November 19, 2023

Vishwakarma Yojana: To Perpetuate Retroactive Caste System!

G Ramakrishnan

ON Independence Day, August 15, Prime Minister Modi announced from the Red Fort that the government would allocate a package of loans amounting to Rs 13,000 to 15,000 crores, over the next five years, with a five per cent interest rate for the implementation of a new scheme, the Vishwakarma Yojana. Guidelines for the implementation of this scheme were later released.  Launched on September 17, 2023, this scheme aims to provide support to artisans and craftspeople who work with their hands and tools, covering individuals engaged in 18 trades.

While at first glance, this scheme may appear to be a beneficial welfare programme designed to promote self-employment among its beneficiaries, this is not the case. The funds are not to assist those willing to start tiny or MSME, associated with these trades, which would have been acceptable. The Vishwakarma Yojana, as is clear from the scheme document, is being implemented with a very different purpose.

For one, it focuses on trades that have traditionally been associated with the SC, ST and the OBCs, with the scheme covering, among others, footwear artisans, cobblers (stitching footwear), barbers (primarily hair cutting, shaving, etc), and washermen (dhobis) who wash and iron clothes for people, and potters, who make pottery articles by moulding clay.

But that is not all. Para 1.1 of the scheme document says (MOU1) that “These skills or occupations are passed from generations-to-generation following guru-shishya model of traditional training both within the families and other informal groups of artisans and craftspeople”.  It is not modern skills and occupations but traditional artisanry, associated with SC, ST and OBC social categories, and traditional teaching that is being glorified. To drive home this message, Section 2.2.1 of the scheme's guidelines further states that “the support provided through the scheme to such beneficiaries will not only contribute to the preservation of 'cultural practices', 'generational skills' and guru-shishya Parampara, but will also provide an 'identity' and recognition to them."

What is being implemented here is no modern self-employment or small entrepreneurial scheme. What is sought to be promoted instead is a range of traditional occupations, to be taught too in a traditional manner, associated with traditional caste divisions. That this indeed is the message is amply borne out by the fact that the scheme only covers those belonging to these18 castes, all falling under the SC, ST, and OBC categories. The rank casteist understanding behind the scheme, is further exposed in its claims that these occupations are “cultural practices” and that these occupations are indeed what provides “identity” and “recognition” to these beneficiaries from SC, ST and OBC social categories. By restricting beneficiaries to traditional caste-oriented crafts, this is a scheme that aims for nothing less than trying to perpetuate the Manuwadi Varnashrama Dharma through a futile attempt to recreate the oppressive association of traditional occupations with particular castes.

The emphasis that it must refer to the traditional occupations is underlined by Section 4, (iii) that further notes that this scheme is applicable specifically to those who are “engaged in the trades concerned on the date of registrations”.

The Modi sarkar knows very well that the majority of the younger generation from SC, ST and OBC communities have always aspired to leave behind their traditional caste-associated trades to become skilled workers and professionals in modern industrial and service sector employment. To undermine this, the Vishwakarma Yojana, to determine eligibility in Section 4, (ii) lays down that “The minimum age of the beneficiary should be 18 years on the date of registration”. This is clearly a trap, because this is the age, after completing +2 examinations at the higher secondary levels that students seek to go ahead to higher education. In the light of the overall thrust of the scheme and its rationale, this provision demonstrates a certain hostility to the aspirations of SC, ST and OBC youth.

Such ideas often have a long history, a history that should not be forgotten. The Vishwakarma Yojana scheme, in many ways, harks back to the discredited  ‘kula kalvi thittam’, (hereditary education policy) which was proposed by the then chief minister C Rajagopalachari in the erstwhile Madras state in 1953. The “Modified Scheme of Elementary Education in Rural Schools in Madras State,” as it was officially named, proposed schooling for rural children with half a day at the school and the other half a day devoted to training in the parents’ traditional craft, if the students belonged to occupational classes. The scheme was promptly dubbed by its critics as half a day for school and half a day for caste.

There was stiff opposition to this scheme in all the parts of the state. The Communist Party of India, then the main opposition party in the state legislature, considered the scheme an ugly attempt to preserve the status quo in the socio-economist life of rural society by forcing the children to stick to their ancestral crafts, thus attempting to ensure that the poor did not get much education and start demanding decent jobs with social security, which was then the preserve of others. The Communist Party opposed the scheme as retrograde because it tries to take the country back to pre-industrial age. The leader of Communist opposition in the legislature, Comrade P Ramamoorthy, strongly opposed this scheme on the floor of the house. He argued, “The need of the hour is to replace the feudal-colonial set-up by a healthy, national, independent, socially-planned, productive modern economy. Education then should be science-based and science-oriented”. M Kalyanasundaram, KP Gopalan, MLA from Payyanur, Nagi Reddy from Andhra, all communist leaders and members of the legislature from the various regions of the Madras Presidency, together with VK Krishna Iyer, who had been elected as a CPI-backed independent, were also vociferous in their criticism of the education scheme.

The Dravida Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam too vehemently opposed the scheme.  Periyar argued that the scheme would perpetuate the caste system and deny the lower castes the opportunity to take to other professions.

The people’s upsurge against the ‘kula kalvi thittam’ led to the resignation of Chief Minister Rajaji, who alongside this retrograde scheme, also shockingly closed down 6000 schools. When Kamaraj became the chief minister of Madras state subsequently, the “kula kalvi thittam” education scheme was withdrawn and a large number of new schools were in fact opened.

The regressive Hindutva forces at the centre wish to implement a National Education Policy which goes against the very fundamentals of any modern education system. Textbooks are being rewritten with an unscientific approach and packed with obscurantist ideas.  The Vishwakarma scheme follows these attempts, seeking to demotivate and divert SC, ST and OBC students from seeking to obtain modern higher education and skilled employment.

Many studies reveal that a good number of students who have passed +2 cannot continue to higher education because of financial restraints, thus constraining their employment opportunities. The All-India Survey on Higher Education, 2020-21, released on January 29, 2023, noted that in the last two decades a rise in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) for all the social groups could be seen.  The GER for SC and ST is at 23.1 per cent and 18.9 per cent  (percentage out of eligible SC/ST students) respectively, lower than the overall gross enrolment ratio. Students from OBC communities accounted for 35.8 per cent, up from 32.2 per cent in 2012-13. But the enrolment in higher education for both SC/ST & OBCs do not correspond to their share of the country’s population. From the same study, it is clear that the lack of public investment in education and the concomitant expansion of the private sector in education, has the effect of curtailing opportunities for the less privileged section throughout the country. Of all the colleges in India, 65 per cent are now private or un-aided while only 21.4 per cent are government colleges. Since government institutions account for only 35 per cent of the enrolment, we can  conclude that the majority have to spend out of their own resources for pursuing higher education in India which is a distant dream for the under privileged. If at all the central government wants to increase the enrolment of SC/ST & OBC students, the government must invest more in education to provide free higher education. Instead, we see that privatisation is only increasing.

Instead of taking steps and framing schemes to increase access to higher education, the Modi government is headed backwards, pursuing the implementation of the Vishwakarma Yojana only to perpetuate the caste system. It is no surprise that this scheme was announced by the prime minister, an erstwhile RSS pracharak, who is sincerely implementing the Hindutva agenda proposed long back by Golwalkar.

While criticising the Constitution of India, Golwalkar wrote in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, “Manu’s laws were written long before. To this date, his (Manu’s) laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the administration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundit that means nothing” (November 30, 1949). More than seventy years later, as the BJP-RSS combine still seeks to implement this retrogressive agenda, the Vishwakarma Yojana is yet another instance of why this Modi sarkar must be seen off by the people of this country.