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Dalits in India 2000

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Shyama Venkateswar Good afternoon. My name is Shyama Venkateswar. I am a Senior Program Officer at the Asia Society. I am pleased to welcome to the Asia Society, Mr. Sainath, both a journalist and an author and currently an Eisenhower fellow travelling across the United States. He has also previously been a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Iowa, Times of India fellow and a deputy editor at The Blitz in Bombay. He is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest District, which is now in its eighth printing.

Sainath’s work is on the Dalit question in India. As many of you know Dalit literally means oppressed, downtrodden and it is a category that is used to describe 16 percent of India’s population or almost 160 million people. Mr Sainath was given an award from Amnesty International for his article on "A Dalit goes to Court."

The Dalit issue today is one of the worst examples of discrimination against, and the oppressive living conditions of, millions of people in India. This discrimination persists despite government efforts to improve the situation through affirmative action policies and land reform policies in the last 50 years which were ostensibly directed toward access to education and government jobs and geared towards improving the condition of bonded laborers. Of course, we cannot discount the fact that some upward mobility has occurred for Dalits, but the mobility has clear regional differences in terms of land ownership, political power and social status.

It is precisely this kind of uneven mobility and the low status of this group that calls into question the effectiveness of government policies and also focuses on the inherent prejudices and racism, if you will, within the caste system in India. Finally, and I hope Mr. Sainath will touch on this, a critical element in discussing the status of Dalits in India is the question of women within the Dalit community who face the dual brunt of discrimination - based on their caste and their gender. With this introduction, I now turn to Mr. Sainath. Welcome.

P. Sainath Before I begin, I would just like to say a couple of words about the project I am involved in right now, which was backed by the Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship and The Hindu newspaper, which has been running a series of reports on the condition of Dalits throughout the country. So far I have covered 10 states and if after the talk you wish to have a glance at the kind of stuff that has appeared so far, these are 40 reports The Hindu has thus far carried on very different issues. I intend to cover all the states and a couple of union territories as well so the evidence is national. I am not an academic, I was trained to be a historian but went into journalism 20 years ago and remained there. My method of doing this is very simple, it is similar to what I followed when I wrote the book Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

The book that Shyama was mentioning, which is in its eighth printing is actually a collection of field reports from the forest districts of India. In one sense, the method of working on these has been absolutely the same. I go to the villages and stay with the community. I stay in the village for the time I need to write the story and I try looking at things from their perspective. That is what the reporting part is about. Let me try to give you an idea of the scope of the problem involved. The 16.48 per cent of the population that we are taking about - and I suspect that in a few months you will see it is around 17-17.5 per cent in the next census because the poor tend to have larger families and higher growth rates. So I think you are going to see 175 million people from the scheduled caste at the very minimum.

What does it means in terms of size? There are more Dalits in India than there are people in Pakistan. There are more Dalits in India than there are people in Brazil, marginally more. If taken as a national population they would be the fifth largest in the world after China, India, the United States and Indonesia. You are really taking about a very large section of humanity. They comprise about 16.48 per cent of India’s population and their contribution in terms of labor and their contribution to culture is enormous and significantly larger than their share in the population. What is disproportionately lower relative to their size in the population is their ownership of land and property and their access to education and to employment of a serious, meaningful and gainful nature.

In the last three years I have spent about 800 days in Dalit settlements across the country. Eighty-four per cent of these settlements will be rural and 16 per cent of them will be urban- based because I have tried to be consistent with the demographic divide that the census shows. The stories I am doing will reflect that demographic balance.

The issue I thought I would throw up here today is an issue I became conscious of while I was working on poverty. It was then that I realized I was weak on the question of caste and decided not to focus on that too much. It was far too complex and it also pertained to an area that is a gaping hole, a big silence in Indian public discourse, and I will show you that in figures.

I did a survey of a quarter of a million centimetres of news on Dalits in the Indian press. A quarter of a million taken at random from The Center for Education and Documentation in Bombay so whatever they had on their files on Dalits we scanned back. There was a lot of reporting on major atrocities; if over 25 people get killed you cover it because of the number, that is the way the page positioning is decided. If it is over 25, you make front pages. In the incredible amount of material on Dalits, the quarter of a million centimetres on Dalits, one word was conspicuous in its absence: untouchability. In this quarter of a million words on Dalits the word ‘untouchability’ appeared nine times, four times in a single article by Ramachandra Guha. Of the remaining five times, it appeared three times because of a misunderstanding on the part of the journalist that the Prevention of Atrocities Act is sometimes referred to by police officers as the Untouchability Act.

There is no such thing called the Untouchability Act. So out of nine references, four came out of an article by a single author, three were actually referring to a particular act and getting the name wrong, and two references appeared in the words of a Dalit saying that they are suffering untouchability (the same person in this article was quoted twice). This is rather alarming compared to the prevalence of the practice of untouchability which is regrettably widespread even fifty years after the constitution abolished it.

Consider that a quarter of a million words can produce nine mentions of the subject (and only four times in any seriousness), and it shows us that there’s a gaping hole, a silent area, an area we don’t want to get into. Since 1993 I have spent an average of 240 days in rural India and have become increasingly conscious of the various forms of exclusion. I will go over some of the forms of exclusion and then immediately stop because Shyama suggested that we do this as an exchange.

I think it is untouchability more than anything else that is responsible for the denial of human rights to this group of people. In fact untouchability is central to caste. I do not see untouchability as a social evil and to call it a social evil is to trivialize it enormously. It is and has been for a very long time an extremely sophisticated economic and political strategy for ensuring a perpetual pool of demoralized, cheap labor that has no sense of its bargaining power.

This forced labor or free labor is not accounted for in the gross domestic product of the Indian economy. No one has ever done a calculation and I will come to that in terms of women’s work. Shyama was mentioning that the burden of Dalit women is a dual burden; I would say it is a triple burden because the bulk of Dalits are also landless.

When I am taking about Dalits I am taking about people who are very largely poor. Who are the Indian poor? Forty per cent of the Indian poor are landless agricultural laborers, 45 per cent are small and marginal farmers, 60 per cent of them own less than one hectare and of the remaining 15 per cent, 7.5 percent are rural weavers and other kinds of artisans. What does that show you? It shows you that 85 per cent of the poor people’s problem is directly linked to land. That is the issue we will come back to because central to the Dalit question again is land, or rather the lack of land.

Now the Dalits form the single largest group of agricultural laborers in the country: the landless agricultural laborers. This happens to be the poorest and the most vulnerable section of Indian society. This is the group of society that has taken the worst beating in the last 10-11 years of economic change. Within this group, the largest share of agricultural labor is Dalit, of which the majority are Dalit women. India’s food is produced primarily by Dalit women. They are the lowest paid section of agrarian society. Therefore, it is a triple burden: a burden of class, caste and gender.