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P Sivakami, 65, is a Dalit-feminist writer, former IAS officer and also the leader of her own political party Samuga Samathuva Padai. One of the first Dalit women writers in Tamil, she is an author of six novels and over 60 short stories.

Interviewed by G Ananthakrishnan, a senior journalist, on behalf of inmathi.com, Sivakami talked about the forthcoming TN budget with regard to Dalit welfare, and how Dalits or Adi Dravidars, as they are also known, have been taken for a ride by the government, as funds allocated for their welfare are not properly used.

According to a recent news report, though every year Rs 14,500 crore is allocated for the welfare of the Adi Dravidars, only 83 per cent of the funds is spent. Asked the reason, Sivakami said the sum of Rs 14,500 crore was allocated in the fiscal 2022-23, out of which 48 departments and the Adi Dravidar Welfare department gets a total of Rs 4,000 crore. Sometimes it so happens that some new schemes pertaining to Adi Dravidars drawn up await a Government Order for their implementation. The GO may take six to nine months to come through. The funds are also released late. By that time, the financial year ends, and the funds remain unused.

Once, the union government sanctioned Rs one crore for Adi Dravidars and tribes in the Kalvarayan Hills. But the Tamil Nadu Finance Department did not release the money. When Sivakami was the secretary of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department, she enquired about it and was told that the funds were repurposed to pay salaries of employees, she said.

Whichever party is at the helm, no importance is given to the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department. There’s neither vision nor determination to strive for Dalits’ welfare

Sivakami said that Rs 3,300 crore was allotted for sanitary workers under a scheme and she was shocked to know through the media that the SC Commission found that the funds were not utilised for the intended purpose.

In fact, there is a strong factor behind the non-utilisation of funds under the scheme for sanitary workers. Being an individual-based scheme, it grants funds on receipt of applications from eligible candidates. But as the scheme has not been properly advertised, it could not attract a sufficient number of applications, she said.

The Adi Dravidar Welfare Department being the nodal agency for implementation of schemes, it calls for review meetings every month. But the ground reality is that no high-level officials such as Deputy Secretaries from other departments would attend the meetings. Only section officers are sent to the meetings who are, however, not competent enough to come up with data about the implementation and funds position of the schemes concerned. Oversight, apathy and lack of care may be the reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

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Asked if political importance is not given to the Dalit welfare issue, she responded in the affirmative.

Is it the condition of whatever party is in power? “Of course. Whichever party is at the helm, no importance is given to the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department. There’s neither vision nor determination to strive for Dalits’ welfare,” Sivakami said.

Do the benefits of schemes actually reach the Adi Dravidars? Is there any monitoring mechanism?

P Sivakami
Retired IAS Officer, social activist

Sivakami replied that no register is maintained to find out if the benefits reach the target beneficiaries. All that the officials can do is only guess.

She suggested that when funds are allocated for Adi Dravidar schemes, 60 per cent goes directly to the Dalits and 40 per cent is spent under general schemes. Speaking of agriculture as an example, she says the department gets the lion’s share of budgetary allocations.

According to some data, only 11 per cent of Dalits own lands and 89 per cent are landless agriculturists. So, it is not known if by way of extending a helping hand to the 89 per cent Dalit farmers, the government encourages them to cultivate crops, giving them subsidy, fertilisers, seeds, power and waiver of loans in time of disaster. But in the matter of assisting the Dalit landless farmers, there’s a catch. Usually the government’s assistance schemes are meant only for farmers tilling on the ‘nansei’ lands (wetland) whereas most of the Dalit farmers cultivate crops only on the ‘punsei’ (dryland) lands.

That no register is maintained to find out if the benefits reach the target beneficiaries. All that the officials can do is only guess

As for the question of how the Adi Dravidars benefit from TNEB schemes, Sivakami said the budget normally does not take into account TNEB allocations because the power entity has its own budget. Last year the TNEB’s budget stood at Rs 3,34,000 crore. This amount is what’s left after repayment of its loans. The Dalits are generally said to consume 20 per cent of power as the farmers among them who own lands are given subsidies for using power for their pumpsets etc. But the TNEB has no specific data on the Dalits’ power consumption.

It can be ensured that the Adi Dravidars benefit from the government’s free cattle scheme if a chilling plant is set up in the areas where there are more beneficiaries. Thus the Dalits’ participation in dairying can be promoted, Sivakami said.

Regretting that the five consecutive Five-Year Plans have not benefited the Dalits much, she said that the whole economic structure has a top-down approach. There are people who said, “In the configuration, won’t benefits percolate down to the suppressed communities?” Later, they understood that the ground reality was far from what they said it was.

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So, the Union government issued guidelines on earmarking 20 per cent of benefits for the Dalits and introduced the special Central assistance. However, the stark reality is that the state has not used Central funds for the Dalits and has instead siphoned them off for other expenditures.

The model for Dalits welfare is far better in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The states have introduced the Prevention of Land Alienation Act to safeguard the lands of the Dalits from being usurped. They have schemes for the Dalits, infrastructure-oriented and individual-based. The states have been implementing the pro-Dalit schemes for over two decades, she said.

Talking about the Public Distribution System that’s been in vogue for the past 60 years, Sivakami said the free rice supplied to the destitute and downtrodden was alright. But even the affluent people in villages get the free rice and use it as feed for their cattle.

In fact, the government is spending heavily for this welfare measure which has almost become something like a fundamental right. But the farmers from whom the rice is procured at cheaper prices for the PDS are exploited economically and continue to live in poverty.

Krishnammal Jagannathan, a Dalit woman, has set an example worth emulation by getting several acres of land redistributed to a lot of landless labourers. Taking a cue, the government can redistribute the lands in the state to the landless farmers

The PDS and ‘Amma canteens’ are a drain on the government exchequer. As economists such as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen supported the welfare measures, the welfare initiative cannot, of course, be scrapped at one go. But PDS can be restricted only to the poorest of poor sections such as destitute senior citizens, widowed homemakers and so on.

At the same time, fallow lands across the state can be identified and distributed to poor farmers, particularly Dalits and the women’s self-help groups. By promoting agriculture on these fallow lands on a large scale and restricting the range of PDS, farmers and farm labourers will not need the PDS rice. They can produce food for themselves and others.

Krishnammal Jagannathan, a Dalit woman, has set an example worth emulation by getting several acres of land re-distributed to a lot of landless labourers. (Land for the Tillers’ Freedom was the outfit launched by her and her husband).

So taking a cue, the government can redistribute lands in the state to landless farmers, Sivakami said. This will be immensely helpful to the Adi Dravidars who make up most of the farming community, she said.

As for literacy and education of Dalits, Sivakami said though several measures have been taken for Dalits’ education, 20 per cent of Dalit men and 34 per cent of Dalit women are still illiterate. Adi Dravidar students face problems with commuting to government schools far away from their villages. Several government schools are being closed for want of enrollment and existing schools have poor infrastructure and have just one or two teachers.  She referred to the recent report that 5,000 students could not take the Plus-Two exams and said the need to support their families financially meant that several Dalit students are forced to drop out of schools.

Summing up, Sivakami said the government, not bothered about vote bank compulsions, must have a long-term vision about the uplift of the Adi Dravidars and must have drive and determination to take strict action against the perpetrators when Dalits are harassed or killed over caste discrimination.

What we need today is a visionary and dedicated government that holds the people’s welfare above electoral politics.

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