The new chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), P.J. Punia, has begun his tenure by making a spirited appeal to the Central government to provide job reservation for Dalits in the private sector. He did not agree that reservation in private sector was a “misnomer.” He argued that the “private sector depends on the government, nationalised banks and state-owned financial institutions for its survival and thus cannot insulate itself from reservation.” Besides, he contended during a recent meeting with journalists in Hyderabad that the private sector also had a “social responsibility” to uplift the weaker sections of the people.
The next item on the NCSC chief's agenda is to streamline the implementation of the Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan (earlier known as the “Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes”) in respect of budget allocations and put an end to the diversion of funds allotted to the plan. The Commission has prioritised its tasks: ensuring reservation for Dalits in the private sector and maximising the benefits of sub plans to Dalits.
It is not surprising that in a country in which a substantial section of the people, accounting for one-fifth of the population and segregated for centuries, remain poor, ill-treated, humiliated, and discriminated against, state intervention is the only antidote even after six decades of democratic governance under a republican Constitution. A major concern for the state is how to address the alarmingly rising unemployment among this section of society.
The Constitution provided for reservation in education and government employment for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their share in the population. This provision was made as part of the social strategy of affirmative action (or positive discrimination) to offset extreme historical discrimination and social oppression. If reservation, despite its existence for over 60 years, has failed to improve the lot of Dalits, the fault is to be seen not in the reservation system, but in the tardy way it has been implemented by the state. Disturbingly, there has been no concerted effort to take quality education to this section of the people.
The state's failure in this respect along with a flawed reservation system restricted to the entry point only helped ‘ caste-Hindu' bureaucrats to fill most of the higher posts on the ground that “qualified, eligible and fit” persons were not available among the Dalit claimants. Yet, if the establishment claims that Dalits have been appointed in government service in greater proportion than their share in population, it is because vacancies at the lowest levels are filled with Dalits, because, perhaps, no one else might be willing to offer himself for such jobs. It is surely a scandal that despite developments in technology, and in violation of a Supreme Court order, the central and State governments have failed to bring to an end the practice of manual scavenging and to rehabilitate those engaged in it in decent alternative employment.
While reservation has benefitted Dalits in general, it has not done much to elevate the majority of them to any higher position in society, mostly because of the state's failure on other fronts such as education and public health. And it must be remembered that a considerable number of these people remain outside this safety net. Over 70 per cent of Dalits live in villages and are dependant on agricultural activities.
Government policies have put severe pressure on employment in scores of public sector undertakings. Disinvestment, dismantling of public sector units and steadily falling state investment in employment-generating industries are posing serious challenges to the system developed after Independence. The policy trend of stopping or delaying recruitments has made matters worse. The policies of the governments welcoming foreign corporate bodies, very often on the investors' terms, have also contributed to the diminishing of job opportunities.
Time for another initiative
It is in this context the NCSC Chairman's decision to press for extending reservation for Dalits to the private sector needs to be viewed. A few years ago, when a demand to that effect was raised, there was a positive response from at least some industrialists, but the global economic slowdown put an end to that. Now that the position has improved in many industrial and service sectors, it is time for another initiative by the government. It needs to remind private entrepreneurs, domestic and foreign, that they have a historic responsibility to help the state implement its social commitments. The question raised by the NCSC chairman is relevant: “When the deprived sections are taken care of, even in developed countries like the United States, why can't we have the same provisions here?”
The second item on the agenda of the NCSC is to get the Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan, which provides for each Ministry to allot special funds from its annual budget allocation for the benefit of Dalists, in proportion to their share in the population. The scheme, introduced in the early 1980s, has not been properly implemented for three decades. The Ministries are often charged with diverting funds under this head to other purposes.
The news media, which have recently been giving serious coverage to major Dalit problems and related issues in a complex situation, can make a real difference by bringing a new focus on the issues of reservation and the Sub-Plan. In addition to exposing atrocities against Dalits, the press, television, and radio should investigate systemic oppression, exploitation, and discrimination in greater depth.