A series of papers presented at the national seminar on ‘Dalit households in village economies' painted a grim picture of deprivation among Dalits in rural India. These papers, based on a series of village studies since 2004, pointed to Dalits' relatively poor access to official sources of credit, their lack of command over assets and amenities, and lower levels of employment and income.

Abhijit Sen, member, Planning Commission, pointed out that the value of these village studies — conducted by the Foundation of Agrarian Studies (FAS) and other researchers — was enhanced by the fact that they were not aimed at finding out how Dalits were faring exclusively in socio-economic terms. Instead, the extent and nature of deprivation among Dalits was being demonstrated as a part of a study of agrarian relations in the country, in which caste played an important role.

Vikas Rawal, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, pointed out that ownership of land accounted for an overwhelming proportion of the value of assets among Dalits as well as non-Dalits. There is “a huge disparity” in the levels of landholdings between the two social groups, he observed.

Madhura Swaminathan, Professor-in-charge, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, and Shamsher Singh, a research scholar at the ISI, demonstrated the inequality, in terms of access to basic amenities such as housing, water, sanitation and electricity, faced by Dalits. Based on “pooled data” from surveys of 12 villages in five States, they pointed out that about one-fourth of Dalit households lived in kutcha houses and 30 per cent lived in “single-room structures”.

“There appears to be a strong statistical association between caste and access to the basic amenities,” Prof. Swaminathan observed. Pointing out that public intervention “[did] make an impact,” she said the provision of homestead plots for Dalits was “central” to any programme aimed at improving their quality of life.

Venkatesh Athreya, advisor, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, pointed out that the village surveys filled a serious gap in the data required for studying agrarian relations in India. Another paper, drawing on official data sources, provided an account of how Dalits' access to official credit sources has declined since liberalisation. The seminar, which concluded over the weekend, was organised by the Sociological Research Unit at the ISI. It was supported by the ISI, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Foundation of Agrarian Studies.