Whether Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad or the case of savage murder of 30-year old Dalit Jisha who lived in physical, civic and community isolation in Kerala, both compelling testimonies that 69 years after independence the country has failed to stem out caste abuse. A recent media report says that Niti Aayog wants to remove Tribal Sub-Plan and Schedule Caste Sub-Plan from its ambit of responsibility. This may turn out to be the way to institutionalise rather than bridging the gap, writes Nirupama Sekhri
Ironically, on Labour Day, May 1, top newspapers and web portals carried a report that Arvind Panagariya, Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, India’s leading public think-tank, had written to Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram citing lack of "mandate", and Niti Aayog’s inability to monitor and review the implementation of Tribal Sub-Plan and Scheduled Caste Sub-Plan. He further requested the two ministries – Tribal Affairs and Social Justice -- to conduct the exercise themselves.
PTI (Press Trust of India) first reported on the Vice Chairman’s letter.
Panagariya is quoted from the letter as stating, “However, the concept of five-year annual plans and interaction with the Ministries and States on this behalf are no longer the mandate of the NITI Aayog... In view of the above the matter regarding the task of monitoring of both TSP has been reviewed at my level in NITI Aayog. It has been observed that the NITI Aayog would not be in a position to continue to monitor the implementation of TSP in view of reasons stated above."
Distressed at this, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Delhi shot off a letter to Niti Aayog pointing out that the Planning Commission of India, which held the responsibility of reviewing and monitoring of the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) and Schedule Caste Sub-Plan (SCSP), was dissolved and NITI Aayog was constituted following Cabinet Resolution on January 1, 2015.
The mandate of NITI Aayog as spelled out in its constitution includes developing a ‘vision’ for ‘national development’ which means the development of SCs and STs. In this context, the NITI Aayog took over the mandate of monitoring and review of SCSP-TSP from the erstwhile Planning Commission.
“After a year and half, we find it alarming for the NITI Aayog to transfer the responsibility to the concerned ministries without the Government putting in place necessary mechanisms within the concerned ministries”, the letter stated.
This is important given the crawling progress of development and integration of caste in India. Dr Narendra Jadhav, erstwhile Member of the Planning Commission and presently member of the Rajya Sabha had submitted comprehensive guidelines for the Implementation of Scheduled Castes Sub Plans and Tribal Sub Plans by Central Ministries/Departments to the Government of India in November 2010.
Dr Jadhav had an influential task-force to support him, including key Government agencies like Union Secretaries of nodal Ministries of Social Justice and Empowerment and Tribal Affairs, State Secretaries dealing with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
The Task Force also had special invitees from Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Ministry of Finance and National Advisory Council. They had also categorised 68 Ministries/Departments, directly and indirectly connected to Dalit welfare, into four groups of relevance.
The comprehensive report had earmarked the amount of funds that should be allocated under SCSP/TSP outlays - 16.2 percent and 8.2 percent of SC and ST population respectively – as well as the criteria for categorisation of outlay/expenditure under SCSP.
In addition, the report had underlined that SCSP/TSP should ensure direct benefits to individuals or families belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, as well as the importance of area oriented schemes that directly benefit scheduled castes.
However, the report had also noted that despite the clear need to appoint nodal units to be headed by a Joint Secretary (Planning) or Economic Adviser and set up in all Ministries/Departments which have obligations to earmark funds under SCSP and TSP, with requisite full time supporting staff, nothing had really been done on the ground.
The Task Force had also clearly felt that “earmarking of funds and their non-lapsability in the case of NER or North Eastern Region had seen better compliance because the system had been put in place with the approval of the Cabinet, while SCSP/TSP guidelines had so far been issued only with the approval of the Planning Commission”.
The Task Force had suggested that the Planning Commission should also put these recommendations for the approval of the Cabinet to give them more teeth.
So, it has come as a total shock to Dalit organisations that instead of taking this forward to its logical direction, the Niti Aayog wants to wash its hands off SC/ST programmes altogether.
As it is, the rigorous, protracted, painful process of documenting and evaluating programmes and conditions Dalits live in is being done by NGO’s and Dalit groups themselves.
Details of how Dalit communities continue to be sidelined, even in harsh times like earthquakes, floods, the tsunami, etc. are being maintained by various Dalit human rights groups.
Says Paul Divakar from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, “There is enough information; the Government and its agencies like the Niti Aayog have only to act upon it, and for them to abdicate responsibility amounts to a criminal act.”
They have appealed to Niti Aayog to initiate immediate steps to legislate Scheduled Castes Sub Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan with necessary institutional and administrative resources for effective implementation, as well as to empower MoTA (Ministry of Tribal Affairs) and MSJE (Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment). Further nodal authorities should be allotted necessary human and fiscal resources to effectively monitor and review SCSP and TSP.
Niti Aayog proclaims on its website that it is committed to “ensure the security and dignity of all persons belonging to the scheduled castes, especially women and put a complete end to all forms of ‘untouchability’ and discrimination.”
The organisation has been meeting and working quite regularly since the beginning of last year. The first meeting was presided over by the Prime Minister himself at Race Course Road on the 8th of February, 2015, and infrastructure and skill development and Swachh Bharat campaigns were identified as key areas of work.
The organisation listed activities under a National Development Agenda, in which some ‘Core Schemes’ were identified. Ironically enough, ones for social protection and social inclusion were underlined as “the Core of the Core.”
But whether the organisation, which also has on board Smriti Zubin Irani, Minister of Human Resource Development as a special invitee, is serious about that mandate or not, or wants to subvert it, is something that remains to be seen.