“The NDA govt is cutting the budget for education, health, sanitation, housing, women and child development, sectors which are concerned with the upliftment of dalits,” says PL Punia, national commision for SC
Jasleen Kaur | August 18, 2016 | New Delhi
Dalit atrocity in Gujarat has highlighted the plight of people fighting with the social stigma even after seven decades of independence. In an interview with Jasleen Kaur, National Commission for Scheduled Castes chairman PL Punia, a dalit leader from the Congress, says that with a massive cut in the budget allocation for the social sector, the government is systematically curtailing the rights of the dalits.
Discrimination and atrocities against dalits are a national shame. How do you plan to respond to the latest incidents?
This is a very serious matter. There are enough laws and provisions in the constitution – Article 17 which bans untouchability, Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which was amended in 2015. But despite the stringent laws, the number of cases is increasing. In 2015, more than 54,000 cases [of atrocities] were reported, while in 2014, 47,000 cases were reported – even when 50 percent of the cases are not even registered or reported.
Also the atrocities are more heinous. Take the case of Una in Gujarat, or those reported in Haryana, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. There are a number of cases of honour killing as well with an increasing number of inter-caste marriages. The cases of dalit atrocities are prevalent in Tamil Nadu: in Nagapattinam district dalits are prevented from entering the temples, they are not allowed to take the dead bodies through the village road and they cannot even use the same cremation ground.
We always thought things would change for the better with time and education. But that has not happened. I believe that the dalit community has to organise itself. Dr BR Ambedkar had said that dalits should ‘educate, organise and agitate’. The dalit community has still not started organising itself. Throughout Gujarat and adjoining areas of Maharashtra, dalits are getting organised to agitate. We must make the society realise our strength.
It is a separate issue that the law has become almost redundant. The people approach police stations but their complaints are not being lodged. The administration takes a lot of time in completing the investigation. And that investigation is not fair as it always favours the one who can pay the bribe. It takes more time during the trial. The conviction rate of cases of dalit atrocities is just 2.9 percent. It is hardly a deterrent.
We must concentrate on the education of children. Today at the primary level, the poor cannot afford to go to a private school and they depend on the government schools, which are in a bad shape. Thousands of schools either do not have any teacher or there is just one teacher for the entire school.
And the NDA government is further massively cutting the budget for education, health, sanitation, housing, women and child development, sectors which are concerned with the upliftment of dalits.
Why do you think, of late, there has been a rise in such incidents?
More cases of atrocity are happening because dalits are agitating and fighting for their claim of equality and that is being resented by the upper caste. Earlier no one could think of inter-caste marriages but they are a reality now. Though the government of India is promoting inter-caste marriages, but that is leading to dalit atrocities.
In particular, Gujarat witnessed an incident of atrocity on July 11, leading to large-scale protests. Is the Commission actively pursuing the matter? Has the Commission sent a fact-finding team, or made any recommendations to the state/centre?
Our team visited Una and collected all the facts. We also gave to the administration a video clip of the incident and it shows who were involved in it. The administration had arrested five people but there were more people involved. And they are all identifiable. On our demand they arrested 11 more people. The video also shows that policemen were present there, but did not react. And those involved in the incident were using the police baton to beat dalits. We are closely monitoring the progress of the report.
There are incidents of atrocities reported at institutions of higher education as well. How do you plan to take up those issues?
There are enough laws but they do not address the problems at the educational institutions. There are cases reported on discrimination in the mid-day meals as well. At higher educational institutions, their [dalits’] research thesis is not cleared. We take up such cases. They are not treated as atrocities because there is no provision in the Act. We have already suggested that either there should be a separate Act to deal with such issues in primary or higher educational institutions or existing laws should be suitably amended.
SCs, STs and OBCs constitute around 70 percent of the population. The reservation system was meant to bring them at par. But we hardly see any change in their condition. Do you think there is a need to review the policy or search for an alternative?
The social and economic census of 2011 shows the correct picture of how they have benefited. Not more than three percent SC families have got government salaried jobs. And less than 2 percent households have some job in the private sector. Similar is the case of STs. The position of OBCs is still worse because the reservation for them was started in 1992. No new recruitment is being made for class III and class IV jobs. Only a limited number of posts are reserved for SCs, STs and OBCs. Today there is a need for reservation in the private sector as well. The private sector gets all financial assistance from public sector institutions.
Also, no government has been serious about the tribal Sub-Plan schemes which are meant for the financial upgradation of this section of the society. In the budget 2015-16, there was a cut of '20,000 crore in the SC Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan, whereas there is always a need for more financial support. [The budget allocation for SC Sub-Plan was reduced to Rs 30,850 crore in 2015-16 from Rs 43,208 crore in the previous fiscal. And Tribal Sub-Plan was reduced to Rs 19,980 crore from Rs 26,714 crore in the same period.]
What do you have to say about Modi government’s stand on such incidents?
The statement made by the prime minister is good to hear but unfortunately it is just a political statement and has no meaning. He has never touched the core issues related to SCs and STs.
He made the statement in Telangana. BJP’s MLA from Telangana T Raja Singh has said that the [Una] incident is fully justified and if a similar case happens in future dalits will be beaten again. Instead of making the statement, if the prime minister had expelled him from the party that would have sent a stronger message.
Society is demanding reservation in promotions. The UPA government had started it [passing a constitutional amendment bill in the Rajya Sabha in 2012] but that was stuck in the Lok Sabha. The NDA government has not even touched that despite majority in the Lok Sabha.
The government of India went for a review [of the system of] allowing reservation in promotion up to deputy general manager in public sector banks [in September 2015] and now the system has been abolished. The government is systematically curtailing the rights of the dalits.
(The interview appears in the August 16-31, 2016 issue of Governance Now)