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DALIT political agendas are back in news, and not only because the BSP may emerge as the biggest gainer from the recent election in U.P. But whether or not Mayawati becomes CM, on her own or in coalition with whoever is willing to be dictated by her, few believe that this would dramatically alter the fortunes of her support base.

Partly this is because, formal rhetoric apart, dalit politics has in the main remained confined to the world of reservations. And while it is undeniable that constitutional reservations had a positive distributional impact, and facilitated the emergence of a dalit middle class, serious doubts have been expressed about the ‘costs’ as also future viability of this strategy.

The recently released ‘Bhopal document’ purports to craft a different agenda. For one, despite the backing of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, it did not bring on board any of our well-known, self-proclaimed dalit leaders and parties. More surprisingly, none of these notables have so far thought fit to respond to either the overall philosophy or the specific proposals put forward in the document, reminiscent of the veritable ‘political silence’ around the Durban Conference on social exclusion.

But more than its ostensible promoters and supporters, including the President, the Bhopal document breaks new grounds by moving beyond the limited frame of reservations as the principal route to dalit emancipation. Clearly there is realisation that the existing regime of quotas in education and employment, partly because it has been somewhat indifferently implemented as also because the benefits have been cornered by a relatively small coterie, is unlikely to be emancipatory. There is also the grudging recognition that since quotas are applicable only to the state sector, which is experiencing a secular decline and competition from the Mandal castes, another strategy is required. There is, of course, the small matter of growing hostility, particularly among the well-heeled savarna groups to the very idea of compensatory discrimination.

Attention has, therefore, been focused on interventions via the market economy in the private sector. Taking a cue from the U.S. experience, the new demand is that private sector employers should be nudged into becoming socially more inclusive, possibly by bringing in a wider anti-discriminatory legislation. Of course, existing quotas within the state sectors should be expeditiously filled. Moreover, the state should ensure land for dalits through land reforms and making available forest and grazing lands for farming, while providing greater credit facilities through state financial institutions. Finally, to promote dalit entrepreneurship, a specified proportion of purchases by government should be made from dalit establishments.

Similar demands have been made for the educational domain as well. While emphasizing the need to ensure compulsory elementary education, the document calls for ‘diversity in admissions’ to quality private schools. Because unless dalits have access to good quality education at all levels, the goal of producing a vibrant and confident dalit middle class will remain a distant dream.

In re-focusing on the need for a socially more inclusive social order and in pointing out the role of wider civil society to supplement state efforts, the Bhopal document has sparked off a furious debate. There is no running away from the uncomfortable and ugly truth of widespread discrimination and social exclusion of dalit communities. Equally that if the current trends continue, the situation will soon turn explosive.

Yet, many opine that the strategy outlined in the document is just another ploy to extend the regime of quotas. If anything, the ‘perceived’ malaise of the state sector may, by this route, be extended to the private sector. For instance, even while agreeing that the employment market discriminates against dalits, economists point out that what is first needed is removing shackles on growth without which a major expansion of employment is impossible. Much is made of the absence of labour market reform or that hundreds of products are reserved for the small scale and house-hold sectors, creating in turn unnecessary rigidities and inefficiencies. Overall, unless growth rates pick up, such re-distributive measures will only serve to further throttle growth and enterprise.

In many ways this represents a chicken and egg thinking, positing growth against distribution and merit against social diversity. It is both impolitic and unethical to expect hitherto deprived communities to endlessly wait till the wider polity sorts itself out. True, a quota raj, however dressed up, is no answer. It is, therefore, crucial that those who matter, including in the private sector, creatively respond to these new dalit demands. Otherwise, we may well be in for another round of a socially divisive politics, this time more violent.

Harsh Sethi