As India again celebrates the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar on April 14, political parties will be paying tributes and demonstrating their closeness to his ideology to cajole millions of his followers. On the contrary, his vision of economic equality of dalits still looks like a distant dream, making one wonder if the gestures of paying tributes and offering flowers will ever convert into action. Ambedkar, during his speech at the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, had said: “We are entering an era of political equality. But economically and socially we remain a deeply unequal society. Unless we resolve this contradiction, inequality will destroy our democracy.” Apparently, the Scheduled Caste (SC) community continues to lag behind in economic and living standard even today. In one of the parameters of the Socio-Economic Caste Census data 2011—household with any member earning more than Rs 10,000 per month—less than 1% of the SC community in rural areas qualified. This brings us to a question, is it time to scale up the efforts to achieve Ambedkar’s dream of economic equality of the downtrodden?
After Independence, to protect the economic interest of SC and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities, the Constitution provided a provision of ‘protective discrimination policy,’ i.e. reservation in government jobs. It is important to understand that the adoption of socialist pattern of growth policy led to an expansion of public sector undertakings (PSUs). It was then expected that PSUs would play a major role in attaining certain objectives of economic growth of India. The share of public sector in capital formation was more than 50% and peaked to 63.7% during the Third Five-Year Plan. Private sector was unwilling to invest due to large capital requirement and longer gestation periods. Hence, a job reservation in the government sector looked like a suitable opportunity. However, with rapid disinvestment and downscaling of PSUs, the private sector became a major employer. Apparently, the representation of dalits in the private sector continues to remain low. The economic survey of private enterprise in 2005 revealed that the share of the SC community in total private enterprises was a mere 6% for urban areas and 10% for rural areas, much lesser than their population share. With PSUs’ shrinking base and the private sector unwilling to accommodate, it is important that the government looks at bringing the policy of affirmative action in the private sector—i.e. favouring members of disadvantaged groups who currently are suffering or historically have suffered from discrimination. The opponents of affirmative action argue that these policies lead to favouring of one group over another, based upon racial preference rather than achievement. However, it is important to point out that such a step helps bring the historically excluded group on a level-playing field.
The 2005 Economic Census shows that dalits own just 9% of enterprises and a majority of these are small, single-person businesses. The numbers in the government contract and purchases could be more alarming as dalit entrepreneurs are unable to break the taboo. To break the shackle of inequality, a sincere effort to promote the idea of dalit capitalism must be done. Dalit capitalism, or promotion of dalit entrepreneurs, in the business ecosystem is a way forward, using tools such as a supplier diversity programme mandatory—it could be a business programme, encouraging dalit business vendors as suppliers. The Madhya Pradesh government, in 2002, had mandated state department and public sector enterprises to secure 30% of their small value purchases from SC and ST entrepreneurs. The Public Works Department (PWD) reserved 30% of works up to `2 lakh for the SC and ST community. This programme worked well and looked promising, but after the change of the government, was slowly diluted. Nonetheless, such programmes in government enterprises must be started and later private enterprises must also be encouraged to adopt. Most of the top global companies, based in the US, have a supplier diversity programme, which encourages purchase of goods and services from certified small businesses as well as enterprises owned by minorities, women, veterans and disabled persons.
The Start-up India initiative appeared like a step in this direction. All banks were told to ensure that every branch must give two loans—one to a dalit or adivasi, and one to a woman—to help them set up a new business enterprise. However, an RTI filed revealed that more than 17 months after the initiative, only 6% of the 1.3 lakh bank branches in the country had provided such loans to SC or ST individuals. In 1965, then American President Lyndon Johnson said: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.” Surely, a true tribute to Ambedkar would be to break this shackle of economic inequality.
Anurodh Lalit Jain
The author is a social healthcare analyst