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Questionable inclusion?

Recent data reveals that around 40% of the positions of ‘sweeper’ in the central government are now filled by non-dalits. Does this suggest a more progressive society, or simply one where the post of government sweeper is acceptable for the security it offers, but the work continues to be done by the socially-excluded, asks Alok Srivastava

Poverty and Social Exclusion in India

Group SCs (%)
 A  13.0
 B  14.5
 C  16.4
 D  18.3
 Sweepers  59.4
 Average across groups A-D, including sweepers  24.3
 Average across groups A-D, excluding sweepers  15.6
Source: Poverty and Social Exclusion in India, World Bank, 2011
Note: Calculated from data of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (2009) 

A recently released book by the World Bank,Poverty and Social Exclusion in India, states that, according to data from the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (2009), 59.4% of sweepers in central government services (all ministries except two) in 2006 were dalits (scheduled castes). SCs are over-represented in the least skilled employment levels in government.

But looked at another way, this means that over 40% of posts for sweepers are filled by non-dalits. Put simply, two out of every five sweepers in government offices belong to social groups that are non-scheduled caste.

Does this reflect a progressive society, or does it bring out the real picture: Sarkari naukri ke liye kuch bhi karega (will do anything for a government job)? Government jobs ensure a regular income and other benefits and, to some extent, less accountability. Perhaps this is why government offices and public places are usually so dirty!

Considering a lot of effort is being made by government and non-government agencies to work towards social inclusion of SCs in the mainstream, this data on non-SCs filling the post of sweeper, which not so many years ago would have been ‘objectionable’ to any member of the so-called ‘general castes’, is revealing. Is it a good example of ensuring social acceptability of scheduled castes by encouraging non-SCs to fill positions that are considered ‘reserved’ for socially excluded groups?

However, the fact that such a high percentage of non-SCs are taking up sweepers’ jobs -- till recently considered ‘fit’ for a few sub-groups within SCs only -- throws up some evidence for repeated claims that the work is ‘outsourced’ by the ‘real’ employee. Though there is no concrete evidence to support this view, as the saying goes there can be no smoke without fire. It is extremely likely that non-SCs fill the post of sweeper only in order to get a government job with its attendant economic security. But when it comes to delivering their job responsibilities, they hire unemployed SCs to work on their behalf at a much lesser wage whilst they engage in other economic activities, thereby keeping themselves ‘clean’!

So, while the post of government sweeper appears to no longer be a socially excluded one, the work related to the position continues to be so. Can we at least say there is social inclusion at the job selection level? It seems non-SCs are no longer considered outcastes because they work as sweepers.

Another noticeable feature associated with efforts made by the government at the community level towards social inclusion of excluded social groups is to provide habitations dominated by these social groups with basic amenities like a drinking water source, electricity, all-weather roads, and in some cases, anganwadi centres and school buildings. Though this may be considered a good effort on the part of government, central or state, a closer look into the consequences of these initiatives suggests that an already marginalised social group continue to remain excluded. The reason for this is simple: providing them facilities at the doorstep means that people from these sections of society do not need to visit other hamlets to avail of services. In a way we are telling them: you do not need to go to other hamlets; you have the facilities in your own hamlet. Therefore they continue to be excluded.

As a matter of fact, social inclusion is not just about making services available at the doorstep of socially excluded groups. Accessibility to these services should be available to them anywhere (any hamlet/part of the village). Earlier, for instance, the so-called upper castes would not allow members of the scheduled castes to enter the village to collect water or even touch water sources as these marginalised social groups were considered ‘untouchable’. Now, despite laws being in place, people from the ‘general’ castes still do not allow SCs to use water sources, offering other reasons: you have handpumps and wells in your own hamlet, why do you come here for water? You do not maintain/take care of the sources available in your hamlet; after they become non-functional you come here to fetch water. And so the exclusion continues…

Similarly, if the government builds an anganwadi centre in a hamlet where most households are from the socially excluded community, the chances of children from SC families mingling with children belonging to other social groups become slimmer.

To corroborate this view, I would like to narrate an interesting discussion during a recent interaction with children from the socially excluded Musahar group in Bihar. In a village in Vaishali district, the primary school currently functions out of a community building in the vicinity of the hamlet that houses families belonging to the Musahar community, one of the most marginalised and neglected scheduled caste sub-castes. A few families belonging to non-SC social groups also send their children to this school; they have no option. But their children do not partake of the midday meals served at the school, for obvious reasons. I was told that in a month or so, a new school building – away from the Musahar community -- would be ready. The school was slated to shift there. In all probability, acceptance of the midday meal, which in any case is not cooked on the school premises but is delivered by a local agency contracted to supply the cooked meal, would then increase, and its ‘boycott’ by non-SC families would end.

For governments, incidents like these throw up a Catch 22 situation. To provide or not to provide? To equip the hamlets of socially excluded communities with basic amenities knowing that this will also keep them within the confines of their own hamlets? Or to mainstream them by ensuring free access to facilities in any part of the village?

(Alok Srivastava is team leader, CMS Social, New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, June 2012