The Scheduled Castes (SCs), who number around 1,300 communities and account for nearly 200 million people or 16 per cent of India's population (2011 census), are among the most marginalised in terms of socio-economic indicators.
'Untouchability' has been abolished, but the mainstreaming of SCs through socio-economic improvement-alongside attitudinal changes in society-is a work in progress for the Republic after seven decades. The efforts to improve their lot have been through reservation in education and political and government offices and, more recently, through economic upliftment and greater participation in entrepreneurship.
First, a look at the achievements. In 1961, literacy among SCs stood at 10.2 per cent; by 2011, it had jumped to 66 per cent. In terms of occupying high offices, India has had two presidents hailing from the SC community. On the business front, SC-owned enterprises have increased by a massive 170 per cent-from 1.1 million to 2.8 million between 2002 and 2007. "Our mission is to be job givers and not job seekers and our aim is to fight caste with capital," says Milind Kamble, founder-chairman, Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI).
But crimes against SCs are a reality check for India. In 2001, 33,501 crimes against SCs were recorded; in 2019, it was 45,922. Despite provisions in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, caste-based crimes, especially against SC women, continue unabated. While the overall share in central government jobs is at par with population levels of SCs, the number of SCs employed in Group A services is lower than those in Group B and C. SC representation in top decision-making positions filled by selection is woefully low-in 2019, of the 89 secretaries to the Government of India, only one came from the SC ranks. "While political democracy has been achieved, social democracy is still some way off. The economic growth of SCs is crucial as social hierarchy conforms to economic hierarchy," says Bhagirath Prasad, former IAS officer and Lok Sabha MP.
On the nutritional front too, a lot needs to be accomplished. As per the National Family Health Survey IV 2015-16, 42.8 per cent of SC children below age five were found to be stunted and 39.1 per cent were underweight. Government intervention on this count has been impeded by politics, such as the decision to not serve eggs in supplementary diets.