What Needs to Be Done for Marginalised and Disadvantaged People?

N C Saxena

The strategy to bring the benefits of growth and prosperity to the most poor and vulnerable segments should go beyond conventional methods. It must be based on sector-specific policies that will ensure that the structure of growth that is generated, and the institutional environment in which it occurs, achieves the objective of inclusiveness in all its many dimensions, argues N C Saxena

It is now well-established that economic growth and prosperity in India has generally bypassed a large number of marginalised and disadvantaged people such as the dalits, adivasis, nomadic tribes, women, Muslims, slum and pavement dwellers, the disabled and old people, and people living in remote areas who have remained voiceless and ignored. The crux of such a hopeless situation for them lies in their inability to access and retain their rightful entitlements to public goods and services due to institutionalised structures and processes of exploitation. 

Excluded groups are disadvantaged in many ways. They are victims of prejudice, are ignored, and are often treated as less than human beings by the village elite and government officials. They live in remote hamlets and are thus geographically separated from the centres of delivery. Their hamlets are scattered so that the cost of contacting them is higher. Finally, it is their extreme poverty that prevents them from taking advantage of government schemes, whether it is free schooling (children are withdrawn because their labour is needed at home or for work), or immunisation (they migrate along with their parents and, therefore, not present in the village when the health worker visits). 

The 12th Five Year Plan, as expected, gives a high priority on paper to inclusive growth and reduction of inequality, but the past trends have not been very encouraging, as inequality seems to be going up, and the much needed policies and programmes for the disadvantaged are still to be put on ground. 
Dalits

Various field studies show that untouchability is still practiced in many forms throughout the country. Dalit women suffer the triple burden of caste, class and gender, and continue to routinely suffer sexual abuse and rape by upper-caste landlords in many parts of the country. Dalit women are also raped as a form of retaliation. No one practices untouchability when it comes to sex. 
In towns and cities, however, there is far greater anonymity and occupational mobility, which enables blurring of caste identities. It has been documented that urban migration by dalits is often impelled not only by economic compulsions, but also by the desire to escape the social degradation of untouchability.

In rural India a majority of them, being poor and assetless, are mainly engaged as agricultural labourers. In addition, they continue to derive livelihood from occupations like scavenging, flaying, tanning, etc. To break the caste-based occupational stereotyping, special efforts need to be made to encourage them to make the best use of the educational concessions and programmes being extended by the government. Also, there is a need to vocationalise the education right at the middle-school level to promote occupational mobility for these groups.

Further, their settlements in many areas continue to be in the outskirts and in seclusion from the mainstream settlement manifesting social segregation. Also, their dwellings are still devoid of basic minimum amenities like safe drinking water, health and sanitation, roads, etc. Therefore, special packages of basic minimum services, viz. safe drinking water; nutrition supplementation; primary healthcare; primary education; and employment-cum-income-generation activities needs to be designed/developed to cater to the dalit clusters/bastis.

Scheduled Tribes

From the viewpoint of policy, it is important to understand that tribal communities are vulnerable not only because they are poor, assetless and illiterate compared to the general population; often their distinct vulnerability arises from their inability to negotiate and cope with the consequences of their forced integration with the mainstream economy, society, cultural and political system, from which they were historically protected as the result of their relative isolation. Post-Independence, the requirements of planned development brought with them the spectre of dams, mines, industries and roads on tribal lands. With these came the concomitant processes of displacement, both literal and metaphorical — as tribal institutions and practices were forced into uneasy existence with or gave way to market or formal state institutions (most significantly, in the legal sphere), tribal peoples’ found themselves at a profound disadvantage with respect to the influx of better-equipped outsiders into tribal areas. The repercussions for the already fragile socioeconomic livelihood base of the tribals were devastating — ranging from loss of livelihoods, land alienation on a vast scale, to hereditary bondage. 

As tribal people in India perilously, sometimes hopelessly, grapple with these tragic consequences, the small clutch of bureaucratic programmes have done little to assist the precipitous pauperisation, exploitation and disintegration of tribal communities. Tribal people respond occasionally with anger and assertion, but often also in anomie and despair, and suffer silently.

We recommend that state governments launch a drive to prevent land alienation and to restore lands lost by the adivasis in the last two decades. Secondly, Constitutional guarantees to them regarding protection of religious and cultural rights must be fully honoured. These are also reflected in the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA) for Schedule V areas, but unfortunately not fully observed in the field. Let us hope that the new Land Acquisition Bill will ensure that their lands are not taken away without their informed consent and full rehabilitation. Lastly, community rights enshrined in the Forest Rights Act are still to be given to them on ground.

It is unfortunate that the Ministry of Tribal Development and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (for dalits) do not give sufficient attention to these issues on the plea that these subjects have not been allotted to them. Even then they should play a more activist role in addressing these issues by pursuing with the concerned ministries, where these subjects get a low importance, as they may be more concerned with ‘bigger’ issues. When a new ministry is set up, it is expected that it would take a holistic view of the problems pertaining to that sector, and coordinate the activities of all other ministries which deal with the subjects which impinge on the work of the newly created ministry. On the other hand, it has been observed that the new ministry takes a minimalist view of its responsibility, and reduces itself to dealing with only such schemes that are totally outside the purview of the existing ministries. Such ostrich-like attitude defeats the purpose for which the ministry is created.

Women

The decline in the juvenile sex ratio over the last decade, visible in the data from Census 2011, is an indication that the Constitutional assurance of freedom and equality for women is still far from being fulfilled. While the literacy rate has gone up, 273 million people in India were still illiterate in 2011, of which two-thirds were women. Despite women’s vital contribution to agriculture and allied sectors in India, they lack control over productive assets (land, livestock, fisheries, technologies, credit, finance, markets, etc.), face biases due to socio-cultural practices, experience gender differentials in agricultural wages and decisions concerning crop management and marketing. 

Even though the legal framework on succession has been amended in favour of women in 2005 with the deletion of the gender discriminatory clause on inheritance of agricultural land, neither the Ministry of Women & Child Development nor the Department of Land Resources have taken any interest in pursuing the implementation of this law. The net result is that daughters still do not inherit agricultural land in actual practice. These two ministries should launch a campaign to correct revenue records and ensure that women’s land ownership rights are properly recognised and recorded by the states. 

Asset redistribution is superior to income redistribution. It provides a basis for overcoming distortions in the functioning of markets and for restructuring gender relations in the fields of property rights, access to technology, healthcare and governance. Asset ownership and control rights are preferable to numerous policy alternatives for women’s empowerment. These are likely to bring in changes in public opinion about gender roles and social cultural norms of deep-seated social inequalities of women such as the household division of labour, restraints on women’s speaking in public, constraints on women’s mobility and pervasive gender-based violence within the home and outside. 

Government schemes unfortunately ignore intra-household inequities. Currently food security schemes fail to address the needs of single women within the existing framework. Ration cards are usually in the name of the man, and in the case of separation the wife does not have access to a card. The new Food Security Bill should mandate the provision of ration card only in the name of women, who should be declared as head of the household.

Muslims

The Sachar Committee of 2006 demonstrated that on most socioeconomic indicators, the average condition of Muslims in India was comparable to, or even worse than, the country’s acknowledged historically most disadvantaged communities, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Whether this is due to cumulative and comprehensive official discrimination and neglect, or due to general educational backwardness prevailing among Muslim community arising out of their religious orthodoxy and cultural ethos can be debated. The third set of explanation refers to Muslim perception of contemporary social situation in which they find themselves politically powerless, demoralised and insecure. This psychology of despair and insularity does not promote investment in higher education. In a competitive situation only confident and assertive communities can do well. 

Indian Constitution prevents the government from recognising Muslims as a category for affirmative action, but greater efforts need to be made to ensure granting of scholarships and opening of schools in minority-dominated districts. 

It may be noted that the poorer states, namely, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, account for 56 per cent of the Scheduled Caste and 55 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe population of the entire country. Further, 58 per cent of the Muslim population is concentrated in these states. There is a two-way relationship here: poorer states are so because there are large proportions of the excluded social groups (who are generally poorer) living there; conversely, in the poorer states the different development programmes do not reach the targeted population — especially the economically and socially deprived sections.

Some General Issues

Inclusiveness is not just about bringing those below an official fixed poverty line to a level above it. It is also about a growth process which is seen to be ‘fair’ by different socioeconomic groups that constitute our society. We, therefore, recommend an effort at least once every two years to not just estimate these groups, but to conduct a full listing. It is remarkable that although persons deemed to be ‘below poverty line’ in rural areas have been surveyed and listed, no such survey has been undertaken for urban areas since Independence, although around a third of the country’s poor live in cities. 
The government should, therefore, identify and list the most poor and vulnerable segments of urban populations by identifying them along objective and verifiable criteria of vulnerability and denial of rights. These are: a) place of residence and access to public services: (shelterless, unauthorised slum-dwellers, authorised slum-dwellers and residents of resettlement colonies); b) social vulnerability: children without protection and child-headed households, single women and single women-headed households, disabled people, old people without care-givers, people in destitution; c) vulnerable occupational categories: such as rag-pickers, casual daily wage workers, rickshaw pullers, porters, construction workers, street vendors, domestic helpers, etc; and d) affirmative action categories: Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes, OBCs. 

The government should ensure within one year pensions for all aged people above the age of 65 years who in rural areas are landless, artisans, and small or marginal farmers, and all SC and ST aged persons; and in urban areas all aged persons who are residents of slums or homeless, and all unorganised workers. 

Many government programmes are plagued by corruption, leakages, errors in selection, delays, poor allocations and little accountability. They also tend to discriminate against and exclude those who most need them, by social barriers of gender, age, caste, ethnicity, faith and disability; and State hostility to urban poor migrants, street and slum residents, and unorganised workers. 

Overcoming corruption, theft, leakages, inefficiencies, and constraints of costs, are imperative, but still not sufficient, in a highly unequal society like ours, to overcome the barriers that powerless and expelled dispossessed people face to access food and livelihoods with dignity. The strategy for inclusive growth should not be just a conventional strategy for growth to which some elements aimed at inclusion have been added. On the contrary, it should be a strategy which aims at achieving a particular type of growth process which will meet the objectives of inclusiveness and sustainability. This strategy must be based on sound macroeconomic policies which establish the macroeconomic preconditions for rapid growth and support key drivers of this growth. It must also include sector-specific policies which will ensure that the structure of growth that is generated, and the institutional environment in which it occurs, achieves the objective of inclusiveness in all its many dimensions.

N C Saxena is Distinguished Fellow, SKOCH Foundation

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at info@skoch.in)

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