PUCL Bulletin, June 1999

Dalits & Human Rights : The Battles Ahead --- I
By P. Sainath

There are more dalits in India than there are people in Pakistan. The Scheduled Castes account for nearly 16.48 per cent of India's people. That is, over 160 million human beings. Their contribution to society in terms of labour, art and culture is enormous. Their share of the country's resources and riches is, however, disproportionately lower.

They account for a sixth of India's population, but not of its land. At best, they hold a tiny fraction of a sixth of land owned by Indians. Indeed, most states in this country cannot provide minimally reliable date on lands owned by or distributed to dalits. What is not disputed by anyone, is that they are mainly landless and where they own land at all, it is marginal and usually of low quality. Secondly, irrigation of India has a clear caste geography. Upper castes cultivate at the headwaters; intermediate castes at the middle and dalits cultivate near the tail waters.

The importance of their position in relation to is enormous. As much as 77 per cent of the dalit workforce is in the primary or agricultural sector of the economy. But very, very few of them own land. They form, instead, the bulk of agricultural labourers in this country. (Historically, they've been major victims of land grab).

Land has a great deal to do with both economic and social status. Let's look at who are the poor in India. Of the Indian poor, 40 per cent are landless agricultural labourers; 45 per cent are small or marginal farmers. (60 per cent of Indian farmers own less than an acre of land). This means that 85 per cent of the poor are either landless or marginal farmers. It's in the first category that you will find dalits in large numbers.

Of the remaining 15 per cent, 7.5 per cent are rural artisans and those who labour in other non-farm occupations. Again you will find dalits in this group, particularly those who work on leather. Lastly, all remaining categories of poor, including diverse segments of urban poor, constitute "Others" who live in poverty. Here, too, you will find dalits; in construction labour, in road laying crews and very prominently in scavenging and other sanitation work. All dalits in these 15 per cent are again, landless people.

The importance of land to the problems we're talking about was recognised right at the time of drawing up the Constitution. A significant point of view was expressed in those discussions but S. Nagappa. He said: "I am prepared for the abolition of reservations, provided very Harijan (dalit) family get ten acres of wet land, twenty acres of dry land and all the children of Harijans are educated, free of cost, up to the university course, and give one-fifth of the key posts either in civilian or in military departments".

The demand for so many acres of land was not excessive. Families had as many as ten to twelve members at the time, sometimes more. So that actual holding per family, if this had been implemented, would still have been very modest.

While poverty affects many communities across the spectrum, it would be correct to say that the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are amongst its worst victims.

Those millions and millions of dalits working as agricultural labourers earn between Rs.12 to Rs.30 in many parts of the country. This is usually in violation of laws relating to minimum wages for agricultural labourers. In the period of liberalisation, the pressure on these groups has become unbearable.

Remember, while prices are revised every now and then, sometimes rising every few weeks, agricultural wages are revised once every so many years. The last minimum wage in a rich state like Maharashtra (before the present wage) stayed put for around eight years. In the first four years of Mr. Narasimha Rao's government controlled prices on the Public Distribution System went up 85 per cent and subsequently the rise has crossed well over 100 per cent if we take 1991 as the base.

In the same period, the per capita availability of foodgrain has actually fallen: from 510 grams in 1991 to 461 in 1996. Imagine the pressure on the millions of landless families, who produce this country's food but have an ever-declining share in it. A very significant proportion of these people are dalits.

For the last 25 years, we've been pleased to congratulate ourselves on being a "self sufficient nation" in food production. We've even had food surpluses. This self-sufficiency, however, is very fragile. It is based on the reality that 400 million people go to bed hungry every night. If they got their minimum calorie requirements, our great surpluses would vanish and our level of production seem very inadequate. I'm not even looking here at unequal distribution.

Only 16 per cent of dalits live in urban areas. The remaining 84 per cent, in rural India. The over 450 SC groups in the country represent an important and incredibility complex phenomenon. A people confronted by seemingly intractable problems brought on by millennia of exploitation, enforced poverty and deprivation. Decades after the abolition of untouchability, the actual extent of its prevalence would surprise many Indians who believe it belongs to the past.

Whether it is in private employment, school dropout rates, literacy and health indicators, access to higher education, or even government jobs, they are at the wrong end of the spectrum. The actual gap between dalit literacy levels and those of the non-dalit population grew worse between 1961 and 1981. In Rajasthan, literacy rates for SC women are about one-fifth the national literacy rate for women. Indeed, one third the national SC female rate!

Half a century after independence, dalits still live in segregated section of the overwhelming majority of Indian villages. To this day, in several parts of the country, it is risky for them to even walk through the upper caste bastis. They have no access to the burial grounds/burning ghats in many villages in this country. The official programmes of the government of India practise their own forms of exclusion. The Indira Awas Yojana, for instance, reinforces the pattern of building homes for dalits away from the rest of the village.

(Continued in PUCL Bulletin, July 1999)

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