by Ashika Thomas
Discrimination on the basis of caste was abolished through article 17 of the Indian Constitution in 1950, but as seen through several accounts of caste violence today, India has not left the caste system in its past. After almost 74 years of socio-economic progress, the caste system continued to thrive and even strengthen during recent times. The main reason for this could be the structure of graded inequality which “…invites people to share in the spoils of iniquity even as they suffer from it. By offering individuals a rank in a pecking order, the system strengthens itself and keeps the equality revolution at bay.” This piece aims to look at two reasons for the continued existence of caste discrimination from the lens of social exclusion spaces.
The Indian government and caste system:
Before looking at the two explanations, there is a need to look at the legislations (or the lack thereof) against caste based discrimination in India. In the presence of Dr. B.R Ambedkar who himself belonged to the Dalit community, untouchability was abolished by the Constitution of India, and the Untouchability (Offenses) Act of 1955 outlawed this practice. Article 46 addresses the educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes. There were several other legislations but the ones most relevant to our discussion of social exclusions and their impact on the caste system are the The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 (which was once again revised as recent as 2013) and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Despite the existence of various laws covering all forms of rehabilitation, caste discrimination and violence still exist today.
Government policies have focused on protection and improvement of individual caste and social groups but they do not promote mobility between those of different castes. Spatial segregation, one of the main causes of alienation, has not seen any significant improvement post-Independence. While this article aims to view the issue from a social exclusion perspective, the role of the State is imperative and will be brought up again later when we see that the government itself has turned a blind eye to laws in times of crisis.
The continued existence of the pre-independence village system:
Post-independence saw an unwinding of labour norms in Indian villages as youth left for cities in search of work outside the family traditions. But this unwinding applies only to the dominant caste in villages, as was found by M.N Srinivas in his 1959 work, ‘The Dominant Caste in Rampura’. Srinivas finds that despite the efforts of the government and willingness of untouchables to improve their situation, it is the dominant castes who don’t want an improvement in living conditions of Dalits. He says that the upper castes “want the Untouchables to supply them with cheap labor and perform degrading tasks.”
This ethnographic piece also reveals features of rural India which are true even now. Srinivas finds that a dominant caste refers to not just caste groups which are dominant as per status but also as per numbers (the untouchables are an exception to this). He found that group mobility exists between every other caste group except untouchables whose upliftment was stopped by the upper castes. Even as late as 2017, the National Crime Bureau had recorded several reports of social boycott of Dalits in villages, especially in Bihar. When the victims took the legal route, the upper caste families “were livid that the Dalits had sidestepped the traditional forum of resolving the issue — the village panchayat — and dared to take the legal route.”
Studies of cultural geography have found that, apart from labour norms and boycotts, spatial segregation in rural India shows caste discrimination as well. A study on northwestern India found that the village system, largely seen as “unorderly”, actually shows a clear divide based on the “cardinal directions” of the caste system. “The order is manifested in the form of orientation of several features of landscape, especially the caste mohallãs (wards)… Dominant castes characteristically reserve for themselves the best western site of the village and low castes are placed in lower social spaces, with scheduled castes being generally placed in the south.”.
It is not just the living space which makes villages a breeding ground for caste inequality. It is the differential access to natural and other resources. Paul Divakar, a Dalit activist, told CNN that “India has 600,000 villages and (in) almost every village a small pocket on the outskirts is meant for Dalits…this settlement is far from health care centers, banks, schools and other essential services.” In most parts of rural India, Dalits are landless or work as small farm labourers for large farmers, bonded through an informal contract which then transcends over generations. Any member of the Dalit community trying to break free from the system of labour in villages is often inflicted with violence.
E. V. Ramasamy Periyar believed in common dwelling to counter the spatial segregation in villages. He believed that in this common dwelling there should be resource sharing such that the caste gap reduces. It was in fact Periyar’s ideology which inspired the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.Karunanidhi, to set up the Samathuvapuram, a community village system where people from all walks of life lived together. The members of this community not only share their living space but also their social capital and the venture largely had been a success till the change in government from DMK (under whom the scheme had been introduced) to AIADMK, resulting in a neglect towards the system.
Dalit community as a source of cheap labour:
Emancipation of Dalits from manual scavenging has been underway since 1993 at least on paper. But on the ground no such result is visible. Manual scavengers today work without any equipment or safety measures. Though there are many data discrepancies for the exact figure, a 2018 report by the Indian Express found that there were approximately 53,000 manual scavengers in just 12 of the 29 Indian states and that this figure is higher than the numbers from the last survey. This number also does not include sanitation workers under the Indian Railways, who hire the most number of scavengers.
For comparison, consider Malaysia, a country which became independent in 1957, not long after India. A study conducted by the Centre for Policy Research on urban sewage disposal in Malaysia, suggests that there was a big push from the Malaysian government to improve the sewage cleaning system. “It was not an overnight decision. Malaysia started to make this shift to mechanisation not because there was activism in place to eradicate manual scavenging like in India, but because they wanted to promote the country as a tourist destination.” Karunanithi, the researcher who conducted the study, told Scroll. The study noted that the technological improvement in the sewage system can be noted after 1974 when the Environmental Quality Act was enacted. Malaysia had recognized sanitation as an environmental issue. According to the study, over the past 60 years, Malaysia has mechanized the de-sludging system of septic tanks such that trained workers have to only visit the tanks once every two years. While Malaysia’s history of manual scavenging is not related to caste discrimination, it is important to understand that the mechanization of this system is fully possible. In India’s case, hiring lower caste workers is cost effective and easy as compared to revamping the whole Indian sewer system.
“Although India’s Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, amended by Act 49 of 1987, requires an employer to pay women and men equally for the same work or work of a similar nature, this protection does not extend to protecting workers from wage discrimination along caste lines. India currently has no laws specifically outlawing caste-based wage discrimination.”, says a report by the Asian division of Human Rights Watch. Most often, scavengers have been found to work for the basic sustenance of their families. The payment system is also gendered as women only earn a maximum of Rs 50 every month per household, about Rs. 250 less than men, for the same amount of work.
During most crisis situations, Dalits are hired to recover dead bodies and cremate them, once again without safety precautions. The largest hirers for such kind of work? The government themselves. Post the 1999 cyclone in Orissa, “the government brought in two hundred Dalit manual scavengers from New Delhi…to load animal carcasses onto hand-drawn carts and take them away to be burned.” The local upper-caste residents were offered more than the minimum wage to burn the animal carcasses but they denied on the grounds that they “…had some self-respect left.”
Almost 22 years after this cyclone, the situation has not improved. As India faces the brunt of the Covid pandemic, it is once again upon the Dalits to burn and dispose of the bodies. Bezwada Wilson, the founder of Safai Karamchari Abhiyan says to Vice , “No one knows how many cremation workers have tested positive for this deadly disease and no one knows how many have died as a result. It is because government officials don’t see the cremation workers and sanitation workers as human.” These cremators are termed as essential workers but receive the bare minimum returns from the government. This exposes them to not just the disease but the wariness of the upper castes. Among the rising number of dead bodies, Hindu rituals, previously done by Brahmins, are now being done by Dalits. A Dalit cremator at New-Delhi says, “Almost everyone asks about my caste because everyone wants a Brahmin to do the rituals and not the Dalits, but they aren’t available,” he said. “We are.”
This article covers two spaces which stand in the way of inter-caste mobility- villages and the labour market. As suggested by Surinder S. Jodhka, villages stand as the cornerstone of the nation and has prompted many to view India through it’s rural spaces. Gandhi wanted to conserve it, Nehru wanted to industrialize it and Ambedkar wanted it to be devoid of caste differences. As we have seen, conservation and modernization promotes the caste divide, as those with power continue to flourish and prevent group mobility.
In India, mechanization of labour has not reached the informal jobs done by the lower caste as opposed to the case of manual scavenging in Malaysia. Including their work under formal labour laws will make the workers eligible for welfare schemes and services, among other things. It will also provide stable earnings and a safe livelihood to the lower castes. As long as the hierarchical system is being enforced in both living and work spaces, it does not seem to be effective to counter caste differences through restrictive legislation alone.
Ashika Thomas is a second-year student who is pursuing an Economics major and an Environmental Science minor at Ashoka University.