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Getting to know the India that is Bharat

By Ali Mehdi
September 27, 2010 11:40 IST
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It is heartening to know that, on the eve of the formulation of India's 12th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission is making an attempt to sensitise senior officers, advisers and experts to the country's ground realities.

The recognition that the problem of development programmes is not simply a problem of governance and service delivery, but primarily that of unrealistic policy-making and planning, is significant in view of the fact that many public officials, right from the very top levels of the Central government to local pradhans, have very little knowledge of the actual living conditions of ordinary people, particularly the poor and marginalised.

This is not just the situation with 'armchair advisers'; many of the country's social scientists are not much different either.

Liberal economists particularly have a tendency to be content with 'hard' data on the 'improving' conditions of the disadvantaged (long live the NSS!), and even some of the best-known names in Indian sociology-anthropology have written extensively on the diminishing relevance of caste, based on their field experiences living in upper caste localities.

Being one of the latter, during my field research in Uttar Pradesh early this year, I met certain state, district, block and village level officials, hoping that they would be able to tell me about the changing condition of Dalits in the state since the formation of the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984.

As far as senior state officials in Lucknow were concerned, if you are lucky enough to be able to get hold of them, after their endless flurry of official meetings, they would list out the schemes and programmes launched by the state government and the funds released for them over the years.

Rarely would they talk about the outcomes of such programmes or the impact that they have made on the actual lives of the target beneficiaries (who are many a time seen as culprits, more or less responsible for their own condition and should therefore be happy with whatever they are getting from the government: 'They produce so many children and then expect us to fill their stomachs').

District-level officials (for reasons of confidentiality, I cannot name the district) also tend to behave in similar fashion, but admittedly the most senior - if not the junior - among them were quite accessible.

However, if you were to approach them assuming that they would know their district well, you would be disillusioned, partly because of the frequency with which they are transferred from one district to another.

In fact, initially, when I met one of the most senior district officials, he said Dalits in his district were doing quite well, and that I should have chosen one of the eastern districts where they continued to live in pitiable conditions.

This myth was busted the moment I started visiting Dalit localities and houses in the villages, talking to them about their problems and the benefits that have accrued to them from government schemes.

The depths of deprivation and hopelessness were overwhelming, and swiftly exposed the gap between official rhetoric and ground reality.

At the block and village levels too, the situation was not much different, which is even more appalling because many of them come from those or nearby places.

In one village, after being in Chamar and Balmiki streets and houses - observing the inhuman conditions in which they lived - and having talked to them for hours, I went to the house of the local pradhan (a non-Dalit) to discuss their situation.

Initially, he told me that 'all' Dalits in his village had land and none of them was actually poor. On further probing, he admitted that it was mostly the Chamars who had land, that Balmikis did not, and that most of those who owned land had only small pieces of it.

Then started the ritual invocation of cultural arguments to explain the poor condition in which they were living: 'These people don't want to work, they expect the government to do everything for them', 'they waste all their money in drinking', 'even if the government gives them houses with marble flooring, they would make them dirty in no time', so on and so forth. Many poor Dalits told me that district or block officials almost never visited their localities.

If they had to visit a village, they would normally go to the house of the local pradhan, have tea and snacks with him (even if the pradhan was female), and prepare their reports.

The pradhans, in turn, rarely cared to visit them, even in emergency situations, and would usually find out what was going on there through their men, who followed me during my visits to the localities to report back to the pradhan on who said what.

At the end of my fieldwork, my local acquaintances (who accompanied me) admitted that they were also not aware of the extent of poverty among Dalits in their region, which highlights the lack of awareness among ordinary people too.

I wonder whether this pervasive lack of awareness about the actual condition of Dalit localities is in any way linked to the traditional notion of ritual impurity. If so, it may also explain to some extent the lack of inter-subjectivity and the resultant official apathy - even antipathy, in cases - towards Dalits in particular and the poor in general.

The author is a research scholar at the University of & Freiburg, Germany.

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Ali Mehdi
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