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“Space For Dalit Economy Is Minimal”

Indian Institute of Dalit Studies director Sanghmitra Sheel Acharya talks to BW Businessworld about the challenges that Dalits face in taking up modern vocations like entrepreneurship

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Sanghmitra Sheel Acharya

Indian Institute of Dalit Studies director Sanghmitra Sheel Acharya talks to BW Businessworld’s Suman K. Jha about the challenges that Dalits face in taking up modern vocations like entrepreneurship.


Q: Is there anything called Dalit Economy and what would it include — only traditional occupations, or modern vocations like entrepreneurship that many among Dalits are taking to?
A: While Dalit labour has been an important contributor since times immemorial, it has taken a long time for Dalits to accumulate capital and invest. It is only in the last decade or so that we have learned to acknowledge the likes of Milind Kamble and Kalpana Saroj. It has also been a long struggle for Dalits to take up entrepreneurship in the face of social discrimination. Micro studies across India suggest that Dalits continue to be slotted into their traditional occupations, which are manually based and offer low wages. Those who opt for self-employment often face social pressure and potential loss of social network. Studies undertaken by Thorat (2007), Munshi and Rosenzweig (2005, 2006), Jodhka and Gautam (2008) are important.

Aseem Prakash’s Dalit Capital: State, Markets and Civil Society in Urban India is an ethnographic study showcasing that secure property rights do not always translate into access to formal credit.

Dalit entrepreneurs do not easily receive credit from formal banking institutions even on having secure property rights because these formal institutions are always and already mediated by the prejudice that Dalits are incapable of running a modern business. Only about 12 per cent of Dalits have access to two or three contracts in the formal sector as compared to 26 per cent among the forward caste households is evident from Desai et al (2010).

In the public sector, they are concentrated at low-end jobs. In 2006, almost 60 per cent of sweepers in Central government ministries were Scheduled Castes and this is reflected from the work of Bordia Das and P. Dutta (2006) on caste and wages.

It may thus be logical to infer that the space for Dalit economy is minimal. At least till the times prejudices and stereotypes are removed and credit access is made easy. It is only then the stigma associated with traditional occupations like cleaning and skinning will transform itself into a lucrative business for Dalits and non-Dalits alike. It is then the Dalits will be assimilated in non-traditional jobs and non-Dalits will engage in jobs labelled as unclean with the same sense of dignity.

Q: What is the share of Dalits in our overall national GDP? How has the figure changed over the years?

A: The most important and the fastest growing sector of Indian economy is services. Trade, hotels, transport and communication, financing, insurance, real estate and business services and community, social and personal services account for more than 60 per cent of GDP. Agriculture, forestry and fishing constitute around 12 per cent of the output, but employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force. Manufacturing accounts for 15 per cent of GDP, construction for another 8 per cent and mining, quarrying, electricity, gas and water supply for the remaining 5 per cent.

Considering that Dalits form a sizeable share of labour at the lowest rung of sectors across economy, and fishing and forestry employ more than 50 per cent of labour, their contribution to the GDP has to be acknowledged. India is the fifth-largest exporter of leather goods. The smallest peg in the industry is the traditional worker, who skins dead animals and feeds in the raw material for the huge and prominent industry.

Q: With so much unrest and discontent among the Dailts, how do you think our overall national GDP is impacted, or could be impacted?
A: Dalits, who never enrolled for education, reduced from 53 per cent in 1983 to 37 per cent in 2000; and those who graduated from college increased from 2 per cent to 5 per cent during the same period. The difference, however, vis-a-vis the forward caste was immense.

More than 75 per cent Dalits are dependent on land in rural areas. About 25 per cent are marginal and small farmers and more that 50 per cent are landless labourers. In urban settings, most of them are engaged in the unorganised sector.

It is, therefore, imperative to recognise the inequality gaps and focus on the areas which are associated with livelihoods. If the assurance of security to perform their work is absent, not only the leather industry but also the cleanliness mission will be affected. The initiative is geared towards the coverage — of services and facilities. But no attention has been given to those who engage in providing these services — the cleaners of streets, toilets, drains and sewers.

Q: How do Dalits compare with the Blacks in terms of poverty?
A: According to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) evolved by the United Nations and Oxford University, poverty levels among Dalits is 65.8 per cent as against 33.3 per cent for the rest of the population. Parallels can be drawn with the African-American, who are also located at the bottom of socio-economic indicators. In 2011, the poverty rate among Blacks was 28.1 per cent, almost three times the rate for non-Hispanic Whites.

[email protected]; @skjsumankjha

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