India: Humanity, Equality, Destiny?

Despite the international perception of India, social discrimination based on the outlawed caste sys

In 2010, the Commonwealth Games will take place in Delhi, India's capital under the slogan 'Humanity, Equality, Destiny'. To many, this may seem appropriate - earlier this year the country underwent its fifteenth general election since independence. 714 million registered to vote, reinforcing India's position as the largest functioning democracy in the world. But for millions of people in India, these concepts are far from reality.

Social discrimination based on the outlawed caste system is still very much intact. There are approximately 200 million dalits living in India - also referred to as 'scheduled castes' or 'untouchables'. These people are ranked at the bottom of the Hindu religious hierarchy on account of family descent, and as a result, are forced into social deprivation.

The Indian Constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste. Indeed, over the past 60 years, caste barriers have largely broken down in cities, but in rural areas where approximately 70 per cent of India's population lives, they are still prominent. Even the country's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh acknowledges the problem - "after 60 years of constitutional legal protection and support ... Dalits face a unique discrimination in [Indian] society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability [is] Apartheid."

Sharadah is a dalit who lives in a small village in Gujarat - a resource rich state in western India. At 3am she begins her daily routine as one of India's 1.3 million manual scavengers. Her job involves going around local houses emptying the human waste from non-flushing toilets. After she has collected the waste using a brush and large drum, she carries the drum on her head, walking 4 kilometers to dispose of the contents. Many manual scavengers like Sharadah have tried to escape the manual scavenging trade, setting up alternative businesses. But in small towns and villages where the caste system is still prominent, higher castes refuse to purchase from or associate themselves with dalits. As a result, these people are forced back into manual scavenging to make enough money to survive.

Manual scavenging is a typical job assigned to dalits in India. In 1993, in response to growing domestic and international pressure from human rights groups, the Indian government passed 'The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act'. The Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry toilets not connected to proper drainage channels. Violations of the act can lead to imprisonment for up to one year or a substantial fine of 2,000 Indian Rupees. In spite of this, a 2003 government impact assessment of the Act found that the law had only been adopted in 16 of India's 28 states, and has not been enforced in any.

The Act is a typical example of a 'white elephant' policy, implemented as a short term measure to shake off interest group pressure. It is clear that without the inclusion of clear provisions for tackling the deeper issue of caste-based discrimination, that it was an impossible law to implement.
A number of interest groups are currently working to influence change from different angles. More focus needs to be brought to groups who are striving for social change through creative methods, challenging the social system through international pressure and through empowerment of the dalits themselves.

The Dalit Solidarity Network is a UK-based network of individuals, groups and organisations working with Dalit communities in Asia to end global caste-based discrimination. Alongside government lobbying and advocacy initiatives, DSN-UK has undertaken an action study 'Another Apartheid? Caste Discrimination and UK Companies' in response to growing economic investment in India by UK-based companies in recent years. Through case study investigations into eight different UK-based organisations operating in India, DSN-UK has sought to develop an understanding of employment practices by foreign investors in India with regard to the Dalit community.

"Our aim [by undertaking this study] was to open up dialogue and work with the corporate sector to inform best practice with regard to caste and caste discrimination" says Meena Varma, Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network. "It is not surprising... that few companies, especially those moving to South Asia for the first time are aware of caste discrimination. There is a real opportunity for global corporations in India to address caste through their employment, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and - in the case of banks -financing policies."

The published report includes a number of key recommendations for private investors, one of which is to encourage adoption of 'The Ambedkar Principles ' - a set of guidelines developed in 2004 which suggest numerous ways for international investors to strengthen the Dalit workforce in caste-affected countries. The Principles recommend that companies provide in-house training programmes about the caste system and emphasise the importance of complying with national legislation on the subject.

Another organisation is taking the issue of caste discrimination to the international level, encouraging discussion and awareness at international institutions including the UN and the EU. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) is an international network of organizations which strives to link grassroot priorities with international institutions in order to change policies and practices related to caste discrimination worldwide. They have a secretariat in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In November, coordinator of IDSN Rikke Nohrlind visited Brussels with three dalit representatives from India and Nepal to discuss the extent of caste discrimination in India and South Asia. The occasion was a briefing for members of the Asia-Oceania Working Party (COASI) and Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM) - two EU working groups responsible for Asia-Europe relations and human rights respectively.

The overall purpose of the November visit was to explore how the EU can address caste discrimination in its interaction with caste-affected countries through development cooperation, trade relations and political dialogues. The delegation also urged the EU to take the issue further at the European Council level and to continue its support within the UN framework. A set of UN principles and guidelines has been developed on the basis of existing human rights principles and obligations, proposing measures for governments and other actors to prevent and address caste discrimination. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently urged the international community to endorse the guidelines and "eradicate the shameful concept of caste".

Whilst efforts from organizations such as these are invaluable in slowly encouraging change to occur, the most important type of work for dalits such as Sharadah is empowerment from the grassroots upwards. In conjunction with international projects and advocacy efforts, grassroots level initiatives are vital in challenging the social constructs of society.

Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a dalit movement committed to the eradication of manual scavenging in India. It was initiated in 1986 by a group of human rights activists in the state of Karnataka. Over the past twenty years, the organisation has grown substantially, and now focuses predominantly on organising and mobilising manual scavengers around the issues of dignity and rights.

In order to do this, representatives from SKA hold local meetings with manual scavengers throughout India, engaging the workers in discussion on the issue of manual scavenging, exposing its links to the caste system and identifying the inherent problems associated with the occupation. They aim is to raise awareness among the community about their rights under the law, and strive to improve the capacity of these workers to enable them to advocate for their own rights and to challenge their own position in society.

SKA also seeks to identify manual scavengers willing to work for their community, and trains them to take on work as fulltime SKA activists. These trainings centre on building perspectives on the links between the caste system and manual scavenging, human rights, developing skills of mobilisation, strategising interventions, leadership and articulation skills, as well as networking and alliance building at different levels.

Through conducting activities like these and building networks with likeminded individuals, SKA have rolled out and expanded their work across India - from its inception as a small group of social activists, SKA now have an active presence in 16 states across India. Movements like this show glimmers of hope for the future of the dalit population.

'Humanity', 'Equality' and 'Destiny' are a far cry from the existing state of Indian society, and this is unlikely to change before the commonwealth games commence next year. The caste system is a deeply entrenched issue in Indian society. However, the hosting of the games is an ideal opportunity to put India in the spotlight, encouraging more initiatives like SKA and bringing awareness to advocacy efforts like those undertaken by DSN-UK and IDSN.