Story of deprivation

Print edition : December 29, 2006

Paddy transplantation under way in Thanjavur. A file photograph. The land reform laws enacted in various States half-heartedly and slowly have left Dalits in the same plight of landlessness and social and physical vulnerability as they were before Independence. - M. SRINATH

The promises of the freedom movement and the Constitution remain largely unfulfilled in the case of Dalits.

ON August 15, 1947, Dalits or the Scheduled Castes entered Free India as unfree people. Preceding India's Tryst with Destiny was their millennia-long history of Darkness at Noon, determined by the caste system, an instrument among whose functions and effects were the locking up of labourers as labourers, and Agricultural Labour Castes (ALC) as the ALC, keeping the S.Cs (essentially and mainly the ALCs) down in their place with no/little scope for escape, keeping them in conditions of segregation and demoralisation and depriving them of or minimising opportunities for their economic, educational and social advancement and upward mobility. The S.Cs, essentially and mainly the ALCs, as the greatest contributors of agricultural and other labour including safai "scavenging" labour, are its worst victims, while the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) have also been its victims in a different form. Its coercive mechanism has included "untouchability", which continues to this day, and in recent decades atrocities. Land ownership or control by the S.C. was prevented or severely restricted by the caste system.

The British rulers were of the view that the lowest castes (that is, S.Cs) had the best potential to become the most meritorious, but their consequent moves to take them up first in education was nipped in the bud by upper caste resistance and violence, of which there is plenty of recorded evidence. This and consequent upper caste monopolisation of new British-granted job and educational opportunities made reservation the only route for Dalits (and some others) to secure entry into services and educational institutions.

Before Independence, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's endeavours led to a national agreement on reservation in electoral seats and other commitments in exchange for his sacrifice of separate electorates for the S.Cs, under the Yeravada Pact negotiated by a fasting Gandhiji and him; promulgation of S.C. lists, based on the criterion of untouchability, and reservation for them in electoral seats under the Government of India Act, 1935, and, in 1943, reservation in posts, Postmatric Scholarship and Overseas Scholarship Schemes. All these soon became available to the S.Ts also.

This background and the egalitarian philosophy of the nationalist movement influenced the Constitution of India, 1950, piloted by Dr.Ambedkar. Its Articles with a direct bearing on Dalits constitute a sublime edifice within the grand structure of the Constitution. At its foundation is Article 46, which commands and mandates the Indian state to promote the educational and economic interests of S.Cs, S.Ts and other weaker sections and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. All other provisions for the Dalits flow from it. Articles 341, 330, 332 and 334; 15(4); 335, 16(4); 23; 17, 338 and subsequent amendments including the 93rd Amendment of 2005 cover economic, educational social and political aspects. Equipped thus, India could have been radically transformed but this powerful equipment was put to sub-optimal use.

I will illustrate with two or three of the innumerable instances of post-Independence distortion. The pre-Independence slogan of "Land to the Tiller" could have led to provision of land to every rural Dalit, which would have released the S.Cs from their age-old agrestic thraldom. But the various Land Reforms Acts enacted half-heartedly and slowly in different States left Dalits in largely the same plight of overall landlessness, agricultural labourhood and social and physical vulnerability. Limited land distribution could not bring the Constitution-mandated qualitative change and Dalits' economic and social liberation.

The crying need, considering the debarring of education for Dalits over centuries and even in British times, for an all-out national drive to reach high quality education at all levels and in all fields to all Dalit children was neglected. By forcing Dalit masses to continue in agricultural and other servitude, education especially higher education, was made inaccessible to most Dalits, possibly rendering reservation benefits unavailable to them.

Article 17 abolishing "untouchability" required immediate enactment of a law and its thorough implementation. But at every stage, there was delay and half-heartedness, and, when enacted, deficiencies in the Act have been compounded by severe implementational deficits, reducing enforcement to a farce.

The all-India and State-wise figures do not mesh with the ground reality of rampant "untouchability". The Act and the government machinery for its implementation were not able to reach out to most of the victims or to alter the situation significantly.

With the growth of Dalit awareness and resistance to discriminations and assertion of rights, atrocities have emerged as the new instrument of oppression of Dalits who remain vulnerable as a major segment of agricultural wage labourers but a minority in the population. The common juxtaposition of a local caste of agricultural labourers (S.C.) with a landowning dominant caste, provides an explosive situation, ignitable by any spark.

This situation has been compounded by the state. It has left the pioneering S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (POA Act) with some critical weaknesses and failed to ensure that even this defective Act is effectively implemented. The fact that the trial in the Tsunduru massacre (1991) is incomplete; that the trial of the Kumher massacre case (1992) has not even been allowed to start; that most cases drag on, petering out in massive acquittals; and that there are few convictions under the Act, acts as a green signal to more atrocities. Implementation is marked by weaknesses and deliberate distortions at every stage as in the case of the Prevention of Civil Rights Act (PCR Act). Though the Act has given some sense of security to Dalits in some areas, its effectiveness is not equal to its potential and purpose. This is because of the deficiencies in it and the slow progress of trials and large-scale acquittals.

Among the main deficiencies in the Act is Section 14(2), which merely requires the State governments to specify for each district a Sessions Court to be a special court to try atrocities, contradicting the very purpose "of providing for a speedy trial". A trial cannot be speeded up by merely calling an existing court a special court. The law ought to have provided for a special court in each district exclusively to try cases of atrocities, on a day-to-day basis, with corresponding provisions for an exclusive special public prosecutor and a special Investigating Officer. This lacuna lays the foundation for a situation of crime without punishment. Among the other major deficiencies in the Act are omission of social and economic boycott as a crime, non-provision of death penalty as in the Indian Penal Code, non-availability of protection for the victims by way of the externment of possible perpetrators, and the failure to cover converts to Christianity (Dalit Christians).

Reservation has been in existence without interruption. Babu Jagjivan Ram has done everything possible to strengthen it. This and postmatric scholarship, with all their limitations, have helped create a new educated Dalit middle class, though proportionately and relatively small. But the process has been very slow and coverage very limited. Even now, the S.Cs have not reached the prescribed percentage in Group `A' and `B' posts in the Central government. They have not been able to fill a good part of the seats reserved in higher education because of the state's failure to empower them economically to bring education within their reach and launch an all-out drive for their total education. The position in many States is worse.

The S.Cs still have a very small proportion of cultivated land and a smaller proportion of land with assured irrigation. However, they have a disproportionately heavy burden of agricultural and other labour, bonded labour, urban casual labour, safai ("scavenging") labour; health service deficiencies; adverse nutritional and working conditions; lower longevity; and higher infant and under-five mortality. Not many have noticed the fall in S.C. population (according to the Census), from 16.48 per cent in 1991 to 16.2 per cent in 2001. They are severely under-provided for in housing and amenities in both rural and urban areas.

The S.Ts are being increasingly deprived of land and have, in many cases, been reduced to minorities in their homelands. Their lands are poorly developed, rarely irrigated and poorly integrated with the market, leaving the field open to exploiters and middlemen. They are the worst victims of project displacements.

To the crucial schemes initiated by Dr. Ambedkar, more have been added - such as Central assistance for S.C. and S.T. hostels; coaching for Dalit students; machinery for the implementation of the PCR and POA Acts; pre-matric scholarships for children of those in "unclean" occupations; Central assistance to the S.C. Finance & Development Corporations in the States (the first Central economic scheme for the S.Cs); liberation and rehabilitation of safai karamcharis (a scheme under threat); the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowships; the National S.C. & S.T. Finance & Development Corporation and National Safai Karamchari Finance & Development Corporation. These schemes have helped but have not brought about a qualitative change in Dalits' position in the economy and the social system.

In 1978, a momentous step was taken to introduce the Special Component Plan (SCP) for the S.Cs as a prime instrument to allow resources for S.C. development in proportion to their population. And in 1980, a Special Central Assistance (SCA) was granted to the States' SCPs. These helped channel larger plan resources to Dalits. But after the early years and occasional spurts, the effectiveness of these schemes has been blunted by their routinisation and trivialisation without adopting an improved methodology of integrated planning to meet their specific developmental needs and priorities. The institution of the Commissioner for S.C. and S.T. under Article 338 was converted into the National Commission for S.C. & S.T. in 1990-92 and recently bifurcated. A National Safai Karamchari Commission was set up in 1992. These watchdog institutions have been of help. But their effectiveness is blunted by certain failures and omissions.

P.S. Krishnan is a former Secretary to the Government of India and former Member Secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes.

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