Action, not just offering flowers, will be the real tribute
As the nation pays tribute to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on his 122 birth anniversary (April 14), one would realise that much more remains to be done to achieve his aim of social equality for the suppressed classes. A principal architect in drafting the Constitution, he made significant efforts at giving political rights and social freedom to Dalits. However, till date, members of Schedule Castes continue to face caste biases.
Dr. Ambedkar had a first-hand experience of untouchability in school, where he was segregated from caste Hindus. He was allowed to drink water from vessel only if it was poured from a height by the peon. In his biography, he spoke of school days when he would not drink water as very often the peon intentionally became unavailable.
Even today, there are instances where Dalit children are made to sit separately for the mid-day meal. Also, in some places students belonging to caste Hindus refuse to eat the food cooked by the ‘lower caste’ people. In a few districts of Madhya Pradesh, Dalit children are reportedly served food from a distance. Such caste biases in school will not only deprive these children of education but also fill their minds with pessimism about society at a tender age. Dr. Ambedkar throughout his life advised Dalits to get educated before agitating for their rights.
Data from the House listing & Housing Census 2011 highlight the continued injustice done to Dalits through the demeaning practice of manual scavenging. These workers collect human excreta with their brooms and tinplate and carry it for disposal. This work division continues based upon the traditional Hindu social order, which assigns to the Dalits the dirty, mean jobs. Dr. Ambedkar said that “in India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.”
A depressing fact as revealed in the 2011 census data on households is that an estimated 8 lakh people are traditionally engaged in manual removal of night soil — a great embarrassment to the State governments that are still in denial mode. Dr. Ambedkar’s efforts to root out such caste biases were perceived to be advanced by Mayawati, who eventually became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. However, the census data show that Uttar Pradesh continues to have the dubious distinction of leading the list with approximately 3.2 lakh people still involved in manually removing human waste.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993 has provision for punishment, including fine, for employing scavengers or constructing dry toilets. However, manual scavengers are continued to be employed to this day by municipalities, the Railways and defence establishments. The UPA government, on the advice of the National Advisory Council, has recognised manual scavenging as a social problem rather than as a sanitation issue and is looking for ways to stop the abhorrent practice.
Dr. Ambedkar is considered the messiah for his efforts to bring equal opportunity and social justice to the marginalised communities. A real tribute to the great leader would be to continue with his efforts of empowering the Scheduled Castes and helping them overcome the vicious cycle of caste and cultural barrier, rather than merely offering flowers to his statue on his birth and death anniversaries.
(The writer is a social healthcare analyst. His email: email@example.com)