commission (UGC) last year to give more weight to the viva voce (verbal discussion) than the written exam in admissions to postgraduate courses. This, Krishnan believed, was a ruse to reduce Dalit applicants, who would lack the English skills of their upper-caste counterparts.

    He told me that when he walked into one interview, the look on the faces of the panel said, Oh, how on earth did you manage to get this far? Sonpimple recalls.

    In his last Facebook post, Krishnan referred to this new rule: There is no equality in MPhil/PhD admission, there is no equality in viva voce there is only denial of equality.

    Question their assumptions

    In a recent survey of four Indian states, almost half the upper-caste people polled by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said the reason Dalits lag behind other groups in life was not due to unfair treatment, but a lack of effort. This belief flies in the face of the statistics, however: according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 47,064 crimes against Dalits registered in 2014, up 40% from 33,655 in 2012.

    Upper-caste students change the subject when we question their assumptions or challenge their caste privileges, says Krishnans friend Moola. They dont even accept we have suffered injustice. This creates a barrier.

    JNU students protest against planned cuts in university places for the next academic year. Photograph: Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

    As in most important Indian institutions, the vast majority of lecturers in higher education are from upper-caste backgrounds (62.85%). But 16% of student places are now reserved for Dalits in all federally run universities, and many state governments have given an even larger allocation (JNU reserves 15%).

    The larger Dalit student presence is largely the result of Indias policy of reservations: affirmative action to make reparations for centuries of inequality. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Dalits attending college rose by 187%.

    Yet these quota students are often treated with scorn. Dubbed uncles for supposedly being older than the norm (because they may take longer than three years to complete their degrees), Dalit students can be regarded with hostility because the quotas mean there is stiffer competition for everyone else.

    Though the UGC issued a regulation in 2012 banning any form of caste discrimination on campuses, Moola says there are no posters or signs at JNU to make students aware of the ban unlike gender discrimination, which seems to be taken more seriously.

    Sukhadeo Thorat believes it is time to introduce a law making caste discrimination in universities a criminal offence. He says this approach worked with ragging (the victimisation of new students), which had been a huge problem on campuses. Once ragging was made a criminal offence, universities introduced strict processes to prevent and address it.

    Moola agrees but adds wistfully that, while you can prove violence or abuse, how do you prove something as insidious as exclusion, contempt or denigration? No matter what I do or Krish could have achieved, in India we will always just be Dalits, he says.

    My birth is my accident

    In January 2016, many Indians were plunged into introspection when Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit scholar at Hyderabad University, killed himself. Unlike Krishnan, Vemula left a note linking his desire for death to his experience of prejudice. He wrote: My birth is my fatal accident.

    Vemulas death sparked countrywide campus protests, amid accusations of caste-related discrimination. He was one of five Dalit students suspended by the university after they were accused of assaulting the head of a right-wing student political group a charge they all denied and which was not proved.

    Police use water cannon on protesters demanding the resignation of the Hyderabad University vice-chancellor over the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. Photograph: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

    They were expelled from their university residence and told they were not allowed to enter any campus buildings, eat at the mess or vote in student elections. The exclusion was likened by supporters to the old practice of veli wada, in which Dalits were forced out of their villages into ghettoes.

    According to Professor Shepherd, university administrations ignore widespread caste discrimination. Education in a situation of inequality and humiliation with no consolement of any kind is a source of suicide among Dalit students.

    Sukhadeo Thorat agrees: My research indicates that experiences of discrimination, exclusion and humiliation are the predominant reasons for Dalit student suicides. While the statistics are sketchy, one estimate suggests that between 2007 and 2011, 18 Dalit students killed themselves.

    JNU has begun an internal inquiry into Krishnans death which, according to Dr Rajesh Kharat, the head of its anti-discrimination cell, was the universitys first Dalit suicide. It has further agreed that if students are not happy with the outcome of this inquiry, it will set up an independent one.

    Kharat says that having spent 30 years at the university, he believes caste discrimination is confined to very small pockets adding that the anti-discrimination cell had received no complaints in its first two years. However, since Krishnans death, we have had six or seven complaints of caste discrimination, which we are looking into.

    JNU is known for providing access to opportunities for poor communities, Kharat says. They have gone to join the civil service and academia. But we mustnt be complacent; the inquiry has to act fast so this young mans death does not discourage other students.

    Former JNU student Jitendra Suna describes the anti-discrimination cell as non-functional, however. Have they done a single thing to sensitise faculty and students to the need for equal treatment? No. If they were serious, they could have implemented the [2007] Thorat committees recommendations.

    Suicide is usually the result of multiple factors, not just one, Kharat adds. I dont know why Krishnan didnt approach any of our Dalit faculty. I myself am from the same community, but he didnt come to me.

    A friend of Krishnan, who asked not to be named, says it is not a cover-up that he fears, but indifference: We want an independent inquiry, not an internal one. At the condolence meeting, some faculty were already putting the suicide down to personal issues, so thats how they might gloss over it.

    Such fears may not be unfounded. An inquiry into Vemulas death in 2016 based mainly on interviews with faculty members concluded he had killed himself out of personal frustration, rather than caste discrimination.

    And yet, in a letter dated 18 December 2015 that was made public after his death, Vemula wrote to the vice-chancellor of Hyderabad University to raise the issue of discrimination. In the letter, he warns that university authorities should make preparations for the facility of EUTHANASIA for students like me.

    If you have experiences relating to this story that you would like to share, wherever you live and whatever your background, please email us in confidence at

    Many Indian cities have helplines run by voluntary organisations that those in distress can contact. For example, Samaritans Mumbai can be called on 022 6464 3267 or 022 6565 3267. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123

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