S.Venkatesanm 24 October 2006
The broad motivation for writing this note is to bring to light the pathology of power structure in the Indian caste system, its casual relationship with different castes and impact on people’s well-being – such as their ability to live a long and healthy life, to be educated and to have equal access to resources, political freedom, guaranteed human rights and personal selfrespect.
The traditional Indian social structure is highly characterized by a hierarchal caste system. An essential feature of the Indian caste system is the unequal and hierarchical ordering of various powers whether social, economic, cultural, civil, cultural or political. The
Brahmins who are placed at the top of caste hierarchy enjoy most power and the Dalits (or Schedule Castes) who are placed at the bottom of caste hierarchy are denied any power. They depend and serve the higher castes. As a result, this seriously impacts on their ability to fulfil the freedoms they value.
The Schedule Castes (or SC) constitute about one fifth of India’s population. The deprivation of this social group is associated with historical and continuing unequal power structure (in terms of social, economic and political power) intrinsic to the working of the caste system. The hierarchal and exclusive character of the caste system implies that every caste, except those at the top of caste order, suffers from unequal assignment of powers in some degree. The SCs are excluded from access to any rights except to serve the castes above them.
However, over time, caste-based power structures relating to property rights, employment, education, civic, religious and political rights have been replaced by a more egalitarian legal framework in the Indian constitution. Despite this transformation the unequal
power structure to various rights still exists in significant degree. As a result, the SCs continue to lack social, economic civil and political freedoms and to face discrimination, isolation and deprivation.
The empirical evidence shows that their capability deprivation with regard to other caste groups is higher. Recent data from Census 2001 shows that the literacy rates for the SCs was as low as 55 percent, compared to a national average of 69 percent. Similarly, the life expectancy estimates for 1998-99 show that at national level, the life expectancy for Dalits was 62 years and 66 for other castes. The infant mortality rate among the SCs was around 83
per thousand live births which was considerably higher than for the other caste (68 per thousand). The percentage of under-nourished children at national level was 54 percent for the SCs, and 44 percent for the non-SCs. An average of 44.15 percent of Dalits households did not have access to health care services, while this figure amounted to 37% for other households.
Similarly, in terms of access to property or resources, such as ownership of agricultural land, 56% of Dalits owned less than one acre (of which 47.5% owned less than half acre). Landless and near landless (that is, those owning less than one acre) put together
account nearly 70% of the total Dalits in 1991. Dalits have also witnessed an increase of 2.4 per cent in crime (from 26,252 cases against Dalits reported in 2003 to 26,887 cases in 2004.
The power structure curtails the freedom of Dalits to choose to live as they desire. It plays a fundamental role in the perpetuation of their poverty. Assessing the power structure of the caste system is important to understand the dynamics of well-being of Dalits. Power does matter and must be studied systematically in greater detail in order to understand better the ability of people to do or be what they have reason to choose and value.
Source: HDCA-M a i t r e y e e , Number 6, October 2006