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Dalits As 'Dalits' In Budget 2004

By Chandrabhan Prasad

15 July, 2004
The Pioneer

Year after year since 1947 we have seen the ritual of the government presenting the Finance Bill. The common thread running through all the Budgets tabled so far is the exclusion of the Dalits. The political formations in power, or in the Opposition, transcend their ideological divide, howsoever artificial that may be, to unite on the Dalit question.

Budget 2004-05 is no different from earlier exercises so far as Dalits are concerned. The Finance Minister has made an allocation of Rs 2,326 crore for the "welfare" of SCs and STs, who together constitute about one-fourth of India's population. The overall economic development of the Dalits is expected to be taken care of by this outlay. The Planning Commission too thinks alike, not withstanding the fact that the experience of over five decades has proved this "economic wisdom" wrong. For instance, so much attention is paid to the rural sector called Bharat in socialist lexicon, but the question of the Dalit landless agricultural labourers remains unresolved. Nearly half the total number of Dalits are landless agricultural labourers whose economic life is regulated by landlords. Has there ever been a finance minister, who, while doling out hundreds of millions of rupees to the agricultural sector, also inserted a caveat that the landlords who benefit from the Budget would honour the minimum wages formula?

We understand the present day political scenario, where the firepower of land-owning communities on the day of polling is crucial to any serious contender for the political power. No political party can touch land owning communities, irrespective of the fact that this is not only bad politics, but bad economics as well. Bad politics because it is against the basic grammar of democracy to pamper those who hold surplus land against the provisions of the Land Ceiling Act. The Rs 40,000 crore allocated to the agriculture sector will go to those "humble farmers", who, by definition, are law breakers presiding over the social prison called the "rural sector". This is nothing but a political bribe. It is bad economics, because the Rs 40,000 crore bribe going to the landlords will not turn into capital.

Traditionally, landlords have made poor consumers and this enduring mindset is a monumental road block to the march of the market economy. But, without touching the rogue land-owning communities, the Republic has other ways to safeguard the interests of the Dalit landless agricultural labourers. As argued by Dalit Diary on many occasions, all Dalit land-less agricultural labourers can be brought into a "savings-cum-insurance scheme", where the State offers a partnership with them, taking the individual, or the family as a unit, and opens joint account in banks. The State makes the initial deposit of Rs 500 with a monthly installment of Rs 200 or so, and the Dalit beneficiary complements with half that amount each month. This scheme can transform lives of millions of Dalits who continue to serve this country, and, contie to suffer in return.

The total cost of this scheme, according to my own estimates, will be less than Rs 4,000 crore annually. The scheme can have the following emancipation impact: First, the hapless land-less Dalits can get immediately freed from money lenders, or landlords to be precise, who extend credit to them at an interest rate of over 100 per cent or more. In times of emergency, Dalits borrow money from landlords, and the vicious cycle keeps then indebted for ever. Second, the land-less Dalits, with such a scheme, will be encouraged to make savings. A sense of financial security will empower them enough to assert their democratic rights, so crucial for democracy. Third, this makes good economic sense as well. Most Dalits, once they have money in hand, make good consumers. Unlike the landlords, they don't block the movement of money. The finance minister, like his predecessors, forgot the question of Dalits' education as well. The Dalit enrolment rate has touched nearly the 100 per cent mark. But, about 80 per cent of them dropout before completing class 10. All schemes, including mid-day meal, have failed to check the dropout rate. Why this fixation with failures from the past? Dalit Diary has argued that unless Dalit students are compensated at the rate of Rs 5 per day for attending classes, there is no way to retain them in the school system. This will cost less than Rs 2,000 crore annually. Thus, with less than Rs 10,000 crore annually, the Government can transform the lives of millions of Dalits in less than a decade.

Is this Rs 10,000 crore too big an amount to right historic wrongs? The FM has in a stroke found Rs 25,000 crore to set up the "Backward States Commission". He has found another Rs 40,000 crore to modernise airports, ports and tourism. He could have very well found another Rs 10,000 crore to script a new chapter in the development of the Dalits.