This pandemic (COVID -19) situation is hitting the marginalized poor the worst because of their inherent vulnerable condition. The entire country is being converted to a police state with an absolute power exercised by police to mercilessly beat anyone on street. It is mostly the poor and marginalized on the streets who are being harassed and humiliated. The socially and economically privileged groups with, advantageous access, to all kinds of opportunities are relatively in a better-off position to face the crisis. Religious fanatics and privileged castes brigade continue to preach their kinds of congenital hegemonic binary everywhere mainly governance, media, academics, CSOs which have been generalizing the victimization without differentiation.
But when most daily wage earners and other poor are being asked to stay at home, along with to maintain physical distancing, the governing system has forgotten they have been struggling for a living with inadequate basic amenities, water and sanitation, and are surviving in a mere small living space called as home for the whole three generation family staying under the common roof. Let’s look at Dalit hamlets in rural villages of Odisha and the status of basic amenities in the context of COVID19 and implementation of measures such as hand wash and physical distancing, and lockdown at home, etc.
Continued practices of Untouchability and atrocities in rural areas:
In spite of protective legislations against practices of untouchability and atrocities such as PCR Act 1955 and POA Act 1989.In the year 2018, the state has witnessed 1810 reported cases of atrocities against SCs ranging from rape, assault on women and children, murder, rioting, attempt to commit murder, hurt, house burning, arson, physical assault, and many more forms of heinous crime along with unabated practices of untouchability in many forms in rural villages. The National Records Bureau report for the year 2018 says that 10000 numbers of atrocities cases have been pending for trial, in different courts of the state, where as the conviction rate was only 3 percent. Non official survey revealed that about 200 different forms of untouchability practice have been existing in rural villages. It includes residential segregation, seating separately in Aganwadi centers, during mid-day meal in schools, separate hostels for students, separate bathing place, drinking water sources, cremation ground, two glass system in tea stalls and eateries, not allowed in saloons and public places, temples, honour killing to prevent inter caste marriage and many more.
Persistent Poverty, unemployment and distress migration:
The incidence of poverty is very high among Scheduled Castes .Odisha Economic Survey 2018 reports that 42 percent of Scheduled Caste households are under BPL mark, which is extremely high than the state average of 33 percent( 2011-12). As 2011 SECC census published in 2015 only 0.80 SCs households were in salaried jobs in private sector. It is not just about the income or dignified employment but most Dalit households also lack of productive assets such as Land, access to formal credit and quality education.
Agriculture census and SECC 2011 very well established the fact that a vast majority of SCs population are landless and without Record of Rights (ROR) over their homestead land in possession. Though nearly 85 percent SCs rural household depend on agriculture for livelihood as sharecroppers and agricultural workers.
Agriculture in Odisha is seasonal in nature due to lack of irrigation facilities. And also has been more prone to regular natural calamities such as flood, cyclone, erratic rainfall, drought etc. having a direct bearing over the life of the rural scheduled caste families. Agricultural workers get the lowest paid minimum wage because they are officially being treated as unskilled workers. There has been lack of official census about social composition of agricultural workers and there has been no social security measures for these section of rural workers in spite of social security laws being enacted for rural unorganized sector workers since 2008. The seasonal migration among workers within the state and outside the state is very high due to lack of employment as well as low wage rate along with practices of social discrimination. In the absence of organizations of agricultural workers and share croppers, the protagonist of farmers organizations in the state never ponder over the issues of share croppers and agriculture workers as all-encompassing of agriculture sector as whole and for its inclusive development.
Basic amenities: Basic amenities are bare necessities for a dignified life and healthy living. It includes a piece of land of own for an identity to securely construct a house , safe drinking water, toilet, electricity, all weather linking road from home to main road etc. The Constitution of India under Article 19 (e) says that ‘all citizens shall have right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India and rights to shelter is a fundamental right’. Under Article 21 Right to Life is a natural human right and the Constitution protects Right to Life and livelihood and Right to Health as an integral part of Right to Life. A recent survey in Odisha found that out of about 6000 SCs household covered under the survey in 8 Tahasils of 5 districts, 60% of the household are landless without any homestead land. They have been staying over since generations on so called Govt. land, land belongs to ex -Jamindars, former kings, CPR of the village, forest land, on the bank of village pond , river, irrigation canal, roads and amidst of Paddy fields, coconut stretches, etc.
Homestead land is central to access all other facilities of basic amenities and for implementation of any programme of basic amenities land is a basic requirement. Social Activists who have been instrumental in filing claims for homestead land under OGLS Act 1972 in many places of the state in opinion that their experience shows more than 90% of the applications have been pending without proper inquiry since years together without any time frame for disposal of these application of genuine landless poor. Many of the landless poor daily wage earners are being routinely visiting Tahsail and RI offices but getting harassed with delay in getting their entitlement rights. Along with homestead land it is found that many of the Dalit hamlets have no all-weather linking road connecting to the main road and they have also no cremation ground and other common place for community activities. As they have been deprived up getting access to land-based common property resources of village due to practices of untouchability though it has been prevented under PCR Act and POA Act but the ground reality have not been changed yet. Many of the hamlets have lack of all-weather linking road and in spite of repeated attempts by the community there has been no action by the local Govt. authorities. In many places the hamlets are surrounded by private lands owned by dominant caste villagers and usually they do not allow Dalit to trespass over their private land and many places the filed divider line (HIDA, local name) is the main link of communication from hamlet to main road.
Housing: The Dalit habitations in the state of Odisha are very well demarcated by its look from outside. Most of the houses are single room and without any separate facility such as kitchen, store room, drawing room, bed room and bath room etc. NSS 76th round report 2018 revealed that 59 percent of rural household living in Puuca houses, 23 percent in semi-puuca, and 16 percent in Kacha houses in the state. It is unfortunate that for centuries together a majority chunk of Dalit population is being forced to live in the most undignified life .The housing policy of Govt. has not taken care of basic human needs and plan in a very discriminatory manner targeting the marginalized section of our society. There are two major housing schemes one by central Govt. that is PMAY (Rural) with state share and the other is Biju Pucca Ghara Yojana and for mining area and construction workers and MO Kudia. A survey found that many of the potential beneficiaries are deprived up getting house under such schemes because they have no land and there has been huge nepotism in the selection of beneficiaries at panchayat level. The houses have been not completed in time and there are number of houses being half made and remain incomplete due to administrative issues.
Drinking water: The census 2011 only 7.5 percent of rural household had access to tap water where as it was 30.8 percent at national level. National Rural Drinking Water Supply Programme web site says only 26 percent of habitation in Odisha have piped water supply as on April 2018. Survey of 200 hamlets shows 7 percent of households have access to piped water facility where as 58 percent depend on tube well and 8 percent on wells and 8 percent on boring . Out of total tube well only 1 percent have solar tube well. About 1/3 of the hamlets have been facing serious water crisis in summer where mostly the Dalit women in summer still go to river beds and Nalas and other local ‘water’ sources to dig small pits to get water. Every day women have to walk and spend their quality time to fetch water, this has been a regular exercise in summer in a majority of the hamlets. In few hamlets the quality of water is not hygienic for consumption because of arsenic and iron contains. Dalit women in multi caste villages face discrimination while collecting water from common sources, a normalized practice for them now. In some places, the caste people wash the tube well used by Dalit women or sometimes Dalit women have to call some caste women to help get the water without touching the tube well.
Toilet: Under the Swachha Bharat Mission (Gramin) the state of Odisha has been declared as open defecation free but the reality is something else in the context of Dalit. Sanitation is a major issue of Dalit as a majority of the household depend on open defecation in the absence of toilet with water facility. Dalit families face social humiliation while going out for open defecation in private lands of upper caste and also in common property resources of the village. Mostly women prefer to go in the evening or early before sunrise to avoid the public eyes. Ina survey we found 57 percent of the household have toilets constructed under Govt. scheme and rest 43 percent have no toilet but majority of the household having toilets are not using it. Women, children and elderly people have been facing an extremely difficult situation in their day to life. It has ramification over family and social life, personal health and hygiene and its ultimate impact on living and working condition and economy.
Electricity: Electricity is a basic human need and fundamental to socio-economic development. It is reported that 99.64 percent of the inhabited revenue village have been electrified by the end of 31st March 2019. But connected to the village does not mean connected to Dalit hamlets. Our survey shows about 5 percent of household have no connection at all.
Discrimination in access to services and minimal presence as service provider: Ineffective implementation of affirmative action in education, service sector and other areas have deprived the SCs of the state form their participation in different sector of the state. It is being observed that scope of petty business is very limited due to hostile and discriminatory social environment in caste ridden rural Odisha. Students and employees from the Dalit community have been facing social discrimination in schools and offices and being socially segregated because of their low caste identity. The hostile, discriminatory and violence casteist attitude of the dominant privileged castes of the state and their socio-cultural hegemony continue unabated in the absence of progressive social movements and minimal enforcement of socially protective legislations. Public offices are getting communalized in religious line by celebrating religious functions in schools, colleges, universities and Govt. offices, police stations etc. There has been no attempt to socially secularize and democratize, at least, the public places build at the cost of state funding.
Dalit people are not treated with dignity in local Govt. offices such as Police station, Tahasils, RI offices, Block offices, Panchyat office and Banks in rural areas. Very often they face extortion and negligence in dealing while they make any claim for rights and entitlements under different Govt. laws and provisions.
There is no policy of social inclusiveness in recruitment of rural service providers such as Aganwadi and mid-day meal cooks and contractual appointments for facilitation of entitlements and services at panchyat level. The Dalit people very often face discrimination in getting access to services such as PDS and ANM centre in the village. There are 1.45 lakh cook cum helpers and 29 900 women self-help groups are engaged in MDM scheme operational in the state since 1995. There are thousands of contractual jobs being created in rural areas to facilitate effective service delivery system where SCs have almost very insignificant presence. This is denial of Right to participation and realization of basic human rights and entitlements for development.
The said situation is just a tip of the iceberg but in the given conditions how will the poor marginalized section face the current situation. The very temporary relief measures of Govt. is not addressing any issues rather it will make them further vulnerable from bad to worst. It will make them further poorer. There are reports of discrimination in relief and quarantine centers and organized attack by police and local administration in Dalit hamlets. Dalit volunteers are not allowed to serve cook foods while Dalits are also served from distance by panchyat officials and so called social workers.
While Humanitarian aid agencies, groups and individuals are advertising their great charity by projecting the helplessness of poor on street who are making large queue with begging bowel for food of the day. But in normal times they have no role in addressing the structural issues of huge inequality rather issues of different marginalized sections are sometimes seen as sectarian and disjointed from larger societal prospective.
Why people from certain specific occupations are selectively praised for their duty as fighters as if people in others occupations are betraying the fight or they do not have any role at all. This media developed binaries also identifies media itself as one of the fighter. As if they are not part of this society and suddenly enter from some other planet as saviors. This is denial of collective spirit and responsibility of a nation and all its citizens who all have been contributing in different forms. It also seems that addressing pandemic is an additional constitutional responsibility of Govt. and people need to praise the leaders of Govt. because they are doing as extra constitutional job out of favor to the people of this country. People rating the performances of states and centre and making comparisons attaching political ideology and affiliations. Above all whose power and money it is? Does it belong to the people of this country or political parties and media have built this power and resources? Some of the political protests have become exhibitory routine work just to feel one’s own presence without any substantial impact and consequences and also large protest are disconnected from the larger politics of change of structural issues and become more event or dispute centric and in many cases serve a section with vested interest without larger social perspective.
Manas Jena is a social Activist and writer from Bhubaneswar Email: firstname.lastname@example.org