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Delhi's Dalits await their rights

May 09, 2011

Behind the facade of a thriving city are the abandoned scheduled caste population of Delhi. Columnist Jayati Ghosh raises a voice against the maneuvering of public resources earmarked for the socio-economic rights of Dalits who continue to live a life of deprivation and extreme poverty in India's capital.



The arrest of Suresh Kalmadi on April 25 marked yet another scene in the prolonged drama surrounding the Commonwealth Games (CWG) held in Delhi in October 2010. Yet the general media focus on Kalmadi may have served to distract attention from the many other acts of omission and commission that mark the sordid history of that extravagantly planned and deeply flawed public show.

There are stories of funds diversion that have a bearing on issues that go beyond probity and corruption, however important those are. They also have direct and indirect effects on the conditions of existence of some of the most deprived and needy segments of the population.

One particular story is that of the government of Delhi diverting as much as Rs.744 crore over three years to the CWG from funds that were especially earmarked for the Special Component Plans (SCPs) for the Scheduled Castes in Delhi.

Poor funds allocation

This matter was raised in Parliament in August last year. At the time the Minister directly in charge of the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, P. Chidambaram (the same one who has recently been busy commenting on the quality of administration in different State governments), was called to book on this account. He accepted that this was wrong and went on to promise that the entire amount would be returned in the Budget for the following year.

However, the Delhi government's Budget for 2011-12 shows no such increase – in fact the amount allocated has increased by only around Rs.134 crore to a paltry total of Rs.355 crore.

The Delhi government has already been systematically underspending on providing essential services to Dalits

The idea of SCPs for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes was mooted by the Planning Commission in recognition of the fact that standard expenditure practices have not ensured benefits to specially marginalised communities and localities. The amount to be allocated under the SCP for S.Cs in Delhi is 16.93 per cent of the total Plan expenditure (based on the share of S.C. population according to the 2001 Census).

The SCP guidelines indicate that only those schemes that ensure direct benefits to individual families, groups and hamlets of S.C. people should be included under the SCP and that priority should be given to providing basic essential services such as primary education, health, safe drinking water, nutrition, housing, electrification, sanitation, drainage, and prevention of submergence of buildings.

Expenditure on livelihood promotion schemes and education is also encouraged.

As it happens, the Delhi government has already been systematically underspending on this crucial category. Instead of the required 16.93%, it has spent on average less than 1.6% in the period 2008-09 to 2010-11 – or around one-tenth of the required spending. This amounts to a cumulative denial of nearly Rs.5,000 crore in these three years.

The current year is no better: not only is there no indication of any effort to put back the amount it had siphoned off earlier, as promised last year, but the allocation is still less than 3% of the Plan spending, with a shortfall of nearly Rs.2,000 crore.

Appalling conditions of living

Why does all this matter? It matters because this is not just a story about state priorities and expenditure allocations. It amounts to the regular and continuing denial of the basic rights of many citizens who also happen to be Dalit residents of Delhi.

Many official and unofficial surveys have found that the bulk of the S.C. population in Delhi is living in extremely precarious, unhealthy and poor conditions that are much worse than those of the general population. There is also evidence of significant discrimination against them in terms of access to infrastructure and basic services.

Delhi is regularly presented by national policymakers as the example of a shining and newly prosperous India. Indeed, in the now-common distinction between “the two Indias” – one rich and emerging if not already emerged, the other still poor and backward – Delhi is typically seen as the archetype of the former. And if one goes by the many newly built flyovers and shiny malls filled with happy consumers, it is easy to be impressed in this way.

But Delhi encapsulates India. It probably contains as much disparity as the country as a whole, with extreme poverty and destitution coexisting with the most extreme expressions of affluence. In the narrow bylanes of resettlement colonies or the chaotic congestion of jhuggi encroachments, very different income and consumption standards prevail. It is not just income but even access to the most essential goods and services that is lacking among such populations.

Because several of these are treated as “unauthorised” colonies, quite often human security is also under threat, not just because of petty criminals and gangs but because of the periodic enforcement drives of the state.

Denial of rights

A sudden and unannounced demolition drive in late March this year that dispossessed more than 800 families living in jhuggis in Gayatri Colony near Patel Nagar exemplifies this tendency. Even when the heavy hand of the state does not actually destroy the homes and livelihood of such people, the need to placate and bribe agents of the state at various levels creates huge insecurity.

For those familiar with the intertwining of social and economic discrimination in India, it should come as no surprise to learn that Dalits are predominant among such poor people. For example, the Mission Convergence Survey of the government of Delhi found that more than 90% of S.Cs in Delhi were living in jhuggi clusters, resettlement colonies, unauthorised localities and construction sites – not exactly what could be called ideal housing. There were also a significant number of homeless Dalits living next to garbage-dumping sites.

A recent survey of conditions of S.C. families in Delhi conducted by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights finds even more appalling conditions in a wide range of areas, and poor access to basic needs. The poor condition of infrastructure and civic amenities endured by most of the sample of 2,400 families is particularly noteworthy.

More than 90% of S.Cs in Delhi live in jhuggi clusters, resettlement colonies, unauthorised localities and construction sites

All the S.C. settlements were found to have narrow and dingy streets, poor drainage with overflowing sewage and associated stench and swampy conditions, creating many health hazards. Garbage heaps abounded with little or no public collection facilities.

Sanitary conditions are especially dreadful. Nearly a quarter of the survey respondents used open toilets, but it should be noted that this may be healthier for them than using public toilets (19 per cent), which were inevitably found to be stinking and without adequate water and flushing facilities.

The issue of minimally adequate sanitation also has a major gender dimension: women and girls face great reproductive health risks as well as threats to their physical security, especially when they are forced to go long distances in search for privacy for such needs.

Many more examples and statistics relating to the appalling conditions of the majority of Dalit families in Delhi could be mentioned: forced to access only very poorly funded and often discriminatory public education and health care services, insecure livelihood and limited employment opportunities, and so on.

But that is really not necessary because the main point is that a lot needs to be done and that there are many ways in which public money could usefully be spent to improve their conditions.

So the denial of public resources that are mandated under the SCP for S.Cs amounts to a huge assault on their basic socio-economic rights, as it forces them to continue to live in squalor and degradation.

This major crime of omission has to be rectified immediately, but this will only happen if the government actually finds itself to be accountable in this matter. And for that, many more public voices need to be raised.

Source : Frontline
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