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Dalit empowerment still a distant dream

The guidelines to reinvigorate panchayats at the village, block and district levels was envisioned by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s. It was, however, only in December 1992 that the 73rd constitution amendment for the constitution of panchayats was passed. Photo: HT (HT)Premium
The guidelines to reinvigorate panchayats at the village, block and district levels was envisioned by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s. It was, however, only in December 1992 that the 73rd constitution amendment for the constitution of panchayats was passed. Photo: HT

Almost two decades after the Panchayati Raj Act was notified, a key aim of the legislation remains unfulfilled

Papapatti/Madurai district: S. Muruganadam, 38, is the Dalit president of the Papapatti village panchayat in Madurai district and a post-graduate in political science. His term ends in 2016 and he has made up his mind not to run for re-election.

“I think a panchayat president’s post is an important post because only he or she truly knows what are the problems with the village and will be able to address them efficiently," says Muruganandam. But “I won’t stand for re-election."

In a country where elections are regarded as a potential step-ladder to power and success, Muruganandam’s decision may be a surprise. He has his reasons.

“I can’t do anything for the village. The Thevars (of higher standing in the scheduled caste category) constantly belittle us. They want us to consult them on everything. If I take any initiative, there are problems. So it is better I don’t try to do anything so that there is peace," he says. “If I were a Thevar, I could have made a difference to our village."

Muruganandam’s remarks illustrate that almost two decades after the central government notified the Panchayati Raj Act on 24 April 1993, a key aim of the legislation—the empowerment of Dalits—remains unfulfilled.

The Act directed state governments to ensure devolution of powers to village councils for “preparation of plans for economic development and social justice and for the implementation of development schemes" besides the reservation of seats for the deprived scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in panchayats and as panchayat heads.

B. Suresh of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty voluntary group describes the temple district of Madurai in central Tamil Nadu as the nerve centre of caste politics in the state.

“Caste permeates all power relations," he said by phone from Chennai. “This is because the state is complicit in siding with the upper caste Hindus in ensuring that the Dalit voices are stifled."

Dalits in Tamil Nadu do not seem as empowered as their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh or other parts of India because their numbers and areas of concentration are limited and because they are divided within themselves, Suresh says.

Scheduled castes (SC) and Scheduled tribes (ST) together constitute about 20% of Tamil Nadu’s population of 62 million people according to the 2001 census. India’s SC and ST population in the 2001 census was 24.4% of the national total.

“In Tamil Nadu, it is the Thevars and Vanniyars who decide the electoral victories at the state level and so political parties pay more heed to them," says V. Raghupathy, professor of political science and development administration at Gandhigram Rural university in Dindigul district adjoining Madurai.

These two communities also belong to the scheduled castes’ fold but are placed higher in the caste hierarchy to Dalits. With more numerical strength in their favour, “political parties in Tamil Nadu don’t want to antagonise these groups", says Raghupathy.

With the Dalit population in most Tamil Nadu villages being smaller than the other communities, the latter generally manage to get the upper hand, he explains.

With more than 12,500 village panchayats across Tamil Nadu, the state can easily be taken as a microcosmic representation of India, says R. Illango, a former Dalit panchayat president from Kuttambakkam village near Chennai.

Authorities at the district level and the state level, members of the legislative assembly or member of parliament “have no interest in furthering panchayati raj as they fear power will slip out of their hands into the hands of the people. Added to this is the caste rivalry issue. Officials at the district level come from one caste or the other and they sometimes collude with the upper castes to keep Dalits disempowered", he says.

S. S. Meenakshisundaram, a former secretary in the ministry of panchyati raj in New Delhi, points out that in Tamil Nadu, successive state governments have been implementing schemes through the district collectors. He points to the existence of an almost parallel system in the offices of the district collector and the block development officer to that of the panchayat, block and district presidents.

“So the collectors are more powerful and are seen as more powerful than panchayat presidents," he says.

The idea of delegation of powers to people living in the villages is not new in India.

But the laying down of guidelines to reinvigorate panchayats at the village, block (group of villages) and district levels to play an effective role in India’s constitutional governance structure was envisioned by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s. It was, however, only in December 1992 that the 73rd constitution amendment for the constitution of panchayats was passed.

Panchayats were given the powers to set up cottage and small scale industries including food processing industries, rural housing, providing drinking water, setting up libraries, primary and secondary schools besides poverty alleviation programmes, undertaking minor irrigation projects, maintenance of community assets and installation of health care facilities including primary health care centres and dispensaries.

The Tamil Nadu Panchyati Raj Act passed in 1994 endows them with similar powers. But few Dalit panchayat heads— male or female—actually feel empowered to use them.

“I can’t use even up to 20% of my powers as panchayat head, we can’t live here if we oppose them (Thevars). Even my own community does not support me as they fear them," says Muruganandam.

Plans for a veterinary hospital had to be shelved because the land allotted to the hospital was occupied by the Thevars. “Now the initiative is stuck," he says.

Visits to remote places like Keeripatti village—adjoining Papapatti—illustrate how the provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act are being flouted or subverted. Both villages have been in the news for years—often held up as examples of how the deeply etched faultlines between the different echelons of the scheduled castes held up panchayat elections till 2006.

“Don’t mistake me, but I find Thevars to be more assertive and they get things done," says 67-year-old Chellakannu Thevar, a farmer from Papapatti. “I agree it is a challenge for them (Dalits), but situation between Thevars and Dalits is much better now. If they come to seek our co-operation, we will co-operate."

From the outside, the panchayat in Keeripatti could be a model one with A. Mookakalai, a Dalit from the Parayyar community, installed as the president after the 2011 panchayat polls. The village has a population of 1,650 people of which 650 are Dalits living in small mud-thatched houses on the margins of the village.

A few minutes of conversation reveals that Mookakalai, who lives in a one room thatched house with his mother, wife and five daughters, won elections with the help of the dominant Thevar community.

He has been able to deliver little of the goals he had set for himself— that of providing drinking water, drainage facilities and laying of cement concrete roads. The Dalit community in his village has few expectations of him. “He has the same problems as us, what development can he bring to us?" says a neighbour .

P. Baluchamy was Mookakalai’s predecessor and has the distinction of being the first Dalit president of Keeripatti. No one was willing to contest for the post of president of Keeripatti panchayat despite it being reserved for Dalits, for fear of a backlash from upper castes in 2006. “Since no one (Dalits) came forward, I volunteered, and stood unopposed," recalls Baluchamy. “I was given police protection by the district administration for the five years I was in office" because he was threatened by the Thevar community.

According to Baluchamy, Mookakalai defeated him in the 2011 elections because he was propped up by the Thevars. “There are a lot of what we call ‘benami’ panchayat presidents who simply obey the dictates of the panchayat vice- president who is usually from the dominant community. Or in other cases, the panchayat president will obey the will of the dominant community," says A. Kathir, who heads a non-governmental group called Evidence that works for Dalit empowerment.

A survey by Evidence found last year that 85% of 171 panchayat presidents from 10 districts polled in Tamil Nadu said they faced some form of caste discrimination while 82% said upper castes had interfered with their working. Four panchayat presidents surveyed by Evidence said they had faced physical attacks. From the past, stories of how upper caste Hindus have not hesitated to kill Dalits who have dared to stand for election are legion.

Despite the flaws, experts like professor Raghupathy of Gandhigram Rural university are loathe to dismiss panchayati raj as a failure. “Many women and Dalits are getting elected to the office of panchayat president, when they get there, they realize the importance of the office they hold whether they are guided by the upper castes or their husbands. There definitely has been empowerment though may be not to the level one would have liked and not enough to meet the growing demands and aspirations of the people," he says.

This is the sixth in a series of reports on panchayati raj 20 years after it was given a new constitutional framework.

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