– by Esma S. Adiguzel
Have you ever imagined a world without the internet, newspapers, or TV? We crave knowledge to keep up to date with what is going on around us, protect and prepare us to the upcoming probabilities, connect with others, and share our stories. Being able to access information should not be a privilege. Unfortunately, due to the unreachable nature of certain information, the reality is far from it in certain parts of the world, including India.
On this International Day of Universal Access to Information, we discuss how the lack of information is suppressing low castes in India.
The caste system is a wide-known ancient adversary of India’s harmony. This system leaves over 300 million people from low caste divisions with little hope to climb up the socioeconomic ladder to prosperous lives. Communities belonging to lower castes consist of landless agricultural laborers, sacrificing their livelihoods because of the Indian economy. Over 86% of Dalit people are landless, and those who own land are very few despite the governmental reforms on land and housing. In rural areas, land determines an individual’s standard of living and social status. Hence Dalits are economically vulnerable, and therefore perform the most demeaning activities such as handling human waste and cleaning up the latrines. They usually work for a few kilograms of rice or a small amount of salary which is below the minimum wage that is set by the government. This makes social mobility an ideal hard to achieve since poverty and poor health are common in this section of society.
The lack of career prospects does little to change the status quo of the low castes. This is because labor is allocated based on caste, groups such as Dalits who lack social status are typically restricted to tasks and occupations that are deemed too “filthy” or “polluting” for higher-caste communities. Some of the most dehumanizing activities that are performed by them include; removing human waste and dead animals, leather works, street sweeping, and cobbling. Unfortunately, the low rates of employment in more lucrative and respected positions mainly comes from competition for jobs. This is unfair since low caste people would be compared to those from upper castes, who would have easier access to education, therefore better chances of obtaining relevant experiences, which would open many doors.
A low level of literacy is a catharsis for unemployment, hindering the potential improvements for a more respected reputation in society. The high drop-out rate among lower-caste communities is a result of poverty and discrimination they receive from their peers as well as teachers. Naturally, these children are discouraged and instead prefer to work to offer for their families through labor. Although India is one of the countries which has aimed to deliver free, compulsory, primary education for all children up to the age of fourteen, we need more effort to keep up this promise since almost two-thirds of the Dalit population is illiterate. In comparison, about one-half of the general population fits into that category. It significantly bars them from prospects of career and protects the deeply rooted privilege of the upper-caste groups.
Furthermore, it deepens the need for access to information for many citizens from these sections are, in fact, unaware of their rights. Arguably not enough, the government has attempted to redress these issues that these disadvantaged groups have faced for decades. However, due to a mixture of lack of awareness and failure of promotion, many are not conscious of their constitutional rights. One of them is the Right to Information Act of 2005. This right equips all Indian citizens with the tools to fight against corruption. By using this right, any citizen can require information that fits in the guidelines of the types of information that can be accessed and then assess violation of constitutional rights. This right ensures that individuals receive information clearly and transparently so that they can advocate for themselves. However, unaware of their basic rights, where to seek help, and how to take legal action, real change will become slow. The government has taken action to dismantle the discriminatory aspect of the caste system and has created policies to help underdeveloped communities. Affirmative action programs, in particular, have ensured that the maximum amount of people could reach a better lifestyle. Today there are many Dalits with well-respected occupations such as poets, doctors, civil service officers, engineers, and even a Dalit president, though they are mostly ceremonial titles. It goes on to show that the views on lower-castes are a less radical one. Additionally, we must note that in rural areas, the hostility continues.
Access to information is at the heart of this issue since recent studies show a correlation between caste and income and education rate. Regardless of the availability of certain privileges for the low caste people, access to the entirety of information is still a far cry. A great example of this would be the reservation system created by the government guaranteeing government jobs to members of minority communities. After the independence of India, quotas for employment, known as reservations, were introduced into the constitution, and discriminating against the lower castes was made illegal. This quota rose to 49% in 1990. It applies to groups classified as Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. These were the names given to groups of historically disadvantaged indigenous Indians. The reservation policy has increased public sector employment for the lower castes also led to a significant drop in poverty. Arguably, solely relying on economic developments to tackle the deeply rooted discrimination was not enough. As many critics suggest, increasing the quotas available can also serve as a dangerous distraction from solving the bigger problem with the caste system. What is urgently needed is continued improvements in education for early age children from lower castes. Reservations are great opportunities for government jobs, but education fosters competence in the next low-caste generation for other lines of work that the government does not control recruitment for (e.g., banking, IT, journalism, etc.). Education and being able to access information means being conscious about your rights so that you would recognize a violation. Education is the only weapon left in the arsenal to fight centuries of discrimination.