Monday, April 5, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Discrimination helps perpetuate poverty

Published: April 4, 2010 23:08 IST | Updated: April 4, 2010 23:08 IST
April 4, 2010

Discrimination helps perpetuate poverty

The Hindu S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor

The findings of a major survey, titled "Human Development in India:
Challenges for a Society in Transition," reported by Aarti Dhar in The
Hindu of March 28 are stark: Indigenous groups and Dalits continue to
be at the bottom in most indicators of well-being; Muslims and the
Other Backward Classes (OBCs) occupy the middle rung; and forward
caste Hindus and other minority religions are at the top. The data
relating to the period 2004-05 are drawn from a survey of 41,554
households in 1,503 villages and 971 urban blocks across 33 States and
Union Territories.

Expose inadequacy

These findings expose the inadequacy of governmental efforts to set
right centuries-old wrongs done to nearly one-fourth of the population
by caste-based oppression, discrimination, and exploitation. It shows
India has a long, long way to go in doing justice to the victims of

The report found the disturbing pattern to hold in respect of several
indicators, including household incomes, poverty rates, land-ownership
and agricultural incomes, health, and education. The survey also
noticed some variations. For instance, in respect of access to
education, Muslims find themselves in the company of Dalits and at the
bottom. Similarly, in respect of health care, tribal folk are better
placed than Dalits in north-eastern States.

The survey has done a valuable service by demarcating two major
aspects of disparities among these social groups.

Two major aspects

The first aspect is that much of the inequality is caused by
differential access to livelihoods. Salaried jobs, which account for
higher earnings, elude Dalits and tribal people who have no choice but
to settle for agricultural labour. They mostly live in rural areas and
do not have the necessary education to seek more lucrative jobs. The
salaried jobs tend to go to people from upper castes and religious
minorities other than Muslims. To quote from The Hindu report: "… more
than three out of 10 forward caste and [non-Muslim] minority religion
men have salaried jobs, compared with about two out of 10 Muslim, OBC
and Dalit men, and even fewer Adivasi men." Another disadvantage that
makes Dalits and tribal people more vulnerable is their landlessness.
Even if a small proportion of them manage to possess some land, they
find that this land is less productive.

The second major aspect of the group disparities brought out by the
survey is that, as Aarti Dhar notes, "future generations seem doomed
to replicate these inequalities because of the continuing differences
in education — both in quality and quantity … social inequalities
begin early in primary schools. Thus, affirmative action remedies are
too little and too late by the time students reach the higher
secondary level."

From discrimination to deprivation

A recent book, Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern
India (2010, Oxford University Press), deals elaborately with the
linkages between discrimination, more particularly economic
discrimination, and the denial of many entitlements to rights, which
the victims of such discrimination suffer. Economist Sukhadeo Thorat,
who is Chairman of the University Grants Commission, and sociologist
Katherine S. Newman, have edited, and contributed sensitively to, this
valuable volume.

"In India," they point out in their Introduction, "exclusion revolves
around societal institutions that exclude, discriminate against,
isolate, and deprive some groups on the basis of group identities such
as caste, ethnicity, religion and gender … Caste/untouchability-based
exclusion is reflected in the inability of individuals from the lower
castes to interact freely and productively with others and this also
inhibits their full participation in the economic, social and
political life of the community."

Thorat and Newman point out that the economic organisation of the
caste system is based on the division of people in social groups (or
castes), in which the social and economic rights of each individual
caste are predetermined or ascribed by birth and made hereditary.
However, the entitlement to economic rights is "unequal and
hierarchical (graded)" and since "economic and social rights are
unequally assigned … the entitlement to rights diminishes as one moves
down the caste ladder."

As a consequence of the working of this kind of discriminatory system,
those at the bottom-most layer of this unequal society are deprived of
their otherwise rightful share in the land, jobs, and wages they are
entitled to, and also access to education, public health facilities,
free lunch for school children, the public distribution system, and
numerous other governmental schemes, including food security
programmes which are supposed to be universal. (It seems the only
universal programme Dalits can access without difficulty is the
immunisation scheme meant for children.)

In health centres

Sangh Mitra S. Acharya explains, in his article (Chapter 7), how
certain social and religious groups have been excluded from the health
care system and how equitable use of medical services has been
discouraged. Incidents of doctors using derogatory language against
Dalit children, refusing to touch Dalit patients, showing reluctance
to talk to them on the nature of their illness, and keeping them
waiting for a long time are not unusual in the primary health centres
in several places. All these are not uncommon in rural hospitals.
Studies have found that doctors are unwilling to visit Dalit patients
at their homes. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that
Dalits receive little or no care in medicare centres.

The plight of Dalit schoolgirls is even worse. "When Dalit and Muslim
children go to school," Thorat and Newman note in their Introduction,
"with young people from HC ["Higher Caste"] backgrounds and majority
religions, they often face subtle forms of discouragement and
ostracism that make school a painful place to be." This explains why a
sizeable number of Dalit children, particularly girls, drop out of

Caste and religion are factors

Under such circumstances, how can one expect better results in respect
of human development indicators? Some chapters in the book provide
sufficient evidence to show how continued discrimination practised in
the name of caste and religion plays a powerful role in keeping
hundreds of millions of oppressed people at the bottom-most layer in
all perceivable ways. This applies to education, access to decent and
well-paying jobs, possessing wealth in the form of land and buildings,
improving their health, and so on. This is the state of the oppressed
six decades after the republican Constitution outlawed the heinous
practice of untouchability and mandated, through not fewer than 20
Articles, protection against discrimination of every kind.

Slogans like 'inclusive growth' are not going to achieve in the next
10 or even 20 years what independent India has failed to deliver over
the last six decades. For those who suffer the double handicap of
socio-economic discrimination and denial of entitlement to several
rights, 'inclusive growth' sounds like a slap in the face, a mockery
of their condition. Unless policies are adopted, backed by massive
investments, to radically change the situation on the ground, that
condition is not going to change. It means expanding in a big way
social opportunity — in education, health, employment, livelihood,
ownership of land and other assets, and so on — as part of the process
of development, as progressive thinkers like Amartya Sen envisage. It
means more effective legal protection against discrimination and

Rural India must be the focus

Since nearly 70 per cent of Dalits live in villages, a very strong
focus on transforming the situation of rural India is an absolute
imperative. This became absolutely clear to me during the course of
field visits over a decade (1995-2005), as Frontline's Special
Correspondent, to study and write about the condition of Dalits in
Tamil Nadu villages. My investigation began with the anti-Dalit
violence that broke out in the southern districts in 1995 but went
beyond that. The realities even in a progressive southern State were
shocking beyond words and I tried to convey them in more than 50
articles published in Frontline.

As Readers' Editor, I can see that journalists, especially young
journalists, working for newspapers, television, and radio can do a
lot more to cover both discrimination and deprivation than they are
doing today. In this connection, the Asian College of Journalism,
Chennai, has done commendable work by making the hundreds of young
women and men who have graduated from it over the past decade do a
required course called "Covering Deprivation," which involves field
visits as well as a critical reflection on the issues.


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