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BR Ambedkar forgotten? Here are 7 major problems Dalits in India facing under Modi rule

Does India really remember Ambedkar? Plights of Dalits in India have multiplied under the Narendra Modi-led government. Everyday reports are its proof. Read on to know more.

Today, December 6, 2020, is the 64th death anniversary of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Also known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, he was an Indian scholar, jurist, economist, politician and social reformer. Ambedkar inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination towards the untouchables, and also supported the rights of women and labour. He worked tirelessly to abolish India’s caste system. The Indian Constitution, the very base of our democratic sovereign, was created by this great soul.

The news and pictures of the who’s who of the Indian government and leaders from various quarters paying tribute to the social change maker have started trickling in since morning. This is nothing new, rather a yearly affair. We wonder, does India really remember Ambedkar? Plights of Dalits in India have multiplied under the Narendra Modi-led government. Everyday reports are its proof.

Here are 7 major problems that Dalits in India are facing under Narendra Modi rule

1. Forced child labour for Dalit kids

One of the most concerning problems that Dalits in India face today is increase in child labour. Our country in 2011 had 10.1 million child labourers aged 5-14, according to census records. The estimate now is that there are 12.7 million toiling without access to a proper education. The situation has turned from bad to worse in the wake of the pandemic. With schools closed and education being fully offered online, Dalit children are being deprived of it. They have no means, but to drop out and earn livelihood through various menial jobs.

Another extensive study on home-based garment workers in India found 99 per cent of workers toiled in conditions of forced labor under Indian law, with over 99 per cent of the workers found to be either Dalits or Muslims. The prevalence of child labour was over 15 per cent and many cases of bonded labour were also documented. 85 per cent of the workers supplied global brands. The report “Tainted Garments: The Exploitation of Women and Girls in India’s Home-based Garment Sector” was conducted by leading labour experts at the University of California.

Also, the central government allocated Rs 90,594 crore for children in Budget 2019, a meagre 0.01-percentage-point increase to 3.25 per cent of the overall Budget compared to last year, according to a report by the non-government organisation Child Rights and You (CRY). And the most suffered section of this move is the children of Dalits in India. Children constitute nearly 40 per cent of India’s population, yet the funds allocated for their education, development, health and protection remained almost constant, the analysis noted. This move adversely impacted the federal National Child Labour Project that aims to offer free education, meals and health care to these children, according to church leaders and rights activists. Several Dalit and child rights organisations have raised their voices against this issue. However, Dalit children still remain in the misery forced or otherwise child labour industry.

2. Increasing poverty among Dalits in India

According to a government report published in 2014, Hindu Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) are the most downtrodden lot in India. Worse, rural Dalits are facing more hardships, says the report. Over 44.8% of ST and 33.8% of SC populations in rural India were below poverty line in 2011-12 as against 30.8% of Muslims. In urban areas, 27.3% of ST and 21.8% of SC were poor, whereas economically backward Muslims stood at 26.5%. Even decline in poverty among rural ST population was the slowest.

Also, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)’s global multidimensional poverty index (MPI), 2018, every second ST, every third Dalit and Muslim in India are poor. And this is not just financially. Multiple factors play roles behind this grim data. The report found that 50 per cent of all tribals in the country are poor as are 33 per cent of Dalits and 33 per cent of Muslims. In contrast, the report found that the so-called upper castes fare far better on the MPI scale — only 15 per cent of the ‘upper’ castes are poor.

Ambedkar laid emphasis on religious, gender and caste equality throughout his life. Even he recommended the adoption of Uniform Civil code to bring reform in the Indian society. The text prepared by Ambedkar provided constitutional guarantees and protections to individual citizens for a wide range of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, the abolition of untouchability, and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination. But the above data show that India has forgotten the principles initiated by the great leader.

3. Unemployment on the rise among Dalits, marginalized

Although we do not have employment trends from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) after 2011-12, anecdotal evidence suggests that India’s job challenge might have worsened in this period. The slow pace of job creation inflicts greater suffering on the workforce in an economy. This suffering however is not the same for all workers. Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are at the bottom of the social ladder in India, are among the worst sufferers. Entrenched social discrimination and existing socio-economic realities add to the disadvantages faced by SCs in the labour market.

The disadvantage faced by SCs extends beyond their disproportionate dependence on wage work. Because, SCs face caste-based discrimination in hiring, they also have a greater unemployment rate than the rest of the population. According to the latest NSSO statistics, the unemployment rate among SCs was 1.7 percentage points higher than the all-India average. SCs have had the highest unemployment rate in India since the 1990s. Higher unemployment among SCs can be seen for young workers and workers with similar levels of education. This underlines the fact that it is a systemic problem.

Dr Ambedkar has argued in Annihilation of caste (1936) that the restriction on SCs to take the occupation of high castes will reduce their chances of employment. The SCs who are denied access to occupation of higher castes suffer from the (non-voluntary) unemployment due to restriction in hiring. The discrimination against SCs in hiring results in high unemployment, low income and high poverty. The discrimination in employment not only results in high poverty among SCs, but it also hampers economic growth in private economy. This is a crucial problem which is caused by India’s caste system.

Dalits in India problems
Photo: Twitter

4. Dalits in India still fighting illiteracy

Ambedkar established the People’s Education Society in 1945 which believed that increasing access to education to the Dalits would increase their empowerment. He thought that a higher level of education would cause the Dalits to realize their position so that they would aspire to the highest of Hindu positions, and that they would consequently use political power and influence as the means to an end to their oppression (Nambissan 1014). Ambedkar believed that the value of education was in the empowerment of Dalits to pursue political action for social reform through informed lobbying. However, Dalits in India still remain in the darkness of illiteracy.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) recently opposed the Union government’s decision to replace post-matric scholarships for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Other Backward Castes and minorities, with a single scheme, allotting it a budget of just ₹7,000 crore. It said, “It is reported that the PMS scheme is on the verge of being scrapped and to starve the programme of necessary funds. It is also a fact that in the states of Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand, PMS is inordinately delayed. More states are likely to follow suit. This is a denial of education justice to the dalits.”

The Post-Matric Scholarship (PMS) scheme is the only centrally sponsored scheme under SC and ST budgets that attempts to bridge the growing socio-economic gap through higher education. India’s caste system hinders the process of ensuring education for all. This scheme covers more than 60 lakh students belonging to the poorest sections of the Indian population, whose annual incomes fall below Rs 2.50 lakh per annum.

5. Poor health and sanitation

According to reports, lack of access to drinking water and good sanitation facilities leads to poor health thereby children drop out from school. Dalit women and dalit girls spend half their calorie intake in fetching water. Poor quality water and sanitation facilities are also the main source of communicable and other waterborne diseases. A 2019 report showed that Modi government needs to extend the scope of the Swatchh Bharat campaign and improve sanitation keeping in mind that many sanitation workers are Dalits. India’s caste system and sanitation are deeply connected.

There are at least three different ways through which the Swatchh Bharat campaign has worsened Dalit oppression. First, an increase in the number of toilets without the accompanying improvement in the sanitation infrastructure in the form of sewage systems, plumbing, septic tanks, sanitation workers and equipment, etc. requires people to clean out the toilets, often manually. Upper-caste Hindus are willing to use toilets but would avoid cleaning them because of their fear of getting “polluted” – thus, increasing the prevalence of manual scavenging. A second issue, which is not restricted to the SBM, is that when it comes to the delivery of necessary public goods and services, Dalits become the easy targets of exclusion. The third relates to a caste problem that is much more sinister. For upper caste Hindus, open defecation, despite having access to free toilets, is a caste privilege — one that preserves their purity.

6. Surging crimes, discrimination against Dalits

Every 15 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit, 6 Dalit women are raped every day and 56,000 children living in slums die due to malnutrition every year in India. One would think that in a crisis like this, such discrimination and related atrocities would be put on hold and people would be more concerned about protecting themselves from the virus. Unfortunately, equal amounts of heed is given to another virus that has existed in our society for centuries now – casteism.

Crimes against Dalits increased by 6% from 2009 to 2018 with over 3.91 lakh atrocities being reported, at the same time gaps in implementation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and the 1995 rules framed under it remained, according to a report released recently. The data proves that India’s caste system and crime are very much connected.

Dalits in India problems
Photo: Twitter

The report, titled ‘Quest for Justice’, by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) – National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, assessed the implementation of the Act as well as the data of crimes against SC and ST people as recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau from 2009 till 2018. The report said the crime rate against those belonging to Scheduled Tribes recorded a decrease of around 1.6%, with a total of 72,367 crimes being recorded in 2009-2018. The report also flagged the rise in violence against Dalit and Adivasi women.

7. Land, property rights of Dalits in India

Despite all the rhetoric about land reforms, Dalits have been able to acquire only very small plots of cultivable land. According to estimates, just 44 per cent of Scheduled Castes own land as compared to 74 per cent of upper caste households in rural areas. Fields owned by Dalits are also extremely small. India’s caste system creates major obstacles in getting land and other property rights for Dalits.

Very few Dalits are able to acquire non-land assets. For instance, 96 per cent of Dalits do not even own a tubewell as compared to 86 per cent of upper caste households. And 52 per cent of Dalits do not even own a buffalo. It is also well known that Dalit women are the worst-off when it comes to land ownership. Access to cultivable land is one of the most critical factors in mitigating poverty and hunger. When a family does not own land they are forced to migrate to cities to earn a living. Ownership of land encourages parents to send their children to school. It also enables poor families to grow some of their food and get better nutrition.

When the government does allot small parcels of land to Dalit households they are prevented from taking actual possession of the land by upper castes in villages. The Dalit households face habitual discrimination. They live in fear of powerful households in their villages and are not able to challenge them.

The Centre must try to work on abolishing the ill effects of India’s caste system and ensure equality for every citizen. Otherwise, Dr Ambedkar’s dreams will remain unfulfilled despite tributes paid on his death anniversary.

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