(Sample Material) Study Kit on Current Affairs for UPSC Mains Exam: Polity, Governance and Social Justice: Disadvantaged Sections: Processes of Continuity and Change

(Sample Material) Study Kit on Current Affairs for UPSC Mains Examination

Polity, Governance and Social Justice: Disadvantaged Sections: Processes of Continuity and Change

At independence India adopted a liberal democracy with a written constitution that provided a parliamentary system, with both individual and groups rights for historically disadvantaged sections particularly the Scheduled Castes or Dalits as they are known today. Under the leadership of Nehru, commitment to democratic transformation, a path of gradual social transformation leading to a more egalitarian society was an integral part of India’s developmental strategy. However, despite six decades of democratic functioning Dalits still face marginalization and exclusion: two mutually supportive processes responsible for economic inequality and social discrimination. While poverty is a major disability faced by many disadvantaged sections in India, caste remains an important- source of inequality. The fundamental features of the caste system namely fixed social, cultural and economic rights for each caste by birth, with restrictions on change have created various forms of exclusion. Amartya Sen has pointed out how, particularly in Asia, it is social exclusion that results in deprivation and limits individual opportunities. Referring to Adam Smith’s pioneering exposition of deprivation as “inability to appear in public without shame”; he describes it as capability deprivation arising out of the right to participation in community life. Exclusion from social relations can lead to other relational deprivations such as lack of education, employment, and exclusion from markets resulting in economic impoverishment, which limits opportunities.
This paper argues that while much change has taken place in the condition of disadvantaged sections since independence, substantial levels of marginalization and exclusion continue which constitute a formidable challenge to our attempts to create a more egalitarian democracy.

Historically Dalits have been kept out of the educational system, denied ownership of assets such as land, allotted menial occupations and not allowed to participate in social and political activities. According to the 2001 Census SCs constitute 16.66 crore or 16 percent of the total population of the country with concentration in five states - Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal; Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Their level of urban concentration is lower than that of the general population, ‘indicative of their relative backwardness and continued dependence on traditional rural occupations for their livelihood. Discrimination in land, labour and capital together with limited mobility and choice of occupation still exists among the large majority. Most are wage labourers and only about one-third of SC rural labour households own land as against 41 percent for all rural labour households. Literacy rates among Dalits - 45 percentage points between 1961 and 2001 - have risen in the country particularly in the states of the Hindi heartland in recent decades, though there still remains a considerable gap between Dalits and others-and are lower among rural Dalits and Dalit women. But in the 1990s the literacy rate for SCs rose by over 17 percentage points, and the rural-urban and gender divide began to narrow. Even where literacy rates have risen, studies show that difference in the percentage of SC children and others enrolled and in terms of number of years of schooling are considerable, and drop-out percentage is higher among the former. The Gross Enrolment Ratios of Dalit children at the primary level not only declined over 1990-91 to 1999-2000 but they were also lower than for the total population in 1999-2000. Similarly in higher education the enrolment of Dalits is 110t satisfactory and in technical and professional courses most of the reserved seats remain unfilled.

In the social realm Dalits still suffer from segregation and exclusion. Their dwellings are located outside the main village settlements in rural areas and in slums in urban areas deprived of basic amenities and services such as roads, drinking water, sanitation and primary health care. Most shamefully, many are still employed as manual scavengers although manual scavenging has been made a punishable offence since 1993. More than 80,000 Dalits are employed as manual scavengers, the biggest violators being Municipal Corporations and state governments, as the Act has not been adopted by 12 states.

There has been considerable progress since independence the problem showing considerable variations among states. The main levers of change in the position of Dalits in the post-Independence period have been policies of Protective Discrimination (PD), capitalist development and competitive politics. PD enshrined in the Constitution aimed at inclusion of SCs into society and polity, promoting participation and providing protection against discrimination. But the unequal economic structure of society, reinforced by uneven distribution of gains in the post-Independence period, under a predominantly capitalist system of development meant that a small ‘creamy layer’ has made use of the benefits while the large majority remained poor, marginalized and with little access to opportunities. However, as Marc Galanter has argued, without PD, especially in the early years of Independence, SCs would have remained outside the system and not been able to achieve any social mobility.

Since the late 1990s the contours of the debate on the impact of PD has undergone a change. Together with globalization a small but influential, educated, middle-class of Dalit intellectuals/activists reached a critical mass in the polity. They argue that with liberalization of the economy the number of jobs in the state sector has dwindled. While, some argue for extension of reservations into the fast-expanding private sector which is creating new jobs; others demand introduction of various forms of affirmative action based on the US model such as Supplier Diversity, as discussed at the Bhopal Conference of January 2002. Some recent studies have initiated a debate on an area not yet well-researched in India: impact of caste-based economic discrimination on higher education and the private job market in the era of globalization, its forms and features.

Much improvement ‘has taken place in the economic position of Dalits though large disparities remain with other sections of society. Capitalist development together with competitive politics has weakened the caste system, though it has created inequality among Dalits themselves. The National Sample Survey (NSS) in its 1999-2000 report shows that in 2000 only about 29.90 percent of the [mal population of the SCS had acquired some access to fixed capital assets like agricultural land and non-land capital assets. In 1999-2000 75 percent of SC households were in the category of landless agricultural labour. Even those. who own land have small plots that are economically unviable. Consequently, they suffer from low income, low consumption and a high degree of poverty with about 35.43 percent below the poverty line. Relationships on land remain oppressive, particularly where OBC groups are dominant.

A section of Dalits continue to pursue traditional caste occupations such a weaving along with agriculture. The capitalist system has opened avenues for those whose skills arc marketable. In urban areas Dalits are employed in the organized and unorganized industrial sectors; they are petty shopkeepers, small entrepreneurs and white-collar workers mainly in the public sector. But the number of such persons is very small. The report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector indicates the extent of marginalization of weaker sections in the Indian economy. Informal workers, who have no employment, work or social security, now constitute 92% of the total workforce and discrimination is reinforced by one’s social identity, rural location and low or no education. A perusal of the report clearly indicates that a substantial number of these workers fall into the category of SC/ST.

At independence it was believed that with rapid economic development caste-based atrocities against Dalits would disappear. However, since the 1970s two features have been noted. The number of caste-based crimes against Dalits has increased sharply with some of the worst incidents occurring in better-off states such as Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Second, ritual untouchability has been replaced by caste atrocities such as rape, nor allowing Dalits to cast their votes, burning of houses, parading women naked in village streets. Improvement in economic condition and increase in violence against Dalits goes hand in hand; in fact social jealousies are roused, Khairlanji being a good example. Dalit women often suffer the worst treatment by caste panchayats in Haryana. During 2002 a total of 33,507 cases of crimes and atrocities committed against Dalits were registered. Passage of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 and Rules 1995 has not helped and merely led to greater confrontation. As the National Commission for SC and ST (Report 1990) pointed out, the major reasons for atrocities since the 1980s are political and economic in nature rather than purely social or cultural. This does not mean that untouchability. has disappeared as a recent study shows.
It is in the political field that the greatest change has taken place. PD, a long-term process of democratization and a modicum of economic development, has thrown up a new generation of educated, self-confident, and politically aware middle-class Dalits no longer prepared to put up with exclusion and domination. The word Dalit as a form of self-identification is now widely used in many parts of the country. While it has not created a homogenous Dalit community, differences between different sub-castes remain and have even widened with even violence among different groups, yet it has symbolic importance, providing Dalits dignity and self-confidence, enabling them to assert against upper-caste domination and oppression.

Consequently, it is through mobilization by Dalit leaders, formation of political parties and competitive politics that Dalits have gained empowerment and entered the political mainstream. There has been an unprecedented rise in political awareness leading to an upsurge from below. The number of Dalits voting has been rising in every election since the 1990s. The post-Independence period witnessed the rise of Dalit parties/movements. However, Dalit assertion in the contemporary period, first witnessed in the north Indian plains in the 19805, has a qualitatively new character and distinct features. The new educated Dalit generation has a different understanding and view of the nation-building project that emerged out of the national movement as exclusionary leading to an elitist democracy controlled by, and meant for, the upper castes/classes. Coupled with this feeling of exclusion, is a. deep and increasing disillusionment with the failure of the Indian State to provide protection to the life and property of Dalits, provide a share in the fruits of economic development and end the practice of untouchability. Yet at the same time, Dant assertion has been a reaction to the process of social, political and economic exclusion of Dalits from the benefits of development. It did not emerge with an agenda of breaking down the system, but ensuring Social Justice within the society and polity for the Dalits.

Thus, the evidence points to both change and continuities from the past. Significant changes have taken place that have created greater inclusion and lessened social and economic marginalization of Dalits in post-Independence India. But these changes have occurred only in some parts of the country and affected only a small section of Dalits. The vast majority of subaltern Dalits in the countryside still routinely suffer exclusion in public and private life and being illiterate and poor remain on the margins of society. Paradoxically, this is happening despite the social deepening of democracy in recent years.

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