Dalit population in India always remains a mystery. Generally, it is believed to be around 70 per cent. However, the data tells otherwise. According to S Viswanathan in English fortnightly “Frontline” (February 16-29, 2008), today Dalits in India number 16.66 crore and constitute 16.2 per cent of the total population.
The writer says further that after centuries of being suppressed and denied education, they are now more organised and determined even to win back their rightful place in society. But they still have a long way to go, and the hurdles they have to cross are numerous.
Over 60 per cent of Dalits are landless agricultural workers and nearly 50 per cent of them are below the poverty line. Just 31 per cent of Dalit homes have electricity as against 61 per cent of non-Dalit homes. Only 10 per cent of their households have access to clean drinking water.
As for education, the Constitution mandated that the state had to provide free, compulsory and universal education to children up to 14 years of age within 10 years (1950-59), giving special care and consideration to promote economic progress. But even 50 years after the deadline, universal education remains elusive.
Because of their economic condition, 99 per cent of Dalit students study in government schools, most of which lack basic infrastructure. Although the drop-out rate among Dalit students in schools has registered a small decrease in recent years, it is still substantial.
It is in such abysmal and oppressive conditions that Dalit boys and girls pursue their studies. Teachers in several places are unfriendly to and prejudiced against Dalits, the students often complain.
Although a good number of Dalit students score high marks and get selected to professional colleges in the open quota, they cannot join college for want of money. In 2007, hundreds of seats in engineering colleges remained unfilled for this reason and were later allotted to students from other categories. Many Dalits cannot afford expensive coaching or special tuition. And yet they, driven by sheer will, move ahead. More Dalit students are now able to enter the portals of professional colleges and more aspire to tread this path, full of hope.
Dr B R Ambedkar was convinced that education, particularly higher education, was a powerful instrument of social change that could liberate the marginalised from centuries-old prejudice, atrocities, discrimination, denial of access to common resources and public facilities, and economic exploitation.
That was why he founded the People’s Society of India in 1945, much before the Constitution was adopted. Dr Ambedkar played a key role in the making of the Constitution, ensuring that it included provisions banning untouchability, offering safeguards to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and paving the way for affirmative state action to ensure education and employment for them.
According to Bhalchandra Mungekar, member of the Planning Commission, who looks after education, labour and employment, tribal affairs, social justice, culture and youth affairs and sports, the entire post-Independence generation of Dalits in Maharashtra is the creation of the People’s Society of India.