Monday, June 13, 2011

[ZESTCaste] When some are less than equal

When some are less than equal
Rukmini Shrinivasan, TNN | Jun 13, 2011, 05.30am IST

Whether it is in education , health or jobs, there are enormous
differences in outcomes in modern India , so much so that it often
seems like two countries exist within one. Economic opportunities have
undoubtedly expanded for a section of India's population, but there
are serious obstacles in the path of many.

Nobel laureate and development economist Amartya Sen has written about
the 'conversion handicap' which, quite separately from an 'earnings
handicap' , impedes people from achieving their full potential. In
India, this could be caste, where a dalit schoolboy who is made to sit
separately from other classmates is not able to fully actualise the
benefits of an education. It could also be gender, where a woman
employee who faces sexual harassment in an office is not able to
perform to the best of her ability.

India's scheduled castes, who make up 16.2% of the population, are
poorer, less educated, more malnourished and in lower-paying jobs than
people belonging to 'upper' castes. (see table) Crimes against dalits
based on their caste alone, ostracisation and humiliation remain
rampant, particularly in rural India. They also face difficulties in
filing police complaints or getting a fair trial.

For all its many failings, one of independent India's achievements
must surely be the expansion of the political voice for people
belonging to backward castes through the rise of political parties
formed with the explicit objective of the empowerment of these castes.
Few at the moment of Independence would have imagined that a dalit
woman would one day be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh or speaker of
Parliament. But the translation of political voice into an expansion
of economic opportunity and human dignity is still work in progress.

For women's rights too, one of the most significant changes in modern
history has been in the sphere of expanded political voice. The 73rd
and 74th amendments to the Constitution passed in 1993 reserved
one-third of seats in all panchayati raj institutions and local body
elections for women. Some states like Bihar have further raised this
to 50%.

The results of this experiment have been inspiring. Elected women
sarpanches reported an increase in their self-esteem and greater say
in household decisions , while their performance was graded as equal
to that of men by the community . In addition, more women candidates
run for election in an open ward if it has been reserved in the past,
showing that the reservation does have a lasting impact.

Guaranteed equal rights as men in the Constitution, women continue to
be treated unequally, right from the moment of conception. The 2011
Census shows that far from abating, the preference for male children
as exhibited through sexselective abortions of female babies has only
grown, now touching even formerly egalitarian states and communities.
Even while girls outperform boys in school examinations year after
year, they are less likely to be enrolled, complete school and move on
to higher education than their brothers. As adults, they often face
domestic violence and do not have equal voice as their husbands in
household and economic decisions.

Organizations working for social justice thus often work on helping
marginalised groups become more aware of their rights, helping them
organise and protect against backlash. For instance, many tribal
rights groups helped spread information about land and resource rights
among adivasis which then built pressure for the enactment of the
Forest Rights Act. In the sphere of rights for sexual minorities, the
repeal of section 377 by the Delhi HC came as a result of tireless
work by gay rights campaigners, lawyers and a sensitive bench, leading
to the biggest milestone yet in the fight for the empowerment of
India's LGBT community.

One of the significant changes in the new language of social justice
in India is the rise of the rights-based approach to public goods.
This is not a mere rhetorical change; the very thought that nutrition
or healthcare is a right, and not simply a 'public good' can be
empowering . The Right To Education was passed last year, the NREGA
came out of debate around the Right To Employment, some states like
Assam have passed the Right To Health, and a vociferous Right To Food
campaign has forced the government to move towards a Food Security

In the last few years, one of the strongest tools in the armoury of
advocacy groups has been the Right To Information Act. Brought into
being after a long grassroots agitation by campaigners led by the
Rajasthan-based Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Act has helped
democratize information by legislating transparency in a country where
being rich means that you get answers to your questions faster and
your complaints are responded to quicker. Using the RTI, groups as
diverse as south Delhi house-owners concerned about water tariffs and
rural Rajasthani women angry at not receiving their full NREGA wages
have forced governments to be more transparent and accountable.
Unsurprisingly, field experiments have found that merely filing an RTI
application is almost as effective as paying a bribe for delivery of
basic services.

Sometimes awareness generation and empowerment can be much more
nutsand-bolts , almost prosaic, but of potentially monumental
consequence. A large part of awareness generation is associated with
making people aware of existing or new government schemes, their
significance and how these can be accessed.

Some government departments have been known to launch novel and highly
effective information campaigns. Kerala's panchayati raj department
ran a televised reality show to find the state's most "green"
panchayat, discussing sustainable development alternatives through
this medium in each episode.

Game of the name

The popular narrative on urbanization is that caste prejudices break
down in modern India's economy. However academic Sukhadeo Thorat and
his colleague Paul Attewell disproved this in a study published in
2009. Thorat and Attewell answered by correspondence advertisements
placed in English newspapers for skilled jobs in private sector firms.

The academic duo found that the fictitious applicants who had dalit or
Muslim last names were far less successful in being called for an
interview than those with upper caste Hindu last names, even when they
were better qualified! The fact that this happened without the
advertiser being aware of anything beyond the names and the
qualifications clearly suggested bias based on the names.

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