Updated: July 22, 2020 12:22:55 am
In 2020, new thoughts and new actions are needed by citizens, civil society, and governments to advance the socio-economic empowerment of the Dalits. One agency to make this happen is the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, established under Article 338 of the Constitution.
The first is to strengthen the legal and judicial protection of Dalits under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. We need to develop SOPs for filing and investigating cases under relevant laws and make them available in all languages at all police stations. We need to reward prosecutors who succeed in getting convictions in cases charged under the SC/ST Act — successful prosecution is a true metric rather than the registration of a case at the police station. We need online reporting and tracking of crimes, irrespective of jurisdiction.
We definitely need training and capacity building of judges, lawyers, and policemen. We also need to research and implement new types of punishment, apart from imprisonment, that prevent future crimes by individuals or communities. Finally, we need to create internal structures within organisations to respond to complaints — just like internal complaints committees for sexual harassment — minimising criminal procedures if possible. The Commission ought to catalyse these steps.
The second is to make existing government efforts more effective and participatory. Each ministry is supposed to set aside 15 per cent of its spending in a Scheduled Caste Sub Plan, but often their outcomes are insignificant. The Commission should work with legislators to identify four or five priorities across all government schemes and reorient all spending (SCP) around those priorities.
For example, these could be employment generation and self-employment, capacity building, including soft skills. We should allow ministries to pool their resources (SCP) across two or three relevant departments so that they can be more effective. The ministries of civil aviation and skill development, for instance, could combine their SCPs into one.
This initiative could be led by a formal group of empowered joint secretaries across ministries, who can suggest changes to improve the effectiveness and impact of existing schemes. This should be replicated in states. We should track the output of SCPs every quarter and then every month through a dashboard, just as the Niti Aayog tracks development in the “Aspirational Districts”.
There should be a monthly recognition and reward for departments that do the best in that month. We can consider ranking states for their innovation, effectiveness, and impact — just as cities are ranked for cleanliness. We must have case studies on success stories in advancing Dalit empowerment taught in the Phase 3, 4, and 5 refresher training for IAS officers. The Commission has a constitutional mandate to participate in the social and economic planning for SC welfare — it should use this mandate to guide such a group.
The government is only one part of the solution (and perhaps some part of the problem). We need to catalyse social change through civil society, corporations, and communities. For that the Commission can create a platform for structured engagement with civil society groups working on Dalit issues, to start with around the four or five key challenges identified earlier. We must listen to Dalit legislators and leaders, across parties and groups, inviting their constructive suggestions. We must listen to those younger than 40 even more, because they represent a new generation of ambitious persons who want to do more for themselves, their families, and their country.
We also need to identify key social practices across the country that still segregate Dalits—whether in schools, homes, or workplaces — and run targeted communication campaigns for students and teachers, villagers, companies, etc. We should partner with state governments and others to track such social issues, and reward best practices that help reduce, if not eradicate them.
The Commission could also have a role in facilitating economic empowerment and entrepreneurship. One part is through strengthening the scheme of reservations in public sector procurement—again using both carrots and sticks to recognise those government agencies that ensure the highest percentage of procurement as well as those who use the lowest. It may be a good idea to create a network of Scheduled Caste alumni of IIMs and IITs and encourage them to suggest and implement ideas within and around their own organisations that advance economic empowerment of Dalits. Subsidised and short-term management training for SC entrepreneurs who want to expand and need to learn new skills can also be provided. The new IIMs that have come up in the last 10 years can be invited to develop and host such short-term courses.
Another part is to promote skills and small business development in the service economy. Members of Scheduled Castes are not usually landowners or agriculturists. So they need help in integrating and competing with local and other markets—this will help make them self-reliant too—and for that we need mentoring and other kinds of non-financial support.
One of the key learnings has to be that jobs and schemes and policing are not the only things. Cultural advancement of Dalits using new and old media is something that should be done. Some ideas are to reward film-makers who make high-impact movies around SC issues. Last year’s Article 15, for instance, was an eyeopener for so many viewers. Working with the National Film Development Corporation, we can encourage movies around different themes. For example, the Mahar regiment of the Army, or any other period movie about Dalits valour in battle. We should see if the I&B Ministry’s Budget will fund a TV series that portrays the challenges that Dalits face in a sensitive and engaging way. We can reward photographers and artistes whose works reflect Dalit concerns or Dalit pride.
All this refers to today’s concerns. But as society evolves, we have to prepare for tomorrow. Another role is to prepare for future challenges by facilitating inter-disciplinary research. We should invite Central universities to give us proposals that first identify the five biggest challenges that Dalits are likely to face in the next five years and second, to suggest ways to mitigate them.
These five challenges could be topics like: How will climate change impact Dalits? How can Dalit women advance socially and economically? In the “gig economy”, how does one get more Dalits as Uber drivers? What steps should be done for those who identify as Scheduled Castes, but follow religions like Christianity or Islam or Sikhism? For this, we must have economists, sociologists, and scholars of other disciplines to work together.
Implementing them will require changes in the way the Commission works and in the way other government agencies respond to these challenges.
The writer is a public policy expert
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