With one eye on the looming election in 2014, the ruling Congress Party has been put its effort to woo the Dalits (former untouchables) on overdrive. From dedicating anthems to their leaders to launching new welfare measures to nudging India Inc. to train and employ Dalit youth, the government is showering unexpected munificence on this disempowered demographic.
The Sanskrit word “Dalit” means "ground," "suppressed," "crushed," or "broken to pieces." These people, earlier ostracized by society and even banned from entering temples, are now known as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Mahatma Gandhi called them “Harijan: or "Children of God."
Earlier this month, in an effort to reach out to the Dalit community, the Congress’s P. L. Punia, Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, released a “Dalit anthem” in New Delhi. Titled “Jai Jai Bhim”, the paean is dedicated to Dalit icon Dr B. R. Ambedkar and chronicles his life from his birth in 1891 to his untiring efforts to uplift the Dalits socially.
The government is also nudging private companies to train and employ Dalit youth in 27 districts across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Collectively, these states host over 47 percent of India’s SC/ST population.
The party’s initiative aims to achieve a decisive victory by attracting the Dalits while undercutting its arch rivals — the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party in northern Uttar Pradesh – from doing likewise. The 2014 general elections are just 18 months away and Dalits form a sizeable chunk of the entire electorate, about 20 percent, while comprising 30 percent in certain states like Punjab. The party is clearly eyeing this vote bank.
While untouchability has been abolished under the Indian Constitution, discrimination and prejudice against Dalits across South Asia — spread as these people are over swathes of Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan– remains well-entrenched. Since its Independence from British rule in 1947, India has followed a policy of positive discrimination for Dalits to provide them with jobs and education opportunities. However, these concessions are limited to only those Dalits who are “Hindus.”
Interestingly, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s previous attempts to place SC/ ST youths in the corporate sector all came to naught. This is mainly due to the industry’s differing viewpoint on corporate quotas for this segment. Companies feel that equipping such youths with job skills is the state’s duty and therefore argue that Congress is merely shirking from its own responsibilities when it insists that the business world be a part of the industry’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. The move is also contentious because it hampers industrial efficiency by promoting quotas over meritocracy.
Besides, analysts point out that since 1950, India already put in place a number of laws and social initiatives to benefit the Dalits. Indeed, of the highest paid most sought after jobs in the government sector, those classified as Class 1 jobs, over 10 percent are held by the Dalits.
Meanwhile, the government’s poor track record on social welfare initiatives could be cause for concern. For instance, the much-vaunted Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a job guarantee scheme which legally guarantees one hundred days of employment to adult members of rural households at a statutory minimum wage of US$2.27 per day, is fraught with uncertainty.
The U.S. $7.56 billion scheme was targeted at augmenting the purchasing power of the rural people. But MGNREGA currently finds itself bedeviled by a number of controversies over the cost, corruption, sub-par results, and unintended consequences for India’s poorest citizens.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and columnist.