Social Inequality in a Political Democracy

dalit student

In spite of India’s perceptible economic and social development, the caste system still obstructs and isolates the section of its population, the Scheduled Caste (SC) also called as Dalits and Scheduled Tribes (ST). The Dalits, who form around 16.6 per cent of Indian population[1], undergo systemic discrimination, and excluded from the development process even after 72 years of independence is a shameful reality of India. Majoritarian democracy has failed to address the substantial issues of its section of population and electoral promises of eliminating caste based deprivation have been a mirage for Dalits all these years. The day to day living experience of Dalits in India in every sphere justifies their anger and distrust over all the political parties.

The Right to Education for all children, now being a fundamental right under Indian Constitution, hasn’t been effective in addressing the issues of Dalits and Scheduled Tribes of India. The National Campaign for Dalit Human Right (NCDHR) study[2] in 2017, on exclusion and discrimination of Dalits in school reveals that the humiliation and segregation on caste lines has been institutionalised in the school system. Made to sit separate, forced to clean toilets, restricted to drink water from common pot, mid-day meals given at last and everyday caste abuses are daily living experience for these Dalit children in schools. The NDTV 2017 report[3] on how the ST students of Rajgarh in Jharkhand were to eat mice, rabbits and birds as teacher comes rarely to school and no mid-day meal is provided. The Navsarjan Trust survey report – Voices of Children of Manual Scavengers[4] in 2010 reveals the extreme form of discrimination faced by the children of manual scavengers in Gujarat. The 2014 Human Rights Watch Report[5] titled “They say we are dirty” concludes how Dalits, ST’s and Muslims are at high risk of dropping out of school in India. The dropout rate for Dalit children is 51 per cent compared to national average of 37 per cent. Prof.Thorat’s study[6] in 2006 revealed that in mid-day meals scheme Dalits were made to sit separately, given separate meal, inferior or insufficient food served to them and Dalit cook prepared food not taken by upper caste children. According to a study[7] by Harsh Mander, Anganwadi (Child Care) Centres are deliberately kept away from Dalit and Scheduled Tribes locality to deprive the facility to them.

The discrimination they face at schools at young age in an unwelcome atmosphere will have a long term hurt throughout their life. There are 33 million child labourers in India as per Census 2011 and 80 per cent of them are Dalits and 20 per cent from Backward Classes. The 2014 report titled “Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children“, by UNICEF[8] revealed that Dalits girls have the highest rate of primary school exclusion of 6.1 per cent in India. Further ILO[9] in a survey has identified that among the bonded labourers in India, those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were the majority with 61.5 per cent and 25.1 per cent. With such daily experience of discrimination and exclusion, completion of school education itself a humongous task, but such institutionalised discrimination continues in higher education also, as we witness numerous suicides by Dalit students at university level.

The National Health Protection Scheme may be the largest Government funded programme in the world, but still a Dalit women in India dies 14.6 years earlier than upper caste women on an average[10]. According to National family Health Survey (NFHS) 2005-06[11], SC and ST children suffer more from undernourishment (weight for age, height for age and weight for height) compared to upper caste children. The Dalit women suffering from anaemia is 4 per cent more than the national average, while the neonatal mortality (within one month) is 46 per 1000 for Dalits as national average is 39 per thousand according to NFHS 2005-06. Similarly Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) is 66 for Dalits, while national average is 57 and under-five mortality is 88 for Dalits compared to a national average of 74. Research study[12] point out that Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) don’t even enter Dalits house, while pharmacist doesn’t explain the doses properly for Dalits. Explicit discrimination by doctors and nurses, as they are reluctant to touch them and give proper treatment, is widespread in rural areas that access to health facility for Dalits has become a difficult task.

The Census 2011 data shows that around 71 per cent of Dalits are agricultural labourers, while only 29 per cent are cultivators. But it is 41 per cent and 59 per cent for non-SC/ST, showing the landlessness/small land holding status of Dalits in India. Amnesty International in its Halt the Hate website[13] has recorded around 902 incidents of hate crime between September 2015 and June 2019, out of which 619 were against Dalits showing the growing hate culture against Dalits in India. Since 2015 almost 70 per cent of hate crimes were against Dalits in India. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)[14] data, the crime against Dalits has increased from 16.3 crimes per 100, 000 Dalits in 2006 to 20.3 crimes in 2016. However the conviction rate during same period is below 30 per cent.

Dignity of labourers being protected by the Constitution of India, the Dalits are still forced to involve in menial occupations, risking their lives. In spite of legal protections in the form of The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, the manual scavenging and its deaths are prevalent in India. Dalits being predominant in this caste based occupation; the sluggish implementation of its provision takes the lives of them regularly. Around 180657 households are forced to be manual scavengers for their livelihood according to Socio Economic Caste Census 2011[15]. There are around 794000 cases of manual scavenging according to 2011 Census data. According to National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), a statutory body, since January 2017, one person lost his life in every five days cleaning sewers and septic tanks[16].

Honour killing, cow vigilantism, underrepresentation in Government employment, discrimination in religious worship and other numerous types of discrimination and exclusion is being practiced against Dalits throughout India, humiliating and harassing them every day.  The present Corona lockdown and unemployment will have a disastrous effect on Dalits compared to others due to already existing discriminatory social structure. In such a socially undemocratic milieu, political democracy seems to be a mere ritualistic exercise without any substantial change in the lives of this vulnerable group. There is a urgent need to work towards realising the constitutional dream of social equality as Dr.Ambedkar, the father of Indian Constitution, said that the political democracy cannot be realised in its true from, when we lack the social democratic values of liberty, equality and fraternity.


[1] GOI. (2011). Census of India. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner

[2] NDMJ(NCHDR). (2017). Exclusion in Schools: A Study on Practice of Discrimination and Violence. New Delhi: NCDHR

[3] NDTV. (2017, March 17). No Mid-Day Meals In Jharkhand Villages, Children Eat Rats, Rabbits. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from NDTV:

[4] Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice. (2010). Voices of Children of Manual Scavengers. Gujarat: Navsarjan Trust

[5] HRW. (2014). They Say We’re Dirty: Denying an Education to India’s Marginalized. USA: Human Rights Watch

[6] Thorat, S., & Lee, J. (2006). Dalits and the Right to Food –Discrimination and Exclusion in Food related Government Programms. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Dalit Studies

[7] Mander, H. (2005). Promises to Keep: ICDS at Crossroads. New Delhi: Centre for Equity Studies

[8] UNICEF. (2014). Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children : South Asia Regional Study. Kathmandu, Nepal: UNICEF

[9] Srivastava, R. S. (2005). Bonded Labour in India: Its Incidence and Pattern. Geneva: ILO

[10]UN Women. (2018). Turning Promises into Actions: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UN Women

[11] IIPS. (2007). National Family Health Survey 2005-06. Mumbai: International Institute of Population Sciences

[12] Acharya, S. S. (2010). Access to Health Care and Patterns of Discrimination: A Study of Dalit Children in Selected Villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Dalit Studies & UNICEF

[13] Amnesty International (2019). Key Findings. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from Halt the Hate:

[14] NCRB. (2017). Crime in India 2016. New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs

[15] GOI. (2015). Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011. New Delhi: Ministry of Rural Development

[16] The Wire Staff. (2018, September 18). Since 2017, One Manual Scavenger Has Died on the Job Every Five Days. Retrieved January 10th, 2020, from

Dr Venkatanarayanan S teaches Political Science at Christ University, Bangalore. He was 2018 CICOPS fellow at University of Pavia, Italy. The opinion expressed are his personal.



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