The BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections spoke of the party’s commitment to social justice and harmony. It promised economic empowerment of the Dalits through education, entrepreneurship and skill development. The manifesto also stressed on preventing atrocities against the Scheduled Castes (SCs). These goals were to be pursued in a mission mode. But a series of negative developments in the past four years — including the recent Supreme Court decision that diluted the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — has given rise to the fear that the Dalits are losing the gains they had made in the past.
The economic empowerment of Dalits depends on the allocation to the Special Component Plan (SCP) for SCs. The allocation to the SCP was 8.79 per cent of the budget in 2014-15, 6.63 per cent in 2015-16, 7.06 per cent in 2016-17, 8.91 per cent in 2017-18 and 6.55 per cent in 2018-19. The average allocation in the period between 2014 and 2018 is 7.59 per cent — about 9 per cent short of the 16.6 per cent target set by the government. In fact, the 2017-18 budget replaced SCP with “Allocation for Welfare of Scheduled Castes”. This is not just a change in nomenclature. The move has meant a downgrading of the significance of allocations for the SCs. In the absence of any reference to SCP, there is no clarity on parameters or norms for evaluating the allocations reported by different ministries/departments. We do not know the purpose behind this renaming but it takes away the focus on Dalit empowerment that was the hallmark of SCPs.
The declining allocation to the SCPs (and its renamed avatar) has affected the working of many schemes meant for the SCs. I discuss only two: Education and entrepreneurship development. The Post-Matric Scholarship Scheme has been a significant project of the Ministry of Social Justice since Independence. In fact, the scheme owes its origin to the initiatives of B R Ambedkar. But against an outstanding requirement of Rs 8,000 crore, the 2018-19 budget allocated merely Rs 3,000 crore to the scheme. More than 5,10,000 SC students across the country have been facing difficulties due to this funding deficit. The shortfall could also result in an increase in the dropout rate. Moreover, the delay in release of funds to the UGC for National PhD Fellowships for SC/ST scholars (earlier called the Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship) has caused hardship to many researchers.
The government has stressed on schemes to develop entrepreneurship among the SCs. A special scheme called the SC/ST Hub was introduced with an allocation of Rs 490 crore. The Union Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises ( MSMEs), which was entrusted with the task of implementing the scheme, hired the services of KPMG, paying the international consultancy firm a hefty fee of about Rs 46 lakh per month. It is slated to spend Rs 15 to 18 crore on consultancy fee in the next three years. The ministry did not deem an Indian organisation suitable for rendering advice to it. Much of the fund has been wasted on organising conclaves, organised by private parties, to educate SC/ST entrepreneurs. Under its procurement policy, the MSME ministry was required to make 4 per cent of its purchases from enterprises run by SC/STs; it has managed a dismal 0.39 per cent. The ministry would have done better had it drawn up a plan for strengthening the 59.7 lakh enterprises run by SCs.
What about social empowerment? The BJP’s manifesto to the 2014 general elections stated: “We will accord highest priority to ensuring their security, especially the prevention of atrocities against SC and STs.” There were 40,401 cases of atrocities against Dalits in 2014, 38,670 cases in 2015 and 40,801 in 2016. It seems that the BJP’s stated commitment to reduce atrocities against Dalits has not lead to any appreciable decline in violence. The atrocity rate, measured in terms of number of cases registered per lakh of population, is high in MP (43), Rajasthan (42), Bihar (34), Gujarat (32), Andhra Pradesh (27), Kerala (26) and Odisha (25) and UP (25). Five of these states with a high rate of atrocities against SCs have BJP governments. There are atrocities against Dalits in all states but given the claims made in its 2014 manifesto, one would have expected some reduction in violence in the states ruled by the BJP.
The judiciary has not lagged behind. The recent modification in the Atrocities Act being a case in point. The arrest of a public servant under this Act will now have to be approved by the appointing authority, while the arrest of a person who is not a public servant will have to be approved by a SSP. Studies have shown that the high acquittal rate under the Atrocities Act has much to do with the willful neglect of government officers. The change will encourage them to bypass the rules even more. The apex court seems to have ignored the report of Maharashtra’s Inspector General of Police, which negated the hypothesis of false cases under the Atrocities Act. It has shown complete ignorance of the fact that demographic and economic imbalance between the SCs and high castes in villages — pointed out by Ambedkar — militates against Dalits summoning the courage to file false cases. According to some accounts, the government may have lost because the Additional Solicitor General did not place all the relevant facts before the Court.
In another decision against Dalits, the Allahabad high Court has overruled reservations for SC faculty at the university level. The Centre, instead of appealing to the Supreme Court, lent support to the HC’s decision. The UGC has issued an order to give effect to the HC’s verdict, without any consideration to the likely reduction in reserved faculty posts in universities.
These developments indicate that during the four years of BJP rule, the Dalits are losing the gains they had made earlier.