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India and its Caste Matters

Policies made for the poor and the marginalized in India, are top-down in nature and discounts the limitation of people’s abilities. - Dr. Suraj Yengde

Dr. Suraj Yengde

In October, Sreya Sarkar, Development Coordinator at Policy Talks spoke to Dr. Suraj Yengde in Cambridge, MA. They discussed the role that can be played by policies in bringing about a positive change in the condition of the SC, ST and the OBCs.

Does the Prohibition of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 work for the related workers and if not, why?

Policies made for the poor and the marginalized in India, are top-down in nature and discounts the limitation of people’s abilities. This policy is also similar in nature. The first problem with this policy is that its rehabilitation part has been allocated minuscule funds. More funds should be added to the rehabilitation program if a proper impact is to be made. Also, the rehabilitation is a complex four-year scheme which is not even understood properly by the concerned workers. There is also a lack of accountability in how the funds are really being used to help the target audience. For better implementation, there needs to be a civil society based anti-manual scavenging army made of students and activists who are going to act as watchdogs and make sure that the policy is being implemented properly.

There should also be an additional program for educating the children of these workers so that they can be pulled out of the inter-generational loop of being employed in the same occupation.

How do you think policy can improve the Dalit community’s access to healthcare?

There should be universal healthcare like in the various European countries—France, Sweden, Netherlands. It is also necessary to add a course on caste discrimination among medical students since there is a history of the lower castes being associated with impurity and pollution. How can doctors do their jobs in India, if there is an ingrained bias in them against Dalits? An educational curriculum should include discussion of caste and its impact on the Dalits.

How can policy improve Dalit access to employment?

I don’t understand the question too well. Most Dalits are already employed. What people don’t understand is that they are chronically underemployed. Especially in the rural parts of India, most of the Dalits are engaged in professions that don’t pay enough. The agricultural sector has far too many people dependent on it than it should because mobilization does not happen easily. Retraining workers who are working in saturated fields and giving them a different skill set is important. There is also the need to go beyond the talk of providing jobs to the Dalits, and advocating that they should be given a share in contracts, dealerships, and other economic activities. Helping the Dalits to set up their own businesses is a way out for those working poor Dalits, who struggle to make ends meet in spite of working so hard.

Can Dalit Entrepreneurship/ Capitalism uproot the rigid caste system and help in decreasing the plight among Dalits?

While some Dalits have achieved wealth in certain regional contexts, the relative outcome of their capitalist experiences is not indicative of the majority of the community because they still have to bear the brunt of the lowest-paying jobs and worst form of atrocities. Even with their newly acquired economic strength, they have not been adequately successful in making a dent in the social oppressions they suffer. Capitalism has not proved to serve the rightful purpose of eradicating the social divide, nor did the twentieth-century form of state socialism.

What role can be generally played by policy (changes) in reducing or eradicating the crimes against Dalits?

There have been laws against caste-based crimes for seven decades but that has not stopped upper caste members from attacking and maiming Dalits, especially in rural India. In fact, the number of caste-based crimes has gone up since 2010. Also, the language of the law is so difficult to understand that there are many loopholes to bringing justice to the Dalits in most cases. Tough laws are no deterrents against atrocities against Dalits so, perhaps something more is required. Dalits have every right to protect themselves. A Parliamentary Committee has looked into Dalits applying for licensed guns. Providing arms licenses to the SCs and STs as stipulated in the Atrocities Act for self-defense purposes, and setting up of Dalit self-defense groups in villages might be a way forward.

Is it possible for India to be caste free ever?

In my lifetime, I don’t see that (India becoming caste-free) happening. A lot of educating needs to happen, different types of dialogues need to open up to start that kind of change in the Indian mindset. For any kind of big social change, the state will play a very important role in India like in any other developing country. That is why becoming a part of the political mainstream is important for Dalits. It is only when they become active participants in the state, they can support as well as bolster the Constitutional rights that Dr. Ambedkar designed carefully.

Are there some suggestions (or solutions) that you have in mind for moving forward and stopping the continuing discrimination against Dalits in both rural and urban India?

Reservation in education and employment should continue as that means the proper representation of underrepresented communities but political reservations for minorities should go. It cannot be a substitute for the separate electorates that Ambedkar had dreamed of.

Rise of Dalit intellectuals who will involve other intellectuals as well in an open dialogue discussing the subaltern point of view is also the way forward. If that discussion can shape future policies, then gradually the sting of the caste system might fade away. Discussing the concept of Dalit Love that is all-embracing and inclusive of diversity and including that in the formal educational curriculum can also be a way forward to cleanse the Indian society and transform the social and political climate in India.

What is your view regarding the Swachh Bharat Mission?

The mission is a mockery of the work done by the Manual scavengers in India. The focus is on constructing new toilets that are dry toilets to start with and will also need manual cleaning after a year. The first priority in Swachh Bharat must go to dry latrine cleaners who have been waiting for their liberty for many years. This has not happened. There must be mechanization, and modernization of the sewage systems is important. Sewage treatment plants have to be developed in a decentralized manner and private and public establishments must have a system to treat sewage water. Without all this, just constructing toilets will not make any difference.

What is stopping all Dalits in India from uniting together and fighting for their rights at the national level?

The Dalit population is diverse, made of so many sub-castes. Creating a common agenda and common priorities is a challenge. The Dalits are scattered throughout India. They are isolated in some states and not easily reachable. There are also differences in opinion among the Dalits regarding what should be the focus of an active Dalit movement. In addition, there is a difference of opinion on how to interpret Ambedkar, and the use of Constitutional rights. Dalit intellectuals face criticism from their own people. There is a constant struggle in trying to decide who is the real Ambedkarite.


Suraj Yengde is India’s first Dalit Ph.D. holder from an African university in the nation’s history. He is currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School. He is an associate at the Department of African and African American Studies, and a research affiliate at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University. In his recently published book CASTE MATTERS, Dr. Yengde, reveals how India’s caste system is disturbingly similar to other forms of oppression—race, class, gender—that are unwilling to wither away.

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