Savarna can mean an astrologer, or a son of a Brahmin man and a Kshatriya mother, or of the same colour, appearance, caste or tribe. That was in ancient Sanskrit; more recently it has come to mean upper-caste. The word for one belonging to the lowest caste was shudra; but it dropped out of use because of its negative associations. Ambedkar initially used bahiskrit (bahishkrit in Sanskrit), which means thrown out or excluded. The British used depressed classes; but after the castes were listed in a schedule of the Government of India Act 1935 (the precursor of the Indian Constitution), they were renamed scheduled castes. Gandhi called them Harijan – god’s people – but the name did not catch on.
But a change of name did not lead to a change in status. Scheduled caste people do not have distinct names, so they are not so easily identified by savarna Hindus as Muslims are, and do not face automatic discrimination. I worked all my life in environments where it was not done to ask anyone his caste. But that is not true of all of India; people do somehow find out the caste, and discriminate. The tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula two years ago is a case in point. Whether they want it or not, scheduled caste people get isolated. They have chosen the term Dalit for themselves, which in Sanskrit means ground, crushed, broken, split, blown, dispersed or destroyed. They sometimes get together, shout slogans, make speeches, and share emotions, just like populists of all hues. That is what they did in Koregaon Bhima in the first week of January. I must admit the battle there two centuries ago was news to me. Everyone knows that the Marathas lost to the British, and came to be ruled by them as were all other Indians. Having grown up in Poona with its cantonment and regiments, I knew that the British army had a Mahar regiment. But that the British army that defeated Peshwa and brought an end to his rule consisted chiefly of Dalits is not something to be found in the history books governments impose upon schools.
The Constitution ‘abolished’ untouchability and made enforcement of any disability arising out of it punishable according to law – except that there was no relevant law at that time. But reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were introduced soon after; so Dalits have had job reservations for close to 70 years. Two commissions – the national commission for scheduled castes and national commission for scheduled tribes – have also been looking after their interests for these long decades. How far have they advanced? These commissions’ annual reports tell us something.
The share of scheduled castes in the population in 2011 was 16 per cent – slightly less than a sixth. Their share in jobs was 15, 16 and 13 per cent in Central government, Central enterprises and organized private sector – somewhat less than their share in population. In the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – low-paid unskilled – jobs it was 23 per cent. Scheduled-caste villagers own 9 per cent of agricultural land, less than half of their share in population; 54 per cent of them are landless, against 38 per cent of the general population. The government built two million houses for the poor in 2014-15 under the Indira Awaas Yojana; 80 per cent of them were for scheduled-caste households.
Their consumer expenditure per head in 2011-12 was 73 and 63 per cent of that of “others” – meaning high-caste people – in rural and urban areas respectively. Their effective literacy rate was 66 per cent against 73 per cent for the entire population. For males, it was 5 per cent below general population, in villages as well as in towns. The gap amongst women was 5 per cent in towns, and 11 per cent in villages.
Members of the scheduled castes have caught up with others in school enrolment, but they lag behind in tertiary education. Scheduled caste children’s share in schools was 20 per cent in primary schools and 17 per cent in senior secondary schools – higher than their share in population. But in universities it was 12 per cent. Their gross enrolment ratio was 15 per cent against 21 per cent for all children. This figure is not consistent with the official figures of scheduled caste children in schools; the NCSC did not bother to sort out the contradiction. The mortality of scheduled-caste children under five is 0.8 against 0.6 per cent for all children; the difference is mainly in children aged one to five years – 0.2 against 0.1 per cent.
Apart from giving scheduled castes jobs outside their traditional occupation, the government has from time to time tried to abolish their traditional job. In 1986, it set up a Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan; apart from announcing it, it did nothing. The next attempt was in 1993, when it passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. The idea was that dry latrines had to be manually cleaned and hence required manual scavengers; the solution was to ban them. Thenceforth, only flush toilets would be built, and manual scavenging would vanish. It obviously did not vanish, though some toilets were built, and some of them could be flushed. The present prime minister took ownership of the Congress slogan by changing Nirmal to Swachch, which means the same thing. More toilets have been built – so many that a new problem has arisen. There are toilets, but villagers do not use them. They prefer to go out in the open.
That is strange. None of us would like to leave our home toilets unused and go and squat in the open. It is not a lark to defecate under the sky. It is often dangerous for women; sex-crazy men can make themselves a nuisance. Why then do villagers continue defecating in the open?
It is because the toilets built for them soon become unusable: they become smelly and dirty, flushes do not work, water runs out and the sewage pits dug for what comes out of the toilet overflow. Villagers go out into the fields to take excreta away from their homes; modern State-promoted toilets bring the excreta in or near their homes.
And why can the toilets not be kept clean? Because there is often no water, water cannot be raised into the flush tanks, or there is no underground drainage. Running water and drainage – that is what India needs. If it gets them, open defecation will disappear. The toilet campaign is a typical dance of politicians who look for slogans to publicize themselves but do not have the capacity to analyse a problem; because of the lack of analysis, the government has failed to solve the problem even after spending billions.
Gandhi had worked out a solution: his ashramites cooperatively dug pits, dumped excreta from toilets into them every morning, covered them up with earth, and took manure out every few months. It did not catch on because he made everyone – including savarnas – do the work. No politician ever mentions it today. The other alternative is flush toilets. They require enough water to reach every household, electricity to pump it up, and communal underground drainage. These are the preconditions for the solution of the Dalit problem.