Will Caste Discrimination and Untouchability end by Economic Empowerment alone?
B V Raghavulu
AT the outset, I want to make clear what I mean by economic empowerment. It means provision of land, housing, reservations in employment and political reservations etc. My contention is that without ending the social discrimination and untouchability, we cannot bridge the gap between dalits and non- dalits with any number of programmes for empowerment and providing equal opportunities, because, the pervasive presence of caste prejudice at every level of society, especially in villages, will always undo all the well-meaning initiatives of any institution including that of the government.
At a popular level, there is a feeling among wide sections of non-dalits that governments are pampering dalits at the expense of other sections of the poor. But, in spite of six decades of policies of empowerment and equal opportunity, the gap between dalit and non-dalits has not been bridged so far. Actually, in some respects, it may have widened. Various studies by academicians and mass organisations go to prove the above conclusion.
The results of surveys conducted in 2007-09 by Sundarayya Vignana Kendram with regard to Andhra Pradesh highlight the disparities between dalit and non- dalit households in a stark manner.
Information relating to 21,657 households in 88 villages from 22 districts was collected for the study. In these selected villages, 10 per cent of the households from each category were selected by using stratified random sampling method. Some of the results are captured in the following tables.
Table 1: Proportion of different social groups.
Number of households
As % of total households
% of land owned to total land
Table 1 clearly brings out the disparity in the ownership of landed assets between Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Castes (excluding STs)
Table 2: Mean household land ownership of social groups - region wise
Extent of land per family (in acres)
Table 2 shows that in Coastal Andhra, the upper caste households had land nine times more than the SCs of that region whereas in Rayalseema area and Telangana, the difference is only four times.
Table 3: Extent of land, caste wise
% of house- holds to total surveyed HHs
% of land to total land
% of Landless households
Two politically, socially and economically important castes – Kamma and Reddy – who are only 10.47 per cent of the total households, had 31.01 per cent of land owned by all households. Dalits comprising Malas and Madigas who constitute 25.17 per cent of the households owned only 9.77 per cent of total land. This shows the economic dominance of the upper castes in the villages.
Even if landlessness is taken into consideration, around 62 per cent of dalit households have no land, whereas only 25 per cent of upper castes are landless.
Table 4: Amenities, social group wise
% of total HH
% of HH having toilets
% HH with television
% HH with gas stoves
%HH with motorcycle
% HH with telephone
Table 5: Proportion of incomes from cultivation and wages for each social group and region wise
From Table 5, it can be found that dalits get their income mainly from labour while upper castes get only a small part of their income from wages.
Table 6: Credit sources for social groups
% of households to total
Institutional source % to total
% to total
Dalits, the most vulnerable section of the society, are the most dependent on private money lenders.
The State itself discriminates dalits in many ways. An important measure of discrimination by the State is the allotment and expenditure of budgetary resources for dalits. A Sub-Plan for Scheduled Castes has been in implementation for the last three decades in Andhra Pradesh. Under this Sub Plan, the allotment and expenditure of funds is as follows:
Scheduled Caste Sub Plan Budget Allocation/Expenditure/Diversion in AP
%SCSP allocation to state Outlay
15/16%t0 state Outlay
* More than the allocation; 16.2% of allocation from 2006-07 onwards.
The social conditions of dalits, barring few, did not improve much despite constitutional safeguards and enactment of several stringent laws abolishing the practice of untouchability and discrimination.
The mainstream political establishment, mass media and urban intelligentsia generally are reluctant to acknowledge or are eager to deny the widespread prevalence of caste discrimination and untouchability. But the reality is the universal prevalence of social discrimination and untouchability in our society in various forms.
The statistics given by the Andhra Pradesh government themselves glaringly prove the prevalence of untouchability and caste discrimination in the state. The following table will give an idea:
The offence-wise atrocities registered from 2005-2009
Kula Vivaksha Vyathireka Porata Sangam of Andhra Pradesh conducted a state-wide survey in 1998 to gather firsthand information on caste discrimination. During the ‘cycle jatha’, in which I had also participated, the discriminations were found to be more serious than my anticipation. Justice Punnaiah Commission on dalits, appointed by the Andhra Pradesh state government under pressure from people’s movement to study the socio-economic conditions of dalits conducted a public enquiry and prepared a comprehensive report and as it is an official report, its findings opened up the eyes of everyone.
ROLE OF LAND, EDUCATION,
PUBLIC SERVICES & RESERVATIONS
Let us examine the role of land, education, public services and reservations in the eradication of caste discrimination and untouchability.
·Breaking the monopoly of Land
There is a general perception that if land is distributed to dalits, it will end their dependence on upper-caste landlords and in the process free them from caste discrimination and untouchability. The experiences we had accrued in Andhra Pradesh, show that these opinions are not correct.
According to official statistics, land was extensively distributed among dalits in the state. Statistics show that between 1956 to 2000, 43 lakh acres of land was distributed in the state to the poor, and, among them, particularly to dalits. In the past seven years, the state government conducted land distribution programme seven times and has claimed to distribute 8 lakh acres of land. Conceding that the government may have inflated these figures, we cannot however deny the fact that substantial amounts of land was distributed during this period. Government waste lands (banjar lands), inam lands and to an extent ceiling lands constitute the land that was distributed by the government. The number of dalits among the beneficiaries is also substantial.
If we look into the question – whether the land distributed has helped the poor, particularly dalits and has freed the dalits from depending on the upper-caste landlords, it becomes clear that the desired benefits were not obtained. The major share of the land distributed was in drought prone regions and dry lands. Land that was not suitable for agriculture too was distributed. For these reasons, farming in these lands has not benefited dalits.
Even this land which is not useful is not in the possession of dalits and other poor today. A major share went into the hands of other, non-dalits. The Koneru Rangarao Land Committee appointed by the government in 2004 has also recognised this phenomenon. It stated that 30 per cent of the land distributed is not in the hands of the beneficiaries. A major share of the land taken back by the government in the name of development also consists of these kind of assigned lands.
More dalit families are in possession of land in Telangana and Rayalseema regions, compared to that of the land possessed by dalits in coastal Andhra. Even this is not helping them in overcoming caste discrimination and untouchability. In reality, it is in these very regions that caste discrimination and untouchability are found in more cruel forms.
There is also another perception that as basic infrastructure for practising modern agriculture was not provided to dalits in the land distributed to them, they were unable to benefit and gain economic freedom. Studies indicate that though government had started many schemes for dalits to develop their lands, they did not benefit them. In reality, as dalits are losing their existing possessions in those areas where agriculture is well developed, they are unable to gain economic independence from the land distributed. In those regions where irrigation facilities are well developed and commercial agriculture is practised, poor peasants are losing their lands and are turning into agricultural labourers. It is for this reason that the number of agricultural labourers is increasing in the coastal delta regions. This phenomenon is more widespread among dalits.
So, it is wrong to believe that if some amount of land is distributed to dalits, they will be able to break free from caste discrimination and untouchability. As long as land is concentrated in the hands of the dominant castes and dalits are forced to depend on them for their livelihood, the conditions for the continuation of social oppression will continue to exist. The dominant and upper-castes derive their strength to continue caste discrimination and untouchability from their stranglehold on land. Even after proclaiming the implementation of land reforms acts, there is no substantial change in land concentration. Without breaking the land concentration in the hands of the dominant castes, we cannot destroy their ability to perpetrate caste discrimination.
·Struggle against social oppression will strengthen class-unity
A section amongst dalits was able to break-free from their economic dependency over the upper-castes using the reservations available for them in education and employment sectors. However, reservations too are not helping dalits to overcome their economic dependency and social oppression in a substantial manner. Similarly, tenancy is rapidly being restored in delta areas. When dalits are transformed into agricultural labourers, as they are not bound to a particular landlord family, they attain some amount of freedom. They get certain amount of strength to fight discrimination or escape from discrimination. But with the restoration of tenancy, a tenant is pushed to live under the domination of the landlords of the dominant castes. In this manner, tenancy is not only increasing economic exploitation but also strengthening social oppression as well.
If we intend to break the land concentration of the landlords from the dominant castes, we have to isolate landlords and fight against them by building a multi-class and all-section unity. If such a broad unity has to be built, it is necessary to mobilise even the non-dalits who are against caste discrimination, along with the dalits. However, there is an opinion that the struggle against caste discrimination will disrupt our efforts to build unity against landlords. This opinion is leading to neglecting our efforts against caste discrimination. There is no doubt that the movement against caste discrimination and untouchability will increase the contradiction between the dalits and non-dalit toilers. But in this guise, if we neglect addressing the issue of caste discrimination, dalits cannot become an integral part of the united front against landlords. Dalits will be whole-heartedly ready for complete unity only when they are sure that non-dalit poor will accept them as equals. If majority of the dalits, who have to stand in the forefront of the struggle against landlords, are not completely convinced and do not whole-heartedly participate, there is no chance that this struggle will succeed. If the contradiction existing among the poor on the basis of caste discrimination is not resolved, it will be used by the dominant castes and classes to disrupt the anti-landlord struggle and easily weaken it. For this reason, the struggle against social oppression in the long run will only strengthen class unity and not weaken it. Only by addressing social issues we can build confidence between dalits and the non-dalits and also weaken casteist tendencies prevalent among the non-dalits and contribute to build unity.
Struggle against social oppression is also being neglected in the name of requirements of vote gathering in electoral politics. Securing only dalit votes would not help in winning an election. Votes of other castes are also needed. If we react seriously on issues of caste discrimination or untouchability and if we launch struggles to end these practices, there is a fear that we may lose other castes’ votes. This apprehension deters us from taking up the issues of social oppression. There are occasions when such tendencies became evident at ground level even among Left and progressive sections who are involved in parliamentary politics. It is understandable if status quoist parties take lenient attitude to these issues. But for Left parties and progressive forces to ignore these issues for temporary electoral gains would result in drying up of electoral support in the long run.
·Education as a catalyst to struggle
There is a shortcoming in our movements in recognising the importance of education of dalits in the fight against social oppression. Although the claims made by some that education is the solution for dalits to overcome social oppression may not be entirely true, there is no doubt that education is far more important to dalits when compared to other caste people. Quality education would provide opportunities for dalits to rid themselves from depending on landlord elements inside and outside the village. It can also give them an option to exit the village that is the centre of discrimination. They can improve their chances of entering modern occupations. If more number of dalits can get out of their dependence on landlords and find work outside their villages, it would actually give more scope to rid dalits from social oppression. But we cannot assume that every educated dalit would move out of the village. It may not be possible for them to live without the employment provided by the dominant caste landlords in the village. Even in such circumstances also, educational development would provide the strength to these sections to resist social oppression and discrimination in the village. It would make them conscious of the need to safeguard their self-respect and human rights. It would also help them in realising the need for organising themselves.
Precisely at a time when dalits started realising the importance of education to their emancipation, structural changes are taking place in the education sector to keep them and other poorer sections away from quality education. With the implementation of neo-liberal policies, education sector is split into two halves. Private sector education catering to the rich is growing at a rapid pace at all levels. The rich and many from the dominant castes who can afford to pay are rapidly shifting their children to private sector to give them quality education. The public education sector is limited to children of dalits, backward castes, minorities and the poor of other castes. The funds allocated for these institutions are decreasing, impacting the quality of public education adversely.
Despite noting the importance of education for dalits in overcoming the social oppression, dalit organisations and other mass organisations are not giving as much importance to safeguarding public education as they are giving to reservations. It can be said that agricultural workers unions, farmers unions and other organisations working for the upliftment of weaker sections have largely ignored the issue of education. The importance given by people’s movements to education during freedom struggle and early years of post Independent India is not being given today. Those seeking to bring about social change should not be oblivious of the fact that education is not only useful in the struggle against social oppression but also in building meaningful unity among exploited classes.
· Public services as a passive form of solution
It is being felt that bringing government services within reach of dalits is one of the ways to avoid the problem of caste discrimination. Caste discrimination is prevalent both in public and private spaces when dalits interact with upper caste persons. What the government is doing through its actions and policies is to limit the interaction between dalits and non-dalits to avoid caste discrimination to some extent by providing drinking water schemes, construction of graveyards, community halls and even temples in dalit habitats etc. But it would not be possible to avoid interaction in transport facilities, schools and colleges, administrative offices etc. Here also, modern segregation is being indirectly promoted by government’s privatisation policies that are encouraging private transport and private education, which largely cater to the rich among upper castes. Although this segregation does not signify ending of caste discrimination, dalits are accepting it because they feel it may help in avoiding caste discrimination to some extent. This is also being useful for the ruling classes, who are not willing to end the social oppression, to attract dalit votes. As the situation is still not conducive to achieve total eradication of caste discrimination whereby people belonging to all castes freely intermingle, the progressive forces are also forced to ask for these limited solutions.
· Importance of ideological work
We may not agree with the view of many social reformers about the centrality of ideological and cultural work to change hearts to end caste discrimination and untouchability, but we cannot under-estimate its significance also. We know we cannot change the mindset of landlord sections among upper castes who are benefiting from caste discrimination, through persuasion. But we can rally the dalits and the poor in other castes in the fight against caste discrimination through ideological campaign because they have nothing to gain from perpetuation of caste discrimination. Even today there are dalits who believe that caste discrimination and untouchability is a result of their misdeeds in their previous lives and that their suffering is inevitable! Even among dalit sub castes, feelings of superiority and inferiority still persist. Without eradicating these discriminatory feelings in them, dalits would not have moral strength to fight the social oppression practiced by upper castes. Although there is no material basis for such feelings in the lives of dalits, centuries of experiencing social oppression has resulted in their internalising these feelings. Many other non-dalit castes that are treated heinously by upper castes also harbour feelings of superiority over dalits. To break these feelings, it requires serious ideological and cultural work. It will not be sufficient if this effort is made only among the educated people. It has to be done continuously among dalits and non-dalits at village level, both separately and during struggles. At present this effort is not at required levels.
Dalit men will not be in a position to resist discrimination against them completely if they themselves in their homes do not treat their womenfolk as equals or with respect. Treating women unequally in upper caste households is useful for safeguarding the unequal system. But replicating the upper caste patriarchal treatment of women would not strengthen the dalits’ fight for equality and self-respect. Therefore adopting a positive attitude towards the question of women’s equality is a necessity for those who want to fight against caste discrimination.
· Limited utility of reservations
Although reservations do not possess the capacity to solve all the problems of dalits, the ruling classes always try to create an impression about reservations as if they are the panacea for all the dalit problems. Dalit middle class also inadvertently creates the same impression among the dalits.
A middle class has developed among dalits with the implementation of reservations policy by the government after Independence. This section is giving exclusive importance to reservations and promotions rather than to issues of caste discrimination and untouchability. Many of those who benefited from political representation have been co-opted into the system. Some others are trying to emulate the upper castes. If we observe criticisms hurled against each other by the pro and anti categorisation dalit groups during the struggle for SC categorisation in Andhra Pradesh, it becomes clear that a section has internalised the arguments of upper castes against reservations and another section treated the other section of dalits as an oppressor. When six dalits were butchered by dominant caste people in Lakshim peta village of Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, most of the dalit peoples representatives and top level officers in district administration and police, instead of helping dalit victims, cooperated with the dominant caste political establishment to dilute and divert the real issues related to the incident.
Dr B R Ambedkar himself expressed publicly how his hopes on the educated sections of dalits have been belied. Although a few among the educated dalits are standing by their brethren, the numbers are too small. Therefore, without limiting to organising the educated dalits, if we can rally the vast sections of dalits then only the struggle against social oppression will succeed.
We can eradicate caste discrimination and untouchability only by waging ceaseless and tireless struggles. But at present, dalit and other mass organisations are largely reacting to incidents. Left and progressive forces also lag behind in this respect. Now it is being realised that struggles are needed for making dalits to assert their rights.
The struggle against social discrimination must be waged in a comprehensive way. The immediate struggles for education, government facilities etc must be coordinated and combined with the fundamental, long-term struggle to break the land monopoly. To this must be added the ideological and cultural efforts to forge unity among dalits and non-dalit poor at the ground level. Only then can we bridge the divide among dalits and non-dalits.