India’s forgotten people

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Those who live in slums lack space and amenities and have limited access to water and sanitation. Here, at Dharavi, in Mumbai. Photo: GAUTAM SINGH/AP

THERE has been a lot of talk among policymakers in India about ensuring inclusion. The United Progressive Alliance government talked about “inclusive growth” and made it the headline for its Five Year Plan documents. The National Democratic Alliance government has dispensed with planning but still wants to jump on the inclusion bandwagon, so its various policies and schemes, from “smart cities” to “Make in India”, generally come with the tag of being “inclusive”. Despite all this talk, however, the evidence generally points to intensification of inequalities and lack of inclusion in terms of most important social and economic outcomes.

This is not only because of lack of genuine political will (although that is certainly a factor), but also because the nature of inclusion—or, more importantly, exclusion—has not been studied and understood adequately, and as a result even policies that are superficially well-intentioned can miss the mark completely. There is, of course, the basic problem that economic policies and processes continue to operate in ways that both rely upon and increase inequality and lack of voice of major groups and social categories. But there is also a genuine lack of understanding of the complex yet intertwined nature of exclusion in its various manifestations.

This gap is sought to be filled by the India Exclusion Report. For the past two years, this report has sought to highlight various aspects of exclusion and the plight of those who continue to face multiple forms of exclusion, which are often even reinforced rather than mitigated by public policies. The recently released India Exclusion Report for 2015 specifically takes up the nature of exclusion from essential public services and amenities.

The report defines the term “public goods” differently from how economists perceive it, which is in terms of whether the consumption of the good or service reduces aggregate availability or consumption by others. The report’s focus is on what can more accurately be called those goods and services that must be accessible to the public at large because they are essential for living a life with dignity. This is clearly a looser definition, and also one that is socially and temporally specific, so different societies at different moments in time have their own notions of what constitutes such “public goods”.

The report focuses on three essential “public goods” so defined: urban health; urban water and sanitation; and access to equal and dignified work for women. Even with this limited focus, it brings out the comprehensive and overlapping character of exclusion. The report finds that those who are excluded according to the relevant indicators are generally those who are recognised as disadvantaged in other areas as well: women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, persons with disabilities, and persons with age-related vulnerabilities (children and the elderly).

The association with class-based indicators is also strong. Most critically, the report finds important areas of overlap in the exclusion in these areas and in the household indicators of occupation and housing. So, while urban areas in general have more extensive health services than rural areas, access to adequate health care is significantly lower for the urban poor, while those in certain occupations with very poor conditions of work and those in particularly poor housing conditions (and particularly the homeless) may have hardly any access at all. They are also much more likely to have lower or no access to basic drinking water and sanitation.

The significant role of the housing, in terms of nature and location, is highlighted across the various indicators of exclusion from “public goods”. Thus, there are strongly negative health consequences of the denial of decent housing and the associated exposure to atmospheric and other pollution. Those who live in slums that have poor infrastructure, lack space and amenities and have problematic or limited access to drinking water and sanitation, and especially those who are forced to occupy places such as open drains and the banks of effluent tanks, are more exposed to health hazards.

The homeless, obviously, are not only the most destitute but also the most deprived of access to minimum “public goods” because of the residence-based nature of all public service delivery. They, and among them especially street children, are often excluded completely from any kind of health care. They are more likely to be trapped in low-end jobs with unsafe, unhealthy and debilitating working conditions. Their access to water and sanitation services is hugely inadequate to ensure good health, and they are typically forced to drink non-potable water, often fetched over long distances, and defecate in the open or use poorly maintained public toilets without running water and with little privacy or security.

The report highlights how working women face particularly adverse forms of exclusion, and they are mostly those who face some of the multiple deprivations already outlined. Within the broad category, some specific forms of work that are particularly oppressive are highlighted, such as manual scavenging (the dominant part of which is performed by women) and hazardous occupations such as construction or mining, where they are also paid significantly less than men.

Some attention is paid to especially vulnerable groups that are often ignored in the wider discourse. The first is single women above the age of 35 years, a porous and heterogenous category that is nonetheless profoundly unsettling for society and that often faces dramatic expressions of patriarchy through neglect or open oppression. State action, including both the design and the implementation of government policies, often reinforces and intensifies the social and economic exclusions that single women have to deal with.

A really pathetic and stressing story emerges from the account of the Devadasis still found in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and the Travancore region of Kerala. Despite being legally banned, clandestine practice was found even in early 2015, and the practice has mutated in different ways, but still remains as oppressive and akin to a form of sexual slavery with little agency or autonomy for the children and women who are victims of the practice. There is intersection with caste oppression, as such victims typically come from certain Scheduled Castes, and there are massive exclusions in terms of lack of fundamental rights at work; risk to lives, health and security; and denial of freedom and human dignity. In addition to extreme poverty, such women face extreme exclusion from the “public goods” described in the India Exclusion Report.

The report also examines some other specific cases of exclusion defined in the larger sense, such as victims of communal violence (with focus on survivors of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh and of the recurring incidents of mass violence in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District region of Assam). The case of the tiny group of Jarawa (or Ang) tribal people in the Andaman Islands raises more complex issues of how their very survival is threatened by active contact with the wider world, which is generally insensitive to their needs and conditions.

So, there is a clear, if devastating, picture of various forms of exclusion that prevail in India, some of which are barely noticed, while others appear in the public gaze without generating active intent to remedy the situation. Yet, diagnosis of the problem is only the first step, so it is a positive feature that the report also examines cases of how state policies can be, and in some cases have been, designed to ensure greater inclusion of vulnerable populations. There are various recommendations, including fiscal and economic policies and more aware and sensitive modes of implementation, that point to pathways in which some of the pervasive exclusions that characterise so much public intervention can be reduced or reversed.

Achieving such change at any scale, however, will require a different political economy as well as much altered sensibilities not just of policymakers and implementers but of society at large.

If this report can make even a small change in the attitudes and awareness that allow so much exclusion to persist, it will be more than worth the effort that has gone into producing it.

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