04/15/2022, 19.59
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India remembers Ambedkar, but for disadvantaged groups little has changed

by Alessandra De Poli

Born 131 years ago, the Indian jurist fought for social equity for Dalits, Adivasi and women. Indian politicians like to cite him, but in practice nothing is being done to improve the situation of the poorest, who, according to the latest studies, are still discriminated with respect to the economy, healthcare and law. An award to honour him has not been given for years.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Yesterday India marked the 131st anniversary of the birth of Bhimrao Ramji “Babasaheb” Ambedkar, father of the Indian Constitution, an activist for Dalit, Adivasi and women’s rights who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

Political leaders and prominent individuals paid tribute to Babasaheb, the Respected Father. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that yesterday was a day to “reiterate our commitment to fulfilling his dreams” of social justice. President Ram Nath Kovind described Ambedkar as “the architect of the Constitution” who “laid the foundation for modern India”.

Yet, after the Modi administration came to power in 2014, the Ambedkar awards have not been handed out, and Ambedkar’s dreams have not been turned into reality; Dalits (scheduled castes, formerly known as untouchables) and Adivasi (scheduled tribes) still lag behind in terms of economic opportunity, legal protection as well as access to water and sanitation.

Ambedkar, a convert to Buddhism, was born Bhimrao Ramji Ambavadekar (later changed to Ambedkar) into a Mahar family, a Dalit caste. Between 1913 and 1917 he studied economics at Columbia University in New York and at the London School of Economics and also trained in the law at Gray's Inn, London.

After India’s independence in August 1947, he became Law Minister and set out to draft India’s republican constitution, to ensure a broad spectrum of civil and individual rights and freedom and abolish “untouchability”.

The constituent assembly included in the final text the principle of positive discrimination thereby reserving certain public service positions for members of disadvantaged castes and tribes. However, since the constitution was adopted (1950), little has changed for such groups.

According to a recent government report, the upper castes own over 60 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises; by comparison, scheduled castes (Dalits) own 6.8 per cent and scheduled tribes (Adivasi) only 2.1 per cent. Scheduled castes and tribes are India’s historically disadvantaged ethnic and social groups.

Discrimination against these groups is clear even in Indian law, a situation acknowledged by Orissa High Court Chief Justice S Muralidhar who says that Indian laws are drafted in such a way that they penalise the poor.

More than half of the people awaiting trial are from disadvantaged groups, he told a conference yesterday. About 21 per cent of the prison population belongs to a scheduled caste, while 37.1 per cent belongs to "Other Backward Classes”, a collective term used by the Government of India for the disadvantaged. More than 17 per cent of the people on trial and 19.5 per cent of the detainees are Muslims.

In late March, Indians commemorated the anniversary of Ambedkar’s satyagraha (non-violent resistance) of 1927. At the time, lower caste Indians were not allowed to use water in public places used by upper caste Indians.

Ambedkar drank water from a tank in front of everyone in the city of Mahad, near Mumbai (then Bombay), and invited Dalit women to wear sari like women from upper castes.

Despite the struggles, official government data show that members of scheduled castes and tribes as well as Muslims have a shorter life span, with discrimination as the main cause.

About 26 per cent of upper caste children suffer from malnourishment, a percentage that rises to 40 per cent for scheduled castes and tribes, worse than in sub-Saharan Africa (30 per cent).

For women, access to hospital care varies according to social status and religion. Yet it is precisely the poorest sections of the population who need public services the most, argues Preshit Ambade, a public health policy researcher.

Developing an efficient welfare system based on Ambedkar’s concept of social equity would benefit a country with below than average socio-economic indicators.

But poverty and marginalisation are not aspects of Indian life that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to show.

The Dr. Ambedkar National Award was created in 1993, followed three years later by the Dr. Ambedkar International Award, assigned each 14 April to individuals and organisations fighting inequalities in accordance with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideas.

Yet for the past eight years, the award has not been assigned, officially for “administrative reasons”, The Wire reported.

According to the Ambedkar Foundation’s guidelines, the call for submission of names takes place months before the award is given.

Everyone in India has used Ambedkar’s name for electoral purposes, but so far no one has said anything about the award not being handed out.

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