Marginalized Groups and the Common Minimum Program Sukhadeo Thorat

In recognition of the unique problems of the Dalits, Adiwasis and other religious minorities like the Muslims, the Indian government has developed policies for their economic, social and political empowerment. Dalits and Adiwasis are the two largest groups, constituting about 250 million in 2001 (about 167 million and 86 million respectively). Additionally, Muslims account for about 12% the population. The deprivation of such a vast mass of population is closely associated with the process of exclusion and discrimination based on group identity. The government has used a two-fold strategy for the empowerment of the SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe) communities, which includes (a) Anti-discrimination legal and protective measures, and (b) Developmental or empowering measures. Anti-discrimination measures include the enactment of the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955, and the Schedule Caste/Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act,1989. Reservations in government services and political bodies also fall under the purview of protective measures. The reservation policy is confined to the public sector; and the private sector wherein more than 90% of the SC/ST workers are engaged remains unprotected. The focus of the government’s ‘general programmes’ therefore has been on the educational, social and economic empowerment of the SC/STs and on improving the private ownership of fixed capital assets (land and non-land), human resources, and on improving access to basic services like housing, health, drinking water, electricity etc.

The goal of the government’s interventionist policy has thus been focusing on the improvement of levels of human indicators of the SC/ST and on bringing them at par with other non-scheduled groups. The pertinent question therefore is where do the marginalized groups stand today? Though there has been some improvement in certain spheres and despite some positive changes, the standard of living for the marginalized communities has not improved. In 2000, close to 40% of the SC and 48% of ST were poor as compared with 20% among others in rural areas. About 36% of SC/ST remained poor in urban areas as against 20% for others. The poverty level of wage labour among the SC/ST was also particularly high, varying between 46% and 60% in the rural and urban areas respectively. In urban areas, the ratio of poor among casual labourers was also high, 58% for SC, 64% for ST and 45% for non-scheduled population. Among the Muslims, the percentage of poor was about 30% compared to 21% for other religions groups. Similarly, the incidence of poverty in urban areas was higher among the Muslims (36.66% compared to 23% all India average).

What (Minimum) Needs to be Done?

The reasons for the high incidences of poverty and deprivation among the marginalized social groups are to be found in their continuing lack of access to income-earning capital assets, (agricultural land and non-land assets), heavy dependence on wage employment, high unemployment, low education and other factors.

Therefore, there is a need to focus on policies to improve the ownership of income-earning capital assets (agriculture land, and non-land assets), employment, human resource & health situation, and prevention of discrimination to ensure fair participation of the marginalized community in the private and the pubic sectors.

Active Role of the State in Planning
It is necessary to recognize that for the vast majority of the discriminated groups, State intervention is crucial and necessary. Similarly, the use of economic and social planning as an instrument of planned development is equally necessary. Economic discrimination, in general and market discrimination in particular, is a serious market failure. Thus, planned State intervention to ensure fair access and participation in social and economic development in the country is necessary.

Improved Access to Agricultural Land
The problem of landlessness is more serious among the SC as compared to the ST and the Muslims, as 70% of the SC rural households are landless and near landless (owning less than 1 acre). Government record on land redistribution has been quite disappointing. So far, only 2% of the total cultivable land has been distributed under the ceiling to landless and the share goes up marginally to 10% if we include government land. Only 18 lakh acres of land have been distributed so far to 18.5 lakh SC beneficiaries with 0.977 acre per beneficiary. Therefore, it is a cause for concern that a large section of SC households remain without viable land even today.

Therefore, the CMP should include serious land reform measures to distribute minimum land to landless households. For this purpose, the Government should clear the cultivable wasteland and other lands, including land under ceiling and develop these large tracts of land through employment programs and thus, create a ‘Common pool of State land’ free from litigation by private parties and redistribute it to the Scheduled Castes and others. As the present system failed to give possession of even legally distributed land to the SCs and STs due to their extremely powerless position in village societies, a special organization at the Centre and in the States should be set up for the purpose of acquiring, developing and distribution of government land and land under ceiling.

For example, there are large tracts of customary lands whose rights were given to SCs, but which were encroached by the high caste landlords. These lands include Mahar Vatan land in Maharashtra, Panchami land in Tamilnadu, and Depressed Caste land in A.P. The government through the new organization should release these lands from the encroachers and hand them to their legitimate owners.

Improved Access to Capital
The poverty level among the SC and ST cultivators is 30% and 40% respectively, which is much higher compared with non-scheduled cultivators (18%). Similarly, the poverty incidences of those in business is very high 33% for SC and 41% for ST compared with only 21% among non-scheduled businesses. The viability and productivity of self-employed households need to be improved by providing adequate capital, information, technology and access to markets. It is a pity that though the STs do own some land, they lack the relevant technological inputs to improve the productivity of their agriculture. The capital at the disposable of SC/ST Finance Corporation at the Centre and in the States, therefore, needs to be increased so as to meet the capital requirements of these groups. Under the impact of liberalization regime, even the priority lending of 10% by commercial banks to the weaker sections has been reduced to 6%. This trend too needs to be reversed.

Improved Employment in Public and Private Sectors

Public Employment
In 2000, about 61% of rural and urban SC households and about half of ST households were wage labourers, and poverty levels among them were about 46% for SC and 61% for ST households respectively. The poverty levels among casual labourers’ households were as high as 58% and 64% in urban areas for SC and ST respectively. The unemployment rates were also high among these two groups as compared with non-scheduled groups. There is a need to review and strengthen employment guarantee schemes both in rural and urban areas, particularly in drought-prone and poverty-ridden areas. Rural infrastructure and other productive capital assets can be generated through large-scale employment programmes. This will serve the duel purpose of reducing poverty and ensuring economic growth through improvement in the stock of capital assets and infrastructure.

Private Sector Employment
Due to privatization, the subsequent withdrawal of the State and the decline in government and public employment, the employment of SC/ST under reservation has declined quite significantly. Therefore, reservation should continue in the undertakings that have been privatized during the 1990s under the policy of privatization.

Reservation in the Private Sector
The CMP has promised to undertake necessary steps to incorporate reservation in the private sector. Given the prevalence of significant discrimination in employment in the private sector, the formulation of a reservation policy is necessary to ensure fair access to the discriminated groups. For this purpose, a Committee at the Central Government level should be set up to formulate the policy of reservation in the private sector.

Firstly, the government should enact the ‘Equal Opportunity Act’ of which ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Act’ should be a part, so that legal provisions are in place.

Secondly, legislation should be passed by the Central government for reservation both for private and public sector, to ensure fair access to the discriminated groups like SC and ST in private employment.

Thirdly, the ‘Equal Opportunity Act’ and reservation measures should be applicable not only to employment in private sector but be extended to other areas or markets like private capital market, product and consumer market etc.

Fourthly, ‘Equal Opportunity Act and Reservation should be applicable to private education. ’Equal Opportunity Act’ is also necessary for private housing sector to prevent discrimination in the housing markets.

Fifthly, reservation should be applicable in government contracts given to private contractors for construction and a number of other dealings and also in purchase of goods by the State. Certain quotas should be fixed for SC/ST contractors as they face discrimination in the sale of some consumer goods due to notions of purity and pollution.

Lastly, an ‘Affirmative Action Policy’ of some sort should be envisaged for multinational companies in the framework of UN provisions. Some countries have taken initiative in this respect under the provisions of the Global Compact and other UN Equal Employment Opportunity provisions.

Education and Human Resource Development
Firstly, lower literacy/level of education and the continual discrimination of SC/STs in educational institutions pose a major problem. The government should take a second look at the Education Policy and develop major programmes for strengthening the public education system in villages and cities on a much larger scale than today. There is a necessity to reallocate government resources for education and vocational training. For millions of poor students located in rural areas, the loan schemes do not work. We should develop an affordable, uniform and better quality public educational system up to the university level. Public education system is our strength and needs to be further strengthened. Promotion of such private education systems that creates inequality and hierarchy should be discouraged. In this regard, we may draw some lessons from Sweden, where only 3% of educational institutions are privately managed, but their syllabus, tuition structure and infrastructure facilities are similar to that of public education institutions. The gradation and hierarchy that we are introducing in the private sector at rapid rate should be discouraged and public education system should be strengthened in terms of infrastructure, quality of teacher and other facilities.

Vocational training should be made part of the normal education system. In this respect, the system of vocational education developed by Germany could be tried in India.

Secondly, there is hardly any financial support to SC/ST students at higher levels of education and research. The University Grants Commission should institute a special fellowship scheme for these groups. The UGC had earlier introduced a special fellowship for SC/ST Ph.D. students from which many students had benefited. This scheme too should be reviewed.

Public Health System

The public health system in rural areas has also been by and large neglected. Therefore, the primary health system for rural areas and public health system in urban areas must be revived and more funds should be allocated for the same

Food Security Programs

The public distribution system should also be revived and strengthened. In distributing Fair Price Shops in villages, priority should be given to the SC/ST female and male groups, as a number of studies have pointed out that they are discriminated upon in the Public Distribution System and in Mid-day Meal schemes.

Untouchability and Discrimination
The practice of untouchability and the large number of atrocities inflicted on Dalits continue even today mainly because of hidden prejudices and neglect on the part of officials responsible for the implementation of Special Legislations; i.e. the Protection of Civil Rights Act (PCRA) and the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA). The Government should make a meaningful intervention in this regard so as to mitigate the sufferings of Dalits due to practice of untouchability and atrocities inflicted upon them and should also treat this matter on a priority basis to ensure that the officials and the civil society at large are sensitized on this issue.

The government should also establish a special department to continue the social reform process and to educate the masses on the evils of untouchability and caste discrimination on the pattern of Tamil Nadu government. The law by itself often does not help to remove the practice of untouchability, unless there is change in the attitude and behaviour of high castes. So there is a need to have a program of social and moral education of high caste individuals in the society.

(Sukhadeo Thorat is Professor of Economics, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi & Director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Delhi.)