Bengaluru Declaration: Revisiting Reservations

Bengaluru Declaration: Revisiting Reservations

Reclaiming Social Justice and Human Rights in the 21st Century

by Moses Seenarine

(This article was published on Medium on 08/07/2017)

Persistent Bias and Poverty

For over half a century, there have been legal restrictions against caste-based and sex-based discrimination in India, yet both forms of oppression continue to affect the lives of hundreds of millions nationwide, especially Dalit and tribal Women. For example, in terms of literacy rate, income level, health access, and other factors, Dalit and tribal Women are among the lowest in the country.

As the main architect of India's Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's legacy includes legal interventions specifically designed for ensuring inclusion of Women, Dalits, OBCs, Tribals, and minorities in the public sector. Due to Ambedkar's influence, reservations and other policies were enacted which have slightly opened up political and social spaces forbidden for centuries to these groups.

In addition to limits on the political and social empowerment of the historically underprivileged, the nation has a long way to go towards ensuring that basic needs are met for vast numbers of Indians. The Rangarajan study estimated that 363 million, or close to 30 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, lived in poverty in 2011-12. The study considers people living on less than Rs 32 ($0.50) a day in rural areas and Rs 47 ($0.75) a day in urban areas as poor. A vast majority of the destitute come from disadvantaged communities who are victims of inter-generational impoverishment. The existing education and employment provisions for Dalit and others are limited to the public sector and many avenues remain blocked, especially at the higher levels.

Legal provisions and reservations are like paper tigers, and powerful groups find ways to circumvent and block their application. Lack of implementation of the law is a huge issue, and Women, Dalits, OBCs, Tribals, and minorities face consequences for daring to attend school, contesting elections, and so on. Given the persistence of bias and deprivation, and the shortcomings with implementation of existing policies, there is a need for discussion and ideas on how to improve the current impasse in inequality.

The Bengaluru Declaration offers a broad set of recommendations that could prove useful for a wide range of issues facing Women, Dalits, OBCs, Tribals, and minorities. The Declaration's framers used the platform provided by the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar International Conference, held from the 21-23 of July, 2017 in Bengaluru, Karnataka to draft an extensive list of recommendations that “hopes to be a dynamic blueprint that addresses the needs and aspirations of all Indians, and a starting point for an “alliance of equity” of all progressive forces committed to safeguarding the idea of India." In order to be effective, the suggested programs must have accountability, and there should be consequences for individuals, businesses and organizations who continue to practice discrimination and bias.

Bengaluru Declaration's Recommendations

The Bengaluru Declaration contains 41 recommendations in six broad sections. In the first one, there are two sets of propositions for “Safeguarding the People,” - one focuses on upholding the rule of Law, and the other on protecting individual rights and freedoms. The second section contains three proposals for “Strengthening Democratic Institutions.” The first recommendation is on reforms to enhance political representation, the second is for protecting media freedoms, and the third focuses on judicial reforms.

The 22 suggestions in the third section for “Deepening Social Justice” represents the heart of the Bengaluru Declaration as it tries to comprehensively address “the needs and aspirations of all Indians, especially those who are most vulnerable and marginalised, such as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Women and Minorities.” The list of undertaking range from establishing an Equal Opportunities Commission and studying Ambedkar in the school and college, to legislating reservations in the private sector and granting agricultural land to landless Dalits.

The fourth section centers on the needs of the poor with six propositions for “Enhancing Human Development.” This section declares that health, housing and education should be universal rights and asks the state to allocate six percent of GDP for education and three percent for health. It calls for establishing a Farmers Income Commission, and attaining universal secondary education. It also wants provision of nutritional support for poor children, and halfway homes to support employment.

Three suggestions in the fifth section for “Ensuring Responsive Governance” focus on mechanisms for public feedback and government accountability. The last section of the Bengaluru Declaration contains six proposals for “Promoting Social Security.” It calls for universal Social Security and a living wage for the unorganised sector, and ensuring dignity in retirement through enhanced pensions and an enhanced safety net. It proposes starting a fund for landless labourers, and finally, it wants low cost housing for the urban poor in all private housing layouts.

If fully implemented, these 41 proposals could help to alleviate many of the problems faced by India's poor and historically disadvantaged communities. However, the widespread recommendations are complex and extend over several economic and social sectors, and involves disparate areas of governance. Successful implementation will require intricate coordination by multiple agencies, critical assessment, and accountability.

Many of Bengaluru Declaration's recommendations in education are basic and should be part of a growing democracy, but successful implementation will depend on gainful employment and upward mobility in all sectors of society for female and poor students. The Declaration's educational proposals include (i) curriculum changes in school and college, (ii) access to quality English medium education from secondary school level, (iii) residential schools for vulnerable children, (iv) universal access to hostels, (v) reservations in private Higher Educational institutions, (vi) and universal secondary education.

Bengaluru Declaration on Education

Recommendation number 16, “Reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs in Private Higher Educational Institutions,” is essential in educational access for students, and employment of academics, from historically disadvantaged communities. There is a limit to what the public sector can do, and as the Declaration states, “Considering the expansion of higher educational institutions in the private section, reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs in these institutions shall be made mandatory.”

Private Higher Education Institutions should be required to submit bi-annual reports on student enrollment and staffing to show compliance with reservation policies. At the end of a grace period, Private Higher Education Institutions should submit plans to fill reserved spots and prove they are non-discriminatory, or face fines for non-compliance. After a certain period of repeat, unwarranted non-compliance, Higher Educational Institutions should face oversight or having their accreditation suspended.

The Bengaluru Declaration realise that English instruction can be empowering and Recommendation number 13 declares, “the State shall ensure access to quality English medium education from secondary school level onwards.” The important reason for this curriculum change is to ensure SCs, STs, OBCs, Women and Minorities “are able to stand as equals with forward castes.” English is commonly used in urban areas, so English literacy will help disadvantaged groups to participate more fully in urban economies.
To provide quality English-based instruction, teacher credentialing must include an English proficiency test. English courses should be integrated into Education departments and all prospective teachers should take classes in English grammar, speech and composition. In addition, English courses in debate, literature, non-fiction, technical and narrative writing should be available for students pursuing Education degrees and teacher credentials.

The Bengaluru Declaration's proposal for Navodaya type residential schools for vulnerable children in Recommendation number 14 will provide basic and essential social and educational services that can help increase graduation rates for poor children. There should be separate Navodaya schools for girls and boys, and over 50 percent of the staff must be reserved for women from Dalit and other disadvantaged communities. These residential schools should be taught in English medium and infuse Dalit Studies across the curriculum.

The call for universal access to hostels for SCs, STs and OBCs in Recommendation number 15 is part of non-discrimination laws and a basic human right. Individuals who ignore anti-caste laws should be charged and penalised if guilty. Anti-caste and housing commissions should make it simple for victims to file housing complaints, and these commissions should have the power to impose fines on property owners and businesses.

Recommendation number eight calls for curriculum changes in school and college for "Ensuring study of Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Jyotirao & Savitribai Phule in School and College Curriculum: To inspire and educate future generations on ideas and movements of social justice, curriculum in schools and colleges should mandatorily include the study of the life and work of Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma and Savitribai Phule."

Dalit Studies, including the life and work of Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma and Savitribai Phule, will help to inspire excellence in all Indian students, and especially those from historically disadvantaged communities. Cultural empowerment is essential to motivating marginalized groups and to raising the self-esteem of impoverished girls and boys. This form of secular education can aid in the removal of historical stigma and bias by raising awareness and bringing individual and community experiences into the classroom.

Implementing Dalit Studies in schools and colleges requires several administrations and programs, and thousands of trained and qualified teachers. There should also be independent Dalit Studies Institutes that focus on legislation, research and assessment of policies and programs for disadvantaged communities. Women from Dalit and other disadvantaged communities should comprise 50 percent or more of the staff as program administrators, department chairs, professors, researchers, instructors, and teachers at all levels.

To provide instruction in Dalit Studies, a curriculum committee should establish content and assessment criteria for Dalit Studies for each standard of school, and year of college. The curriculum committee should contain representation from various Dalit sub-groups, professions, and income levels. The curriculum should be available and taught in English at all levels.

The curriculum committee should determine basic, intermediate and advance levels of knowledge and understanding of Dalit Studies at the college level, including curriculum and assessment for courses in art, culture, economy, history, language, literature, music, media, pedagogy, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, and women's studies. The field of Dalit Studies could be added to Arts, Education, Humanities, Interdisciplinary and/or Social Science departments in college, or have its own field with degrees at the bachelor's, masters and doctoral levels.

In terms of sequencing, there should two or more units of Dalit Studies at the Primary School level, and four courses of Dalit Studies available in Secondary School. There should be one course on Mahatma Phule, another on Savitribai Phule, and two classes on Dr. Ambedkar. Completion of at least one course in Dalit Studies should be a requirement for Secondary School graduation for all students. A Bachelor's degree consisting of 12 or more college-level courses in Dalit Studies should be required to teach this subject in Secondary School. And, one or more Dalit Studies course should be a graduation requirement for all college students.

The Dalit Studies Departments in college should have linkages to other fields through dual-majors, inter-disciplinary studies, and so on. The work of Savitribai Phule and Dalit Women's issues should comprise at least a quarter of coursework at all college levels. Classes in Computers, Technology and Social Media should be part of course requirements, and there should be opportunities for experiential or field-work through departmental linkages to social welfare agencies and schools that provide services to Women, Dalits, OBCs, Tribals, and minorities.

The Bengaluru Declaration's educational proposals will be more effective for historically disadvantaged students and workers if they are supported by social services mentioned in other recommendations, such as "Halfway Homes to Support Employment." Extending reservations into the Private Sector is essential for progress, and there also needs to be implementation of existing policies, such as filling up backlog vacancies in reserved posts.

As with any set of prescriptions for social reform, the Bengaluru Declaration do have some shortcomings. There is lack of recognition regarding sex-differences, and the recommendations have to focused on better serving the needs of Women and Children. Despite this limitation, the 41 proposals are a good starting point for discussion and can help guide the work of activists and advocacy organizations alike.

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