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Towards inclusion and equity

By Prakash Louis

Exclusion is the denial of control over natural resources; the denial of opportunities for healthcare, education, housing; the denial of the right to participation in social, economic, political and cultural life; the denial of human rights and human dignity. Because it is an institutionalised and socially/religiously sanctioned attempt to exclude, segregate or cast out a segment of the population, it is that much more difficult to change. But social exclusion is being challenged in India in multiple ways

Social exclusion, discrimination

Social exclusion, discrimination and identity-formation have become the central focus of discourse in India today. Social exclusion and discrimination refer to the process and outcome of keeping social groups outside power centres and resources. Identity-formation, on the one hand, refers to the process and the effect of articulating this social alienation and on the other hand to the reformulation of one's social characteristics and consequently self-determination.

As long as excluded individuals and social groups remain silent there is no conflict. But the moment they articulate their exclusion and demand their constitutional and human rights, those who have subjected them to exclusion unleash a reign of terror on them. Exclusion, discrimination and identity-formation are both individual and collective processes, and take place in an interactional process.

Exclusion and discrimination take different forms in different societies. They adapt and change themselves according to changing social reality. To say that in a modern, liberal society and polity, exclusion and discrimination are reduced or eliminated would not be in tune with reality. To deny the scope of identity-formation even among the most discriminated social groups would also be unrealistic.

Since social exclusion as a term has come into use very recently, it becomes necessary to spell out some points of agreement amongst academicians and activists. There are some who use the term 'social exclusion' very frequently (but there are concepts that are equally important in understanding social processes in the Indian subcontinent, viz social interaction, power equations, distribution of resources, equal opportunity, domination and subjugation, etc). There are others who avoid using 'social exclusion' and prefer to use terms such as marginalisation and deprivation.

When one speaks of social exclusion one does not refer to the exclusion suffered by a particular social group but all social groups that are subjected to exclusion. Moreover, social exclusion does not limit itself to market discrimination but refers to discrimination and denial of access in all aspects of life.

Finally, social exclusion addresses the multiple and cumulative aspects of being excluded and the consequences that arise out of it. It is also a fact that 'social exclusion' is a term that was used by academics and activists in the West, and is being used in India of late to address the process of social interaction.

Exclusion: A conceptual framework

• Exclusion is the denial of ownership, access and control over resources.

• Exclusion is the denial of rights over one's labour and rights over one's reproductive resources.

• Exclusion is the denial of opportunities for education, healthcare, housing, public amenities, recreational facilities and spaces, basic needs, etc.

• Exclusion is the denial of social interaction and denial of access to social spaces.

• Exclusion is the denial of the right to representation and participation in the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of society and polity.

• Exclusion is the deprivation of the right to mobility, right to practise one's religion and the right to organise and mobilise.

• Exclusion is the denial of human dignity.

• Exclusion is the denial of constitutional and human rights.

Social exclusion is a discriminatory practice. In the course of human development, exclusion has taken the form of segregating a group of people from the social, political, economic, cultural, educational and religious domains of societal life. But we need to stress that social exclusion does not limit itself to segregation and deprivation. Social seclusion and isolation provide a base for a sense of superiority and inferiority among members of the same society or culture. It also culminates in a system of domination and subjugation. All these processes ultimately lead to oppression and exploitation.

The basic social fact of segregation is that it is justified and legitimised by social and/or religious traditions. Like many social concepts, social exclusion also has evaded a neat definition. But some defining features of this social reality can be presented. According to Arjan, the concept has two main defining characteristics. First, it is a multi-dimensional concept. People may be excluded from livelihoods, employment, earnings, property, housing, minimum consumption, education, the welfare state, citizenship, personal contacts or respect, etc. But the concept focuses on the multi-dimensionality of deprivation, on the fact that people are often deprived of different things at the same time. It refers to exclusion (deprivation) in the economic, social and political sphere.

Second, social exclusion implies a focus on the relations and processes that cause deprivation. People can be excluded by many different sorts of groups, often at the same time: landlords exclude people from access to land or housing; elite political groups exclude others from legal rights; priests in India may exclude scheduled castes from access to temples; minorities may be excluded from expressing their identity; labour markets, as also some trade unions, exclude people (non-members) from getting jobs; and so on.

Exclusion happens at each level of society. Group formation is a fundamental characteristic of human society, and this is accompanied by the exclusion of others. The concept takes us beyond mere descriptions of deprivation, and focuses attention on social relations, the processes and institutions that underlie and are part and parcel of deprivation.

It is irrefutable that exclusion and deprivation have social, cultural and historical roots. This led to a stratification of society, resulting in inequality. But the reason why these discriminatory behaviours exerted such a powerful influence is that they were presented as fixed and final, even 'divinely ordained'. It has been argued that since social stratification is a divine plan it cannot be altered. But of course the unequal division of society is a societal process and not a divine intervention. Social exclusion defines boundaries between groups, locates the different social groups in a hierarchy and regulates and guides their interaction. Since social exclusion is intimately and inherently related to systems of domination and oppression, it is often resistant to change and transformation. And thus social exclusion becomes a focal point for social conflict.

Excluded people

In the Indian context, the following are the most excluded:

Social groups: Dalits/untouchables/lower castes, tribals/adivasis/indigenous peoples, religious and linguistic minorities, the most backward castes, and women and children among these social groups.

Sectoral groups: Agricultural labourers, marginalised farmers, child labourers, domestic workers, informal workers/unorganised sector workers, contract workers, plantation workers, fisher communities, manual scavengers, rural and forest-based communities, vernacular-speaking social groups, people with disability, etc.

Social exclusion: A theoretical framework

Various forms of exclusion, deprivation and discrimination are perceived and propagated as a normal course of behaviour in most societies. But social scientists, social activists and human rights activists are realising that social exclusion is a framework for understanding deprivation, marginalisation, exploitation and oppression. Since this is a framework for analysis of the process and outcome of discrimination and deprivation, social exclusion does not refer to a specific social group.

• Social exclusion is the process and outcome of excluding, casting out, depriving and denying equal space to some citizens of a country or some members of a society. It is denial of space in all senses and in all sectors.

• Social exclusion is closely associated with relative deprivation. In this regard it has been stated that the rising inequality in various countries has contributed to the exclusion of many social groups from opportunities.

• Social exclusion has also come to be seen as denial of capabilities and entitlements. In Amartya Sen's interpretation, capabilities are absolute requirements for full membership of society. Entitlements refer to rights, that is, the command of families over goods, using various economic, political and social opportunities within the legal system.

• Social exclusion is detrimental to social integration. In this sense, not just those who are excluded but also those who are excluding others are subject to the crisis and conflict that arise due to the disintegration that accompanies social exclusion.

• Social exclusion works against social solidarity in the long run. Since social exclusion discriminates and deprives members of one's own society and nation there is a lack of scope and space for solidarity among members. Further, even those who are poor or victimised in one way or the other do not come together to address the issue as they are divided due to social exclusion. This is especially true of societies that are hierarchical, skewed and ascribing membership to people based on their origin and descent.

• Since social exclusion denies social integration and solidarity, the social interaction that emerges in an excluding society is conflictual by nature. Thus, conflict becomes the mainstay of social interaction.

Measuring social exclusion

Social scientists have invested a lot in analysing and understanding social exclusion. Though poverty and, to some extent, deprivation did form an area of study for social scientists, they did not focus on social exclusion. Since most social scientists in South Asia came from the excluding communities they did not feel the need to undertake studies to unravel this widespread social phenomenon. But such studies were undertaken in European countries. For instance, the UNDP's Human Development Index focuses on the multi-dimensional aspects of deprivation. Likewise, the French Action Plan for Employment provides 35 quantitative evaluation indicators on social exclusion. The European Union is trying to establish quantitative indicators to evaluate social inclusion initiatives. British New Labour's 'poverty charter' proposed some 30 measures to track movement towards nationally defined social integration goals.

Some academic circles have been stressing the need to undertake a Dalit Development Index or Dalit Deprivation Index; similarly, a Tribal Development Index or Tribal Deprivation Index and possibly a development index for minorities and women too.

The life of the excluded

The most fundamental focus for any discourse on social exclusion should be on institutionalised attempts to exclude, segregate or cast out a segment of the population from the social order. Here we are not dealing with situations where a particular individual 'ill-treats' another person, but broader social processes that are discriminatory in principle and practice. Thus, social segregation is an institutionalised form of social distancing expressed in physical separation. It signifies the convergence of physical and social space and is to be distinguished from other social forms, which also structure social distance in spatial terms.

Since social exclusion provides space for domination, discrimination and deprivation, those who benefit from this social formation do not want to change the structure. This social system becomes very resistant to change and transformation.

Interestingly, it is not only those who discriminate against people considered 'inferior, incapable, less meritorious and lower' that resist change. Even those who are victims of discrimination are not in a position to mobilise and organise themselves to alter the existing social system. It is not as if these social groups want to remain in the dehumanising social order and therefore do not initiate change; they fear being subjected to repression if they resist exclusion and discrimination.

In the Indian context, dalits, or untouchables, tribals/adivasis/indigenous peoples and minorities are the most excluded segment of the population. Let us look at the everyday forms of social exclusion suffered by these social groups.

The very term 'untouchables' is a socially excluding reference to a group of people who contribute to the overall cleanliness of society. This form of exclusion under the caste system gains legitimacy from religious texts. It is not only in the realm of nomenclature but also in their perception of themselves that dalits have initiated transformation. This has resulted in a serious cultural discourse between dalits and the dominant castes.

This can be presented in a schematic form (Table 1).

Table 1. Cultural discourse: Dalits and non-dalits

Dominant castes' perception of dalits Dalits' perception of themselves
Dirty, filthy fellows Capable, but no opportunities
Thieves, robbers Hardworking but fruits of labour denied
Cunning Honest, but due to situation steal, rob and lie
Lazy, kaam chor Assertive but fear of repression forces them to be subservient
Useless, good for nothing Straightforward, less cunning
Gluttons, petu, khau Culturally talented
Loose morals Sensitive, emotional
Dishonest Self-sacrificing
Quarrelsome, no unity Sagacious, good judgement
Ungrateful Collective, but victims of divide-and-rule policy
Source: Based on discussions held during workshops conducted on the reconstruction of dalit identity in six north Indian states

The first column of the chart presents the perceptions of the dominant castes about dalits -- they are negative, derogatory and simply untrue. Take for instance, dominant perceptions of dalits as petu or khau or gluttons. Like everyone else, dalits eat to survive. Those who have conducted studies on these castes have noted that since members of this community are deprived of a regular supply of food, they consume food as and whenever available. This is not out of choice but forced by living conditions.

The second column deals with dalits' perceptions of themselves. Some would argue that this perception appears unrealistic or aspirational. But it underlines the fact that a community which is at the receiving end of injustice is also able to look at the realities of its life positively.

Further, social exclusion does not remain in the realm of attitude alone. It is built into the social structure. This needs to be highlighted. There are some who argue that it is attitude that leads to exclusion, so a change in attitude will take care of social exclusion. The reality is that attitudes do not come from thin air. They are an outcome of the social structure. The social structure of a society contributes to the formation of attitudes. Attitudes, in turn, contribute to maintaining the social structure. Table 2 presents the everyday forms of exclusion that dalits and tribals are subjected to in India.

Table 2. A profile of dalits/tribals

S No Area Representation of dalits Representation of tribals
1 Population 16.48 8.08
2 Literacy-total 54.69 47.10
3 Male 66.64 59.10
4 Female 41.90 34.76
5 Dropout by high school 79.88 86.72
6 Public sector Unit A grade 8.41 -
7 Cultivators 25.44 54.50
8 Agricultural labourers 49.04 32.69
9 Agricultural and allied activities 76.22 87.00
10 Households with drinking water, electricity, toilet facilities 6.62 3.23
11 Prime Minister of India 0 0
12 Chief Justice 0 0
13 Party leadership 10 10
14 In teaching profession 9.49 7.03
15 Below the poverty line 56.00 54.00
16 Manual scavenging 100 0
17 Discriminated against 100 100
Source: Various census reports

Tribal communities are mobilising and organising themselves in contemporary India to secure the rights that are provided to them by the Constitution. On the one hand, they are making efforts to protect their culture, habitats and resources and on the other, they are breaking free from backwardness. But they are struck by the hard reality that they were victims of isolation in the past, now they are subjected to discrimination. This historical experience has provided space and scope for tribal identity-formation across the country. The interaction between tribals and non-tribals can be presented in a schematic form (Table 3).

Table 3. Cultural discourse: Tribals and non-tribals

SC and ST Commission's perception Tribals' perception
Isolation in forest Casteless, classless, equal society
Tribal dialect Community-oriented economic system
Animism Symbiotic relationship with nature
Primitive occupation Consensus-driven self-rule
Carnivorous diet Struggle for dignity and self-determination
Naked or semi-naked Collective historical sense
Nomadic habits People-oriented art, history and dance
Love drink and dance Changing with the time

From this chart it is clear that the non-tribal perception of tribals is derogatory. Food habits and ways of living, which are different from one's own, are salient features while culturally defining tribals. In contrast, tribals define themselves within their natural, social, cultural and economic surroundings.

There is growing awareness among tribals that they are alienated from their resources, denied their rights and also deprived of a decent living (Table 1). This has given rise to a politicised identity for tribals. A resolution of the Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, in November 1993, stated: "We the tribals of India are proud of the fact that we are the first inhabitants of our motherland. We have contributed much to the culture, history and heritage of India. However, little respect is today shown to our culture, social systems, political structures and economy. Efforts are made to integrate into the mainstream society as a low caste, though traditionally we have lived in an egalitarian and casteless society... Our culture is looked down upon... our languages are not respected."

Tribals and dalits constitute the backbone of Indian agriculture. But the area of operation in dalit possession is only 7.7%. Similarly, tribals have only 10.5% of total cultivable land. The other castes own over 81.8% of the land. More than 50% of tribals and dalits even today are engaged as landless agricultural labourers. The rest eke out a living as rickshawpullers, construction workers, domestic workers, manual scavengers, etc. Only a small percentage is engaged in non-farm employment. These facts and figures establish the multiple and cumulative exclusion of dalits and tribals in India.

Exclusion of women

Women in South Asia form the most excluded and discriminated segment of the population. Patriarchy is the principal cause. Patriarchy constrains women in many ways. Control of women's reproductive abilities and sexuality is placed in men's hands. Patriarchy limits women's ownership and control of property and other economic resources, including the products of their own labour. Women's mobility is constrained and their access to education and information hindered. Over the years, it has been recognised that the experiences of the majority of women are grounded in both poverty and patriarchy. Both these feed into each other and subject women to exclusion and exploitation. Over the past three decades, theorists, practitioners and activists involved in both women's movements and women's studies around the world have also focused on attitudinal underpinnings in the relationship between men and women.

Table 4. Perceptions about men and women

Women Men
Submissive Ambitious
Sensitive Rational
Gentle Courageous
Emotional Strong
Weak Decisive
Sexy Analytical
Nurturing Manipulative
Jealous Bold
Humble Goal-oriented
Patient Eloquent

The very perception of women by men (Table 4) is an indication of the exclusion and discrimination women are subjected to. In these ways, patriarchal structures perpetuate the enduring gaps between the opportunities available to South Asian women and South Asian men. Along with the mindset, if one notes the structural exclusion of women (Table 5) one understands the outcome of exclusion of women in India.

Table 5. Profile of women in India

Area Presence
Male-female ratio 933
Literacy rate 54.1
Literacy rate of dalit women 23.7
Literacy rate of tribal women 18.1
School enrolment of girl-child 48.1
Dropout of girls by primary school 45.97
Dropout of girls by middle school 65.1
Dropout of girls by high school 76.9
Participation in agricultural sector 81.2
Participation in unorganised sector 96.3
Participation in services sector 7.6
Casual labourers 41.9
Membership in Parliament, 1998 8.0

Source: Census of India 2001; select educational statistics 1990-91, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India; NSSO Report, 50th Round 1997-98

Exclusion of minorities

The minority Muslim community is excluded in India. There are more Muslims below the poverty line than the total population. They earn less than the others. Only 21% of Muslims use the public distribution system (PDS) compared to 33.2% of the entire population (Table 6). Enrolment rates among them are lower, while dropout rates are higher.

Table 6. Levels of income and material wellbeing

  Muslims All
Poverty head count ratio (%) 43.0 39.0
Household income (Rs) 22,807 25,653
Per capita income (Rs) 3,678 4,485
Work participation rate
Male 48.0 51.9
Female 9.6 18.4
Source of income
Agriculture 44.1 55.0
Artisanship 8.3 4.5
Salaried 14.7 16.5
Landholding -- household (acres) 3.6 4.5
Kutcha houses (%) 65.9 55.4
Electric connection (%) 30.0 42.9
Protected water (%) 78.1 72.0
Having toilet (%) 26.7 15.3
Using PDS (%) 21.8 33.2

Source: Zoya Hasan. Muslims In India: Why are they Excluded and Discriminated? A concept note prepared for DFID

This data offers only a glimpse of the problem; if one were to examine the everyday forms of exclusion Muslims face, especially deprivation, it is pathetic. Muslims do not get their due as citizens either at the policy level or at the programmatic interventions level.

Affirmative action

There has recently been a growing awareness that exclusion is multiple and cumulative. Those subjected to exclusion suffer many forms of exclusion simultaneously and this has a collective impact, resulting in further discrimination. For instance, a dalit or tribal girl is excluded due to caste and gender. If she is rural-based she faces further exclusion. If she is differently-abled, she suffers even more exclusion. This crucial aspect of exclusion needs to be understood and accepted for any kind of meaningful intervention in the lives of the excluded.

Any society that is hierarchical and highly skewed follows not only division of labour but division of people into inferior and superior. It is bound to practise exclusion. The very structure of society, economy and polity is built on exclusion. Various social groups are excluded on the basis of caste, class, gender, disability, ethnicity, age, location, etc. They are excluded from opportunities, outcomes of development, freedom of mobility, resources, citizenship in polity, and membership in society.

Those who propagate such a social order defend and maintain the status quo. And the excluded social groups, in turn, internalise the principles, practices and institutions that legitimise and enforce such a social order. Therefore, change is resisted by both excluding and excluded social groups.

One of the responses advocated for including excluded communities is affirmative action in countries like the United States, Malaysia, etc, and reservation in South Asia. In India, reservation has been viewed as a special provision for dalits and tribals since 1950, most backward castes since 1990 and religious minorities since 2000. It has been in operation for the last 60 years. But a careful reading will reveal that implementation of this special provision has been tardy and ineffective.

On the one hand, the Indian ruling class has doled out a number of special provisions, schemes and legislation that are supposed to ensure the uplift of weaker sections. On the other hand, they have exhibited immense acumen for subversion or non-implementation of their own policies and programmes. Thus, they have attempted to please the weaker sections through tokenism, at the same time maintaining the status quo.

Not surprisingly, the excluded in many countries are getting progressively disillusioned with affirmative action. They realise that these provisions are made to fool the excluded and that the social control of the ruling elite continues uncontested. In addition, they are also getting disillusioned with democracy. This could lead to crisis, conflict and violence.

Search for alternatives

At the ideological level some argue that attitudinal change will help address exclusion. But those who argue along these lines forget that attitude is an outcome of the social structure. It is the social location of a person that guides his or her attitude, and the attitude in turn either reinforces the skewed social order or calls for change. It is essential to map social reality to identify exclusion and discrimination.

It is also crucial to engage in a two-pronged exercise. Along with present and continuous inequality and exclusion, one needs to comprehend historical and changed forms of inequality and exclusion so as to respond in an appropriate manner.

The response to exclusion is inclusion. But this cannot be a passive exercise. Inclusion has to analyse and understand the processes and outcomes of exclusion and work out mechanisms for inclusion. Inclusion also cannot be forced.

One of the fundamental causes behind exclusion is the denial of ownership, access and control over resources (jal, jungle, zamin). The excluded are realising that the reasons for exclusion were invented to keep a vast majority of the population away from resources. Hence, the demand for ownership, access and control over resources is emerging as a collective claim.

The excluded in South Asia also realise that exclusion is a means to deny opportunities. Hence, they are demanding an Equal Employment Opportunity Act as well as an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to implement the Act. This demand has been in the political arena for a decade or more, and has gained momentum in recent times.

Two interrelated processes are taking place among marginalised communities. On the one hand, they continue to be subjected to exclusion, deprivation and discrimination. On the other, they are protesting the oppression and exploitation they are subjected to and asserting their rights to be citizens of the nation and equal members of society. It is these interrelated processes which have led to identity-formation and assertion among excluded communities. Various stakeholders need to realise this and align with the excluded in their struggle for inclusion and equity.

(Dr Prakash Louis is Director of the Bihar Social Institute, Patna)


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InfoChange News & Features, October 2008