Hindi belt Metroplus

Reality that stinks

A woman doing manual scavenging Photo Rajeev Bhatt.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt;Rajeev Bhatt -

The suicide of Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula, termed “institutionalised murder” by many a commentator, has focused the nation’s attention on the status of the Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of our society as we approach the 70th anniversary of the country’s Independence next year.

Despite the “Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan” (“Clean India Campaign”) launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not much has changed on the ground and there are an estimated 1.3 million manual scavengers in the country. Manual scavenging is a euphemism for removing faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand and carrying them to the place of disposal. For centuries, this task has been forcibly thrust upon the members of the untouchable communities – a recent report informs us that of the 1.3 million manual scavengers, nearly 90 per cent are women. Thus, besides being an issue of caste-based discrimination, manual scavenging also involves gender-based discrimination.

Despite this shameful reality, it is also a fact that many Dalits like Rohith Vemula have tried to improve their lot by getting education and gainful employment. However, whenever we discuss the condition of the two most disadvantaged communities – Dalits and tribals – we seldom look at their role in the country’s economy in general and corporate world in particular. The same holds true for the other disadvantaged community – that of the Muslims who constitute the largest minority group in the Indian society.

Three Essays Collective, a one-man publishing house started by well-known Hindi poet Asad Zaidi to make a meaningful intervention, has brought out an excellent book titled “Dalits and Adivasis in India’s Business Economy: Three Essays and an Atlas”. It has been written by Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the Oxford University, in collaboration with Elisabetta Basile, Anita Dixit, Pinaki Joddar, Aseem Prakash and Kaushal Vdyarthee.

Ten years ago, Three Essays Collective had also published a pioneering study “Muslims in Indian Economy” written by Omar Khalidi. Reading both these books together, one gets an idea of how dismal the situation really is and, in the absence of corrective measures, how this can lead to fault lines one day erupting with serious consequences for the nation and its polity.

It is a well known fact that more and more of those Indians who remain poor happen to be Dalits and tribals, and are engaged as labourers in agriculture, livestock and meat production, sanitary work, brick-kilns and construction sites. However, what is not widely known is that a “small but significant number now own and manage firms in India’s business economy.” The essay “Dalit Capital in New India”, written by Aseem Prakash and Barbara Harriss-White, draws its material from interviews with Dalit businessmen and a few women in north and central India, commonly known as the Hindi belt. Their experience of doing business in a caste-conscious social environment makes it clear that they have to face the combined might of the market, State and civil society.

Thus, the belief that market forces operate solely on the basis of economic logic and eventually break down caste-based social structure is not borne out by the prevalent business practices and attitudes. An excerpt from an interview conducted by Aseem Prakash with a Dhobi laundry owner in Lucknow is quite revealing: “…As soon the officer (person dealing with my loan request) learnt that I reside in Dobhi Katra, his behaviour changed. He explained to me that I would be unsuccessful in managing modern laundry and will lose all my money in the market. He further told me to continue with my washing activities at the river bank as well as ironing clothes.” The well-researched essay informs us that two-thirds of the Dalit firms had experienced rejection by formal banks and financial agencies. So, social exclusion entails financial and economic exclusion too. While members of the upper castes can rely on their age-old social networks while dealing with the various entities of the State, the Dalits are deprived of this advantage.

The writers of this eye-opening book conclude that despite reservation in education and government jobs, policies of “supplier diversity”, existence of dedicated chambers of commerce and even a few Dalit billionaires (in rupee terms), most Dalits and Adivasis are “as far from being full citizens as they were when Ambedkar pointed it out six decades ago. It means that they have been untouched by “inclusive growth”.

The story of the Muslims is not much different. Writing about their situation in Uttar Pradesh, Omar Khalidi informs that they were educationally poorer at the dawn of the 21st Century as compared to 1947. This applies to the country as a whole and “some Muslim artisans and workers have become owners of small to medium businesses, while the industrialists among Muslims remain confined to the historically rich Bohras, Khojas, and Memons, barring a few exceptions.”

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 7:15:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/reality-that-stinks/article8314440.ece

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