Short-circuiting discrimination or perpetuating them?

Nutrition programmes for Dalits need institutions to deliver and a vigilant citizenry to monitor implementation

By Biraj Swain
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Nutrition programmes for Dalits need these programmes require institutions to deliver and a vigilant citizenry to monitor implementation

It is no wonder that after six decades of constitution and affirmative action many Dalit scholars and thinker-practitioners (including Dr RP Mamgain) have the exasperated question. “Is the point of public funded food and nutrition programmes short-circuiting discrimination or perpetuating them?”

Dalit under-nutrition cannot be delinked from the story of caste-based discrimination and marginalisation. It cannot also be delinked from the political resurgence of Dalits.

Wronging rights, in food and beyond, seems to have become the meta-narrative in a country which is increasingly being subjected to a toxic cocktail of progressive legislations, regressive implementation and reluctant regulation. We know that rights won through people’s movements, transformative social reforms processes and progressive legislations are easily lost if not backed by programmes and resources. These programmes require institutions to deliver and a vigilant citizenry to monitor implementation. However, unfortunately, affirmative programmes for Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and other excluded groups, are victims of apathy.

Differences in consumption levels between social groups may not be a big element in the story of total consumption inequality in the country. But in some states, group differences are important and growing. At the state level the picture is less reassuring. In some states, notably rural Bihar, scheduled caste households appear as a group, to be falling behind the rest of the population. Analysis shows that it is the more advantaged segments that are pulling ahead from the traditionally disadvantaged groups (scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Muslims taken together) .

Occupational segregation and wage differentials between Dalits and other groups are still evident. Nearly 30 per cent of Dalits are engaged in low-skill casual jobs, compared to 8 percent in the general category (non-SC/ST/OBC [other backward caste]) individuals. They are also less likely than other groups to have their own business enterprises, particularly in urban areas. Concentration of Dalits in casual work or in lower-paid occupations relative to other groups is in part related to differences in education levels, but the differences persist even after controlling for education and other characteristics.

India is not alone in having social groups that have been traditionally excluded; yet, the structure of the caste system and its ramifications on employment, education, and the rules of social and economic exchange are distinctive and shared only with Nepal. Both caste and gender inequalities are rooted in a philosophical tradition that justifies these through religious texts that provide systematic rules for exclusion. This is what makes these inequalities particularly durable. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen calls these the “relational roots of deprivation,” whereby membership in a particular group (women, lower castes, indigenous people, or persons with disabilities) limits the “functionings” of individuals to acquire or use their capabilities.

While upward mobility amongst Dalits is much celebrated, their base of human development during independence was so low that there could have been only one direction of movement, upwards. But the gains made recently could be eroded, unless structural reasons are addressed. It is important to note that Dalits still don’t have land ownership and are even devoid of asset ownership. Their migration has been primarily push factor than pull. They have ended up heavily in unorganized sector because of the lack of the skills which are needed for tertiary sector. Rural transformation of agriculture to nonfarm sector affected the nutritional status of those who were heavily dependent on that. Dalits were engaged in agricultural labour in that sector earlier and were reaping the diversity in available food basket, whereas after migration, food inflation has also hit them hard!

Some stand-out illustrations of regressive implementation and reluctant regulation are:

1.The Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities’ Act, 1989: Considering Dalits have been subjected to discrimination, profiling and denial of public services and opportunities, the Indian parliament, enacted this, in consonance with the Indian Constitution, to ensure they were not denied essential public services like healthcare, nutrition, education et al.

“As per the 2005 Report (Crime in India) of National Crime Records Bureau, every 20 minutes a crime against Dalits is reported in the Police Station across the country”

The Act is popularly known as POA, the SC/ST Act, the Prevention of Atrocities Act, or simply the Atrocities Act. Article 17 of Indian Constitution seeks to abolish 'untouchability' and its practice in any form is forbidden. It is basically a "statement of principle" that needs to be made operational with the ostensible objective to remove humiliation and multifaceted harassments meted out to the Dalits and to ensure their fundamental and socio-economic, political, and cultural rights.

The statement of objects and reasons of the Act, reads:

“to prevent the commission of offences of atrocities against the members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, to provide for Special Courts for the trial of such offences and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offenses and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

Thus objectives of the Act clearly emphasize the intention of the Government to deliver justice to these communities through proactive efforts to enable them to live in society with dignity and self-esteem and without fear or violence or suppression from the dominant castes. The practice of untouchability, in its overt and covert form was made a cognizable and non compoundable offence, and strict punishment is provided for any such offence. There is a provision to set up Special Courts for trying cases registered on the grounds of untouchability and atrocities under inflicted on Dalits and Adivasis under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. So far as per the claims made by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. 139 Special Courts have been set up in 9 States and whereas in other States existing Session Courts have been designated as Special Courts. However, on the ground no Special Court has been set up anywhere in any of the States in India. It is only the existing Session Courts at district levels have been designated as Special Courts.

2.The Tribal Sub Plan and the Special Component Plan (Special Component Plan for the Scheduled Castes), have largely reduced to mere arithmetic and statistical exercise. In many states, instead of resulting in additional resources as top-up, it is switching the state allocation with the central allocation and hence keeping the size of the resource pot, almost unchanged. Its decadal implementation and unwritten de-prioritisation has resulted in eroding the over-arching constitutional goals of economic liberation, educational parity, equality, security and dignity and in case of the the tribals, preservation of tribal culture, identity, autonomy, land access and ownership and access to common resources and natural resources. Decentralising planning while imposing a common template and not investing in building planning capacity or adequate human resource, also leads to undermining the goal of TSP and SCP. And last but not the least, the perverse practise of many departments and state governments, claiming allocations, just as pro-rated to the tribal population, without tracking the purpose, usage or outreach of the same perpetuates the statistical jugglery and makes a hash of a very progressive handle.

3.Identity based discrimination: Increasingly the persistent and perpetuating nature of discrimination at the point of delivery is putting pressure on planners and designers for formulating targeted programmes. But pro-poor targeted programmes have resulted in further ghettoisation and eroding the country of an empathetic, inclusive and fraternal India. Coupled with trust deficit of the communities on the state or any representative of the state like the police and block officials, means state engagement, even for demand generation and building public pressure is vanishing. This has a collateral damage of shrinking democratic spaces too. The fault-lines deepen making development, health and nutrition outcomes an impossibility. Hunger has become the new normal. This needs a new narrative, a vision of development which has Dalit affirmation at the heart, not their discrimination.

Lack of awareness is the biggest access barrier, their lack of awareness of entitlements allows the system to continue to respond with patronage instead of responding to demands of entitlements. The positive pressure of demand never reaches a critical mass to change the nature of response. Necessary investments in communitisation of programmes, where community is not just a partner in delivery, but also an auditor and vigilant monitor, is wanting .

Dalit women, being one of the most productively engaged work force, have negligible access to public funded day-care facility, which has always featured as one of their core demands in participatory appraisals . Persistent discrimination at public service spaces hits at the heart of Dalit self-affirmation. Hence trickling schemes and programmes while dispossessing them at a mass scale, will lead to massive failure.

Behaviour change sans service provision is a chimera. Many Dalit and Tribal activists and practitioners re-iterated that behaviour change in the face of glaring absence of public services (health, nutrition, water sanitation) makes for unsustainable change, confusion and relapse. The consensus is that a strengthened and ready system, with resources and necessities is the best bet for ensuring sustainable behaviour change. Hence putting Dalit/Tribal behaviour under scrutiny without matching it with adequate services is a non-starter. De-coupling any behavioural message from local service levels is betting on the wrong strategy.

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