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winsight 02 No name, no broadband, No Dalit

No name, no broadband, No Dalit
Anita and Edwin, OpenSpace

The government of India has announced its target of providing broadband connections to all Gram Panchayats, Government Higher Secondary Schools and Public Health Centres by 2012.[1] On the face of it, that should be welcomed since a majority of Indians—and Dalits—live in villages, and a majority of the vulnerable go to Government Higher Secondary Schools and Public Health Centres. However, reality is a little more complex and calls for a nuanced response. Unless the social justice movements (Dalit, Adivasi etc) organise themselves, they will find themselves even more marginalised due to two reasons: stratification in prosperity, and no-name villages.

Stratification in prosperity
Stratification in prosperity is a well known phenomenon in academic circles. When all people are poor, then there is not so much of a difference in opportunity or wealth. However, as the community moves up in standard and quality of life, the powerful invariably corner most of the benefits. It is seen empirically in the recent studies that show that during the past decades (though there is some debate whether the poor got poorer and the rich got richer) opinion is unanimous that the gap between the rich and the poor actually got wider. Since the Dalits are the more vulnerable section, the digital opportunity will certainly open up the digital divide between the rural Dalit and the dominant castes. This loss of opportunity will lead to further handicap in the job market. Marginalisation in the job market will delay the formation of a critical mass of the Dalit middle class.

No-name villages
This would be aggravated by the phenomenon of ‘no-name’ villages that the Dalits live in. this phenomenon results in all the infrastructure being located where it is inaccessible for the Dalits. So what is this ‘no-name villages’? India, it is said, is a land of 600,000 villages—638,365 according to the census of India 2001. The curious fact is that these do not count the Dalit villages. Instead the Dalit villages are recorded as ‘colonies’ or Dalit-para of the ‘main village’. It is a continuation of the social construct that the Dalit cannot ‘own anything’—so lowly as to be even without caste—even the village where a Dalit lives cannot ‘own’ a name or an identity.

The consequences of this ‘no-name’ status are well known to those in the women’s movement, where many of the issues facing women were ‘problems with no names’. No-name villages are identified, and treated, as a ghetto of the ‘main village’—the village where the dominant live, and for whom those from the Dalit colony have to compulsorily provide free or subsidised ‘services’. Therefore a Dalit village near a dominant caste village called Belur would be called Belur Dalit colony. Just as any colonised people, the Dalits of this ‘colony’ are virtually slaves of the dominant of the dominant caste village. They are forbidden entry into these villages (since they would pollute it) except for performing ‘unclean tasks’ that would ‘pollute’ the dominant.

Yet all the infrastructure is cornered only by the dominant village. Since the Dalit village does not have a separate existence, government records show that the village has all infrastructure (schools, primary health centres, telephones, community centres, primary health centres, child care centre, water supply, electricity….). In reality, all these are only in the dominant caste village—which the Dalits are forbidden to enter or to use. The Dalit village does not get any of these. So the Dalits are denied all these facilities, while the government statistics show that the ‘village’ has all the infrastructure. In older infrastructure (water, burial grounds, land) there is discrimination. In the newer technology and infrastructure there is exclusion and denial of service (roads, electricity, community halls). So whether it is 100% electrification or 100% broadband connection, the Dalit village will be excluded.

What is to be done?
• Campaign for equal access
A campaign for locating these modern instruments of liberation in Dalit villages—or at the very least in commonly accessible places is an essential first step. This is a non-neotiable and others can only build on this.

• Name the village
Another is to ensure the visibility of these ‘gaps’. For this a simple linguistic change is sufficient. Dalits should make the naming of their village, and getting a unique PIN Code for it a priority political demand (just as recognising Dalit as a religion should be in the upcoming 2011 census). The temptation to name all the villages as ‘Ambedkar’ villages will be strong, but must be resisted. (If there are too many Ambedkar villages, then they will again be Belur Ambedkar Village etc, defeating the purpose of capturing mindspace and attitudinal change.)

Once that is done, India will have not 600,000 villages, but 1.2 million. Just like name change from ‘harijan’ to Dalit, and ‘upper caste’ to dominant/oppressor caste makes a difference, this renaming will make a significant difference. It will set free the mind. But it will do more than that.

• Monitor infrastructure access, benefit and control
The distinct identity will need to be followed up by a strong administrative mechanism of securing and monitoring the use of resource allocations. The monitoring will ensure that infrastructure is provided where it can be accessed and controlled by Dalits, so that they can benefit from it. When infrastructure is provided it will have to be provided in the Dalit village and in the dominant caste village.

Without vigilance, this could be another avenue for imposing the dominant culture, just as the mid-day meals scheme is being used to impose a vegetarian diet (even excluding eggs) on the hapless children. All these are in addition to developing web-specific content from the Dalit perspective, which otherwise will be monopolised by the dominant to define the normative standards, framework of discourse, and occupy mindspace. Invisibility in cyberspace can be as insidious and devastating as invisibility in the physical space.

If not, Dalits look set to be bypassed by this digital revolution too.

Notes
[1] The government has set a target to provide broadband connectivity in all Gram Panchayats, Government Higher Secondary Schools and Public Health Centres by the end of year 2012. Minister of Communications and IT, A. Raja,
http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=44464&kwd=broadband, 4-Nov-2008; (accessed 7 November 2008)

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