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A Dalit Soldier’s Death Exposes Just How Terrible India’s Caste Problem Still Is

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By Himadri Ghosh,

Earlier this week, when upper-caste villagers in the western Uttar Pradesh district of Firozabad tried to prevent the funeral of a Dalit paramilitary soldier killed in a terrorist ambush, it was the latest manifestation of widespread discrimination against 305 million Indians belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Upper-caste villagers refused to allow the funeral of Vir Singh, a Nat–a community of now-settled formerly nomadic acrobats who are Dalits, lowest of Hindu castes–on public land, reluctantly relenting after many hours of cajoling by a local bureaucrat. A father of three, Singh, a 35-year veteran of the Central Reserve Police Force, died in Pampore, Kashmir, on June 26, 2016. His family lived in a one-room home with a tin roof, the DNA reported.

More than 1,200 km to the east, in a Kolkata slum peopled exclusively by other outcastes like him, Dharmendra, a ‘manual scavenger’–an official term for those who manually clean toilets and sewers–for 33 years, explained how he was so used to discrimination that he is barely aware of it. He was not aware that manual scavenging is banned by law, and he had not heard of job reservations for his clan, mathors, people who clean toilets, septic tanks and sewers, often immersed in excreta.

“I don’t even have papers,” said Dharmendra, a short, lean man whose real name is Kartik Nayak. He sings Hindi songs from the films of Bollywood actor Dharmendra, hence the name. “It is fate; no one can change my fate,” he said. “I am happy the way I am, still alive at 51 with a wife, a son and his family.”

After 68 years of Independence, not only does discrimination endure against Indians from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes–201 million and 104 million, respectively, according to Census 2011–crimes against India’s most marginalised are rising (as the second part of this series will explore).

Despite progress, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes–who together constitute 25.2% of India’s population–continue to trail other Indians. To quantify the gap, IndiaSpend used four criteria: Education, income, land and home ownership and government jobs.

Every so often, even those Dalits who have broken through India’s logjam of caste find it difficult to navigate a society dominated by upper castes. Rohith Vemula, a 25-year-old University of Hyderabad Dalit Phd student–whose January 2016 suicide became a rallying point for those who felt discriminated–referred in his suicide note to the ‘value of a man’ reduced to “his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”


Both scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) lag Indian educational indicators, according to Census 2011: 66% of SCs are literate, as are 59% of STs; literacy among the general population is 74%.

In 2010-2011, no more than 13.5% of SCs and 11.2% of Schedule Tribes were enrolled for higher education, according to government data, against 19% for the general population. In some states, such as Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, the SC/ST-enrolment rate for higher education was between 4% and 6%.

These data are improvements over past years. For instance, in 1981, only 21% of SCs and 16.3% of STs were literate. Ten years later, in 1991, the literacy rate went up to 37.4% for SCs and 29.6% for STs.

Reservations have helped improve enrolment rates in higher education, but many students feel the pressure of expectations and subtle discrimination. More than half of all SC, ST and OBC (other backward castes) students felt discrimination, although it was not overt, according to a 2014 survey (reported by DNA, a newspaper) conducted by a student organisation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Currently, 15% of admissions to government-funded academic institutions are reserved for SCs and 7.5% for STs.

There is little evidence that such affirmative action affects academic effort. “Despite a significant gap in entry scores at admission to a higher educational institution, no significant differences are found in the effort and academic attitudes between students from beneficiary groups and those who get admission through non-reserved/open seats,” said this 2016 study for the United Nations University. However, the study noted the ‘clear and significant differences between caste groups’ and ‘the presence of stigma’.

“Government interventions, programmes and policies are helping but they are too little compared to the actual need,” said A. Narayanan, Director of CHANGEIndia, an advocacy based in Chennai. “And privatisation of education is depriving the Dalit.”

The 2014 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reveals that the percentage of children aged one to six, enrolled in private schools in rural India, went up from 18.7% in 2006 to 30.8% in 2014. Privatisation of education is depriving Dalits because private education–on average–is up to eight times costlier than in government schools.

The privatisation of education particularly affects SCs and STs because they occupy the lowest rungs of India’s economic ladder.


In 83% of SC households and 86.5% of ST homes, the monthly salary of the highest-earning member was less than Rs 5,000, according to data from 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC).

In some states, such as Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, between 86% of SC families report their highest-earning member as earning less than Rs 5,000 per month. For STs, this income level is the norm for nine of 10 families in West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala and Chattisgarh.

SC and ST households constitute half of India’s ‘poor, deprived households’, according to this 2011 year pilot survey to identify how many Indians lived below the poverty line. That deprivation is evident in the homes and land that SCs and STs own.

Land And Home

ST land holdings are lowest in some relatively prosperous states, such as Goa, Gujarat and Telangana, where they constitute 13%, 21% and 11%, respectively, of the population. As for SCs, they own little or no land in Haryana and Chhattisgarh, where they constitute 23% and 14% of the population.

No more than 0.36% of ST and 0.64% of SC households pay income tax, according to 2001 SECC data, the latest available (Table: 5). Among the general population, 3.81% pay income tax, as IndiaSpend reported in May 2016.

The government must consider how to equitably distribute wealth, argued Narayanan, while the chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes of India (NCST), Rameshwar Oraon, said there was no account of the money spent on numerous programmes for SC/ST welfare.

“The government is spending money, but it doesn’t know where the money is going,” said Oraon. “The money is meant for the welfare of the tribal and the Dalit, but the money not is reaching them.”

Government Jobs

There are no data on how many SCs and STs are employed by the private sector, but an analysis of SC/ST representation in government services reveals that despite reservations–15% of such jobs are reserved for SCs and 7.5% for STs–they lag other Indians.

No more than 0.48% of ST and 0.73% of SC households had a salaried government (both Centre and state) job, according to the SECC 2011. In 1994, the latest year for which such data are available, 16.9% of all central government employees were SC and 5.49% were ST–their proportion in the general population.

kartik nayak, a dalit from the Mathor community
Image Credit: IndiaSpend

Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha have the least proportion of SCs in government jobs, while Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh had the least proportion of STs.

SC and ST representation in ‘Group-D’ services—such as peons and sweepers–is 18.4% and 6.7% respectively. In managerial-level ‘Group-A’ and ‘Group-B’ services, SC representation is 12.2% and 14.5% and for ST, 4.1% and 4.6%, respectively. To recall: SCs and STs together constitute a quarter of India’s population.

Do Job Reservations Help Or Hinder?

There is evidence of some positive impact and no negative impact, according to this 2016 productivity study of the Indian Railways–India’s largest public-sector employer–using data from 1980 and 2002 by two researchers, Ashwini Deshpande from the Delhi School of Economics and Thomas Weisskopf of the University of Michigan.

As for self-employed SCs and STs, their businesses fared ‘significantly worse’ than those owned by upper castes, with 55% of the earnings gap unexplained, implying ‘greater discrimination’, said another 2015 study from Deshpande.

“Our Constitution has given certain reservations to the marginalised, but that’s not enough,” said Dalia Chakrabarti, an associate professor at the department of sociology in West Bengal’s Jadavpur University. “We need to remodel/restructure the provisions as the socio-economic dynamics of the country change with time.”

This article was originally published on, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.

About the author: Ghosh is a Bangalore based independent reporter and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Image Source: ActionAid India/Flickr

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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