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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 20, May 10, 2014

India at EI Dorado’s Doorstep?: May 16 will show the way

Monday 12 May 2014, by A K Biswas


As India comes to the final phase of the 16th parliamentary elections, breathless hype across the subcontinent leads many to believe that we are close to the doorstep of El Dorado, which unfolds a legendary story in which “precious stones were found in fabulous abundance along with gold coins [......] the imagined El Dorado went from a city to a kingdom and an empire of this legendary golden king.”1

Now the question is if India will vote for development, resulting in overflow of honey and cream from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. The dream is tempting and captivating for everyone—high or low, rich or poor. Never-theless, there are differences of opinion among the intellectual class. According to a highly acclaimed economist, “Modi has the vision of where he will take us.” This is Prof Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, New York, USA who is “considered by some as the greatest economist not to have won a Nobel”.2 Gujarat is his vision which is to be replicated as the model for universal application across India. But, on the contrary, Prof Amarya Sen warns: “We need development by expanding the human capability, regarding an educated and healthy labour force. That doesn’t mean we don’t need physical capital like power, electricity, roads etc. Both are important.” Therefore, two approaches, advocated by two Indian giants in economics and seemingly irreconcilable, are before the country. Further, the Nobel Laureate apprehends, the “minorities have reasons to fear Modi”.

If development means construction of more roads, expansion of railways, generation of more energy, building ships, shipyards, sea ports and airports, senseless exploitation of natural resources which, by and large, is in the focus of the Gujarat Model, there is reason to be worried. But why is it without a human face? According to Sen, “primarily the focus should be on education and human capital”. Without education for all to build human capital, development is brutal exploitation.

Education, “especially school education”, alongside “healthcare”, occupies status in Sen’s priorities “But I don’t see this understanding in Mr Modi’s programme,” said Prof Sen. If the academician is worried over it, he only places in public domain his cherished perspective at a very appropriate and critical juncture. His concerns undoubtedly resonate in the minds of a vast section of Indians.

The fear of the minorities has been voiced with the due seriousness it merits. There is another section that has evaded his attention or may be the media has censored to bring it on board. They are the Dalits and tribals.

Gujarat: A Model in Untouchability

A survey, titled “Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1589 villages” in Gujarat, jointly conducted by Navsarjan Trust and Robert E. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, UK, puts together some very relevant but disturbing information to understand Gujarat’s social realities.The survey covers a period from 2007 to 2010.3

In 98.4 per cent of the villages surveyed, inter-caste marriage was prohibited, and inter-caste couples would be subjected to violence and would often have to leave the village. In 98.1 per cent of the villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit locality. In 97.6 per cent of the villages, Dalits touching the water pots or utensils of non-Dalits was considered defilement. In 97.2 per cent of the villages, Dalit religious leaders would never be asked to perform a religious ceremony in a non-Dalit area.

Lack of political will stands against abolishing untouchability. The survey underlines: “There is systematic underestimation of the practice of untouchability within modern India; the perpetuation of a wide variety of abuses is allowed to continue with impunity; there is a general lack of awareness and sensitivity to the pervasiveness of the problem; and, consequently, there is limited political will to address and change the situation.” The team spoke to 5462 respondents in 1589 villages over a two-year period. The survey formulated an index of untouchability after identifying 98 distinct practices of discrimination and clustered them into eight categories: (1) water for drinking; (2) food and beverage; (3) religion; (4) touch; (5) access to public facilities and institutions; (6) caste-based occupations; (7) prohibitions and social sanctions; and (8) private sector discrimi-nation. The survey was on both vertical and horizontal discrimination, that is, discrimination by a non-Dalit against a Dalit and discrimination by a Dalit against another Dalit. In 87 per cent of the villages surveyed, Dalits were not allowed to hire cooking pots for wedding ceremonies. Dalits could not use the services of local barbers (in 73 per cent of the villages), potters (in 61 per cent of the villages) and tailors (in 33 per cent of the villages). In 29 per cent of the villages, Dalits were denied access to common wells or taps, and in 71 per cent of the villages, there was no water tap in the Dalit area of the village. “Given that water is essential for so many aspects of life—especially in a rural context—this form of discrimination is especially inhuman. Particularly astounding is that, in 10 per cent of the villages, Dalits were not able to receive the services of the village’s private doctor, even though failure to do so is potentially fatal.” In 2001, Dalits accounted for 7.09 per cent of Gujarat population.4

Beyond the villages surveyed, it is naive to guess that things are hunky-dory for the untouchables across the model State. If the State is this horrifying and ugly, the rest may be left to the imagination. The relief and rehabilitation measures undertaken, for instance, by the government in the aftermath of earthquakes in Bhuj, Gujarat left Dalits discriminated, a fact the Indian media overlooked and failed to highlight.

Speaking of the BJP manifesto, the IIM-Bangalore’s Prof Bharat Jhunjhunwala wants us to believe that “Gandhi had wanted the ‘Dalit-hood’ of the Dalits to be removed”.5 Even at the risk of being hauled over the coals, one cannot resist the temptation to refer to his thoughts relevant to the issue. His cherished scheme aimed to deny the lower social strata, that is, the untouchables, education altogether. Expressing his unshakable opposition to those who were against the caste system, Gandhiji reposed his total faith in the varna-vyavastha: “Our ancient school system is enough..... We consider your modern school to be useless.” [Hind Swaraj] The ancient school system and approachability to it by the untouchables merit no mention. The unfazed Mahatma declared: “I believe that the division into verna is based on birth. Varna means the determination of a man’s occupation before he is born. The objective of the varna system is to prevent competition, class struggle and class war. I believe in the varna system because it fixes the duties and occupations of persons.” The Mahatma taunted the European countries, saying: “Those countries have not derived from the caste system the same degree of advantage which India has derived.”

Later the man of destiny propagated the concept of basic education, which India’s Five-Year Plans enforced and wasted huge precious resources and time. “The core of my suggestion is that handicrafts are to be taught, not merely for productive work, but for developing intellect of the pupils.” He argued that teaching, reading and writing to children before handicrafts “hampers their intellectual growth”.6 The First Five-Year Plan supported the need for university education, but went against regular schooling at the elementary level, favouring instead a so-called “basic education” built on the hugely ‘romantic and rather eccentric idea’ that children should learn through self-financing handicraft. The misfortune of the nation is man-made as it relied blindly on the idiosyncrasy of one man. Therefore the “tendency to open new primary schools” was not encouraged and resources were “concentrated on basic education as far as possible and the improvement and remodelling of existing primary schools on basic lines“.7 The madness of replacing proper schooling by the so-called “basic education” rightly failed to resonate with the public. This did not, however, prevent the the Second Five-Year Plan (initiated in 1956) from reasserting that “the whole elementary education has to be re-oriented on basic lines”.8 Why so? Prof Amartya Sen and Prof Dreze concluded: “It was indeed a home-grown folly to a great extent reflecting— an upper-class and upper-caste—bias against the education of the masses.”9

To term it simply as a folly perhaps is an underestimation of the strategy of the scheming and self-seeking upper-class and upper-caste per se. As angelical advocate of caste, Mahatma cutely served the objective of the vested interest and performed what suited them most. Now the Mahatma’s followers have been pursuing the course in various ways and forestalled invasion of the fields of education and skilled employment by the Indian masses.

An Era of Privatisation

Touching on the malefic role black money plays in the private sector, recently former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi observed: “Reliance is a parallel State. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly, over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources as the company of the Ambanis.”10 But the hydra-headed monster has vocal patrons.

When Jagdish Bhagwati advocates greater role for private entrepreneurs, he articulates the sentiments of the Republican partisans in the USA. This is, no doubt, the vision of his hero. India’s strength of billionaires is envy to many countries. What role do they play in public charities aimed to change the face of India? India’s billionaires are not comparable even to the shadow of Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, gift of American laissez-faire in their charitable activities globally. The long interview carried by an English daily listed the priorities and focus areas of Narendra Modi.11 He is ominously silent over his approach to the social sector. If a page or two are taken out of Gujarat for following as model by other States lagging behind in atrocities and untouchability, similar distinction would be achieved post-haste there too. He has made his mind about Muslims known perhaps in the backdrop of sustained political attacks. Though the Dalit and tribal communities face far greater persecution and deprivation in terms of human life and dignity, the same political conscience and will is absent from the public domain for the victims. It would be an insult to minority intellect to believe that they take pretentious professions of goodwill for them by political outfits on face value. The minorities would undoubtedly ponder very carefully if the country that can treat its far larger proportion of population (the Sche-duled Castes and Tribes) so brutally, can its dominant classes extend a better deal in isolation to them (minorities)?

India does not learn from history. In 1854, the East India Company’s ‘downward filtration of education’ aimed at imparting Western education and knowledge initially to the elite and aristocrat Indians. The Company had expected that the better classes, in turn, would convey their acquired knowledge and learning to the countrymen who would thereby be benefited and elevated. Sadly, this did not happen though the policy succeeded whole-somely in England. Caste, unknown in the UK, stood on its way in India resulting in failure of the ‘downward filtration’ policy. A contem-porary social reformer and educationist, Rev Lal Behary Dey’s caustic observation may be recalled here and now: “.........if someone of the lower classes, I mean the Sudras, have received the benefit of knowledge, no thanks to the Brahminical filter, from which not a single drop oozed out for thirty centuries.[..........] In this country, knowledge never ‘filtered’ from the upper classes. The fact is, the upper classes filter, in India at any rate, is not a filter, but a jar hermetically sealed.”12

It is moonshine to imagine even the same class will ever allow their fortunes of economic development to filter down to the downtrodden.



2. The Times of India, April 30, 2014.

3. l/article5958923.ece © to Frontline, May 1, 2014.

4. Census of 2001.

5. The Statesman, April 12, 2014, Quote unquote.

6. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Allen Lane, 2013, p. 24.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid. 

9. Ibid., p. 25.

10. The Times of India, April 16, 2014.

11. The Times of India, May 6, 3014.

12. Herbert Alick Stark, Vernacular Education in Bengal from 1813 to 1912, Calcutta General Publishing Co., 1916, p. 89.

The author is a former Divisional Commissioner and Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at

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