Despite years of sustained efforts, caste-based discrimination still persists at ground level.
In 2002, The Hindu Sunday Magazine published an article ‘A Statement of Self Confidence’ by Dr. Meena Radhakrishna, which discussed new strategies and partnerships being formed by the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (now the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations or NACDOR), to combat caste atrocities and empower Dalits in a globalised economy.
“Come, together let us transform this world,” ended the article, which spoke about the community’s call for building partnerships with progressive institutions and people in a bid to build a movement that changed the discourse from one of demanding justice to one of claiming rights.
Ten years on, NACDOR has grown to be one of the largest platforms of Dalit organisations in India, with more than 1,500 organisations of different kinds affiliated to it, including civil society organisations, SC/ST Employee Welfare Associations, Dalit cultural and religious groups, writers and poet groups, student and teacher groups, worker and peasant groups. Their aim remains to bridge the developmental divide between Dalits and non-Dalits.
This strategy was evident at the Third National Conference of Dalit Organisations held in New Delhi between December 4 and 8, 2012, where over 10,000 grassroot leaders and activists had gathered from over 20 States in the country to highlight their demands for essential services and a life of dignity. Through rallies, street performances, music, literature, panel discussions and interactions with Members of Parliament, government representatives, civil society leaders and academics, three important strands of conversation emerged, as grassroot leaders and activists narrated stories of their everyday lives.
Despite India’s impressive and inspiring constitutional provisions and laws that ban caste discrimination and untouchability, the reality is that ‘equality’, ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’ are still mere words for thousands of Dalits and other members of marginalised communities.
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution seeks to abolish ‘untouchability,’ and its practice in any form is forbidden. The official Report of the Commission of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (1998), however, observed that, “the major causes of atrocities and other offences against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are related to issues of land and property, access to water, wage payments, indebtedness and bonded or forced labour”.
A study across 555 villages in 11 states of India undertaken by ActionAid (2000) confirmed that Dalits were being complicitly denied access to amenities such as public water sources in close to half of the villages studied while entry to health centres was denied in 21 per cent of the selected sample. Differential arrangements for Dalit persons — such as separate seating arrangements and utensils — were practiced in nearly one-third of the villages studied. Activists at the conference spoke about how Dalit and Adivasi children are routinely discriminated against in schools, made to clean toilets or sweep the floors, and denied access to the mid-day meal. An institutionalised system of exclusion has ensured that people from these communities on the whole remain in low-skilled labour, unable to move out of the cycle of poverty.
Sushma Varma, a grassroots worker from Jhansi, a community organiser of the Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, narrated an experience about her work with the Mahila Shiksha Adhikar Yatra, which took place in Bundelkhand. She said: “We have to empower ourselves to continue our struggle. During the Yatra, we went from village to village asking people to send their children to school, despite the hardships that they face. I implore my brothers and sisters present here to ensure that we send our children to school and prepare them for a life of dignity. We will struggle, we will work and continue to fight for our rights, but we must empower ourselves to demand our rights and stand up and question the government when we do not get what we are due.”
Dalit women are thrice alienated on the basis of caste, class and gender. Dalit grassroot women workers and activists at the conference deliberated on the dialogue with the women’s movement and emphasised the need for Dalit women to engage with the mainstream movement and take on leadership roles in all mainstream campaigns to combat the hegemony of non-Dalit women and Dalit men. Rajni Tilak, convenor of the Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, says, “We struggle every day on all fronts. We are Dalits, we are poor, and we are women. All we want is to work with dignity, without fear, to send our children to school where they will learn and not be mocked and humiliated.”
While thousands of Dalits continue to be manual labourers and unskilled workers, a section of marginalised communities has benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs.
Dalits are also now a part of the mainstream economy, as entrepreneurs and as consumers. Milind Kamble, Founder Chairman of DICCI, Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that the Dalit community has made an immense contribution to the economy. Urging that society rethink the way in which it looks at Dalits, he said: “3,000 members of DICCI together are worth Rs. 30,000 crores. We are not dependent only on government largesse. We are entrepreneurs and we pay taxes, we employ people, we have a rightful share in the economy. We have become providers of work, not just seekers of work. We must get the benefits of the government’s policies of privatisation. We must become a part of this mainstream economy, and fight caste with capital”.
While launching the job portal www.fairjobs.com, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, Government of India, stressed that while the Government’s focus was on improving implementation of the various programmes and schemes for the upliftment of Dalits especially through the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan and Tribal Sub Plan, a major focus of the 12th Plan was education and skill development, which would pay dividends in the future for Dalit communities to be a major part of the mainstream economy. He said: “While formal schooling is a must, skill development is crucial for employability. Prosperity will come only when Dalits, whether farmers or businessmen, participate in the mainstream economy by building human skills and entrepreneurship.” Committing the Planning Commission’s support to building entrepreneurship among Dalits and other marginalised communities, he said that there should be no discrimination in access to credit, and venture capital funds especially for Dalits, were crucial for Dalit businesses to expand from small holdings to large enterprises.
In its bid to change the discourse from human rights violations to the larger agenda of social, cultural and economic rights of Dalits, NACDOR has followed a two-pronged path of advocacy and mobilisation.
As an organisational strategy, NACDOR believes in engagement with stakeholders from all walks of life. Witness its shift from burning effigies of corporate leaders at the Ramlila Grounds in 2004, to its recent engagement with the private sector. NACDOR recently signed an agreement with the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to support the affirmative action agenda of the industry by creating the job portal www.fairjobs.com and creating a data bank of the skilled youth belonging to SC/ST community in different areas. The purpose of initiating the job portal is to generate employment opportunities for the youth belonging to SC/ST community.
Ashok Bharti, Chairman of NACDOR, says: “We engage with the government at all levels and have started engaging with the private sector as well as with the community at large. While we continue to fight for the rights of the poorest of the poor by taking their demands to the government, we also believe that the time has come for us to celebrate our successes.”