Who are Scheduled Castes? Who are Scheduled Tribes? What sets the two groups apart from Other Backward Castes? And what provisions does Indian law have for these communities?
Scheduled castes are sub-communities within the framework of the Hindu caste system who have historically faced deprivation, oppression, and extreme social isolation in India on account of their perceived ‘low status’.
Only marginalised Hindu communities can be deemed Scheduled Castes in India, according to The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950.
Those who belonged to one of the four major varnas are called Savarna.
The Hindu four-tier caste system, or varna system, forced these communities into work that predominantly involved sanitation, disposal of animal carcasses, cleaning of excreta, and other tasks that involved contact with “unclean” materials.
The communities adapted the name Dalit, or Harijan, which meant ‘children of god.’
The avarna communities were also referred to as “Untouchables”. They were prohibited from drinking water from shared water sources, living in or using areas frequented by “higher castes,” and faced social and economic isolation, often being denied rights and privileges that many born into savarna castes consider “fundamental rights”.
The 2011 Census places the number of scheduled castes in India at 16.6 percent of the total population, or approximately 166,635,700 people.
The Government of India Act, implemented by the British in 1935, carried this definition of the term “scheduled caste,” in Part 14 of the Act, and the same definition continued to be used by the Indian government post-Independence.
The minds behind the Indian Constitution, namely Dr BR Ambedkar, understood the need to actively empower these communities, socially, economically, and financially, and provide them with equal opportunities to participate in the country’s governance and functioning, and to uplift and promote their growth.
It was with this in mind that the Constitution included provisions to protect the rights of these marginalised communities.
The Constitution provides for the protection of the rights of Scheduled Castes under several provisions.
Article 15 of the Constitution says the State shall not discriminate on the basis of caste, religion, race, or place of birth. Clause 2 of the article adds:
The above article seeks to check the social isolation and restrictions from visiting common public places that Scheduled Castes were often historically, and I daresay, still are, subjected to across India.
Article 16 of the Constitution also assures equal opportunity to all citizens for employment in any office under the State, including in promotions, without any discrimination based on caste.
Apart from this, Article 46 of the Constitution also states that the State shall promote the educational and economic interests of weaker sections, namely “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.”
Given the extent of economic, educational, and social isolation that Scheduled Castes historically faced (and continue to face), the Constitution also provides for a proportionate reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in educational institutions and public offices under the State.
Article 243D provides for reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Panchayats in the same proportion as the population of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes in the village.
Article 243T promises the same proportionate reservation of seats in Municipalities.
Article 330 promises reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Lok Sabha, once more, on a proportional basis to the total population of SC/STs to overall population.
Article 335 assures that the claims of members of the SC/ST community [to these seats], while ensuring the efficiency of administration, shall be taken into consideration while making appointments to services and posts in connection with the State.
Article 338 establishes the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes. The Commission’s duty is to monitor the safeguards provided for Scheduled Castes in the Constitution or any other law. Its duties also include investigating complaints and participating in the planning process for the socio-economic development of members of Scheduled Caste communities, while having all the powers of a civil court during the process.
Article 340 gives the President the power to appoint a commission to investigate the conditions of backward classes, the difficulties they face, and make recommendations on steps to be taken to improve their condition. This was the article under which the Mandal Commission was formed.t
Article 341 of the Constitution gives the President the power to notify which castes in the country, and in specific states, come under the category of Scheduled Castes. The article states that the President, by issuing a public notification, can deem a specific group or community a Scheduled Caste, thus placing it within the scope of the Constitution’s definition of “Scheduled Caste” for the promotion and protection of their rights.
Only members of marginalised communities practising Hinduism can be deemed Scheduled Castes, according to The Constitution Scheduled Castes Order, 1950, which released the first list of Scheduled Castes.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment publishes a state-wise list of castes that fall into the schedule, and only those people carrying certificates of caste from the listed states qualify for the protections afforded to members of the SC community..
A list of Scheduled Caste communities in India can be found here.
Apart from Constitutional safeguards, a number of other laws were enacted to protect members of Scheduled Caste communities from becoming victims of violence, prejudice, or other ill treatment on account of the community they belong to.
The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was one such law. It was implemented to address crimes and atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, since the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was inadequate to check the atrocities that were being committed against them.
The National Crime Records Bureau in its 2017 annual report stated that 40,801 crimes against SC/STs took place in 2016. However, a report in The Wire adds that many crimes, including those where the alleged offender was a public official, would be recorded under “other IPC sections,” thus reducing the number of crimes reported under the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
The Act also made news in March 2018 after the Supreme Court issued guidelines severely diluting its powers, including restraints on the arrests of public official if they are accused under the Act.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was implemented in 2013, to end the primarily caste-based employment of people for manual scavenging, which involves entering pits, latrines, drains and ditches to handle and clean waste, often including raw excreta.
However, the effectiveness of its implementation is questionable. A report from The Sunday Guardian states that despite the ban, at least 300 manual scavenging deaths took place just in 2017. In addition to this, a 2015 article in The Hindu states that, as of 3 July 2015, just under 1.8 lakh households in India were still engaged in manual scavenging, despite the act being prohibited.
Apart from this, it adds that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, created to address problems of the SC community, has further REDUCED the budget for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers by 95 percent since 2014-15.
While often clubbed under the same umbrella by the ill-informed, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are quite different. True, both groups have faced, and continue to face, severe oppression and marginalisation before and in Independent India, but where Scheduled Castes face social, educational, and economic isolation, Scheduled Tribes are classified as marginalised communities on the basis of geographical isolation.
There are over 700 Scheduled Tribes in India according to The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
Like the definition for Scheduled Castes, which was carried over from British-era legislation, the definition for “Scheduled Tribes” has been retained from the 1931 Census.
The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes explains:
Further, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs also releases a list of 75 tribes that fall into the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups classification, from 18 states and UTs across the country. The Ministry carries out specific welfare initiatives for the protection of PVTGs, based on recommendations by the states, which are not extended to all Scheduled Tribes.
Most of the rights and protections assured to members of Scheduled Caste communities are extended to members of Scheduled Tribes.
Article 342 gives the President the power to notify those communities in specific regions that fall under the classification of Scheduled Tribes.
Apart from the fundamental rights under Articles 15, 16 and others which assure non-discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, race, religion, or place of birth, the other provisions protecting the fundamental rights of Scheduled Tribes are as follows.
Article 46 directs the state to work for the welfare and promotion of the interests of Scheduled Tribes, and to take steps to safeguard their interests.
Additionally, articles 243 D, 243 T, 330, and 332 promise proportionate reservation of seats for both Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Panchayats, Municipalities, State Legislative Assemblies, and the Lok Sabha.
Article 338A directs the state to create a National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, to oversee the implementation of the provisions and safeguards of the rights of Scheduled Tribes in India.
Apart from the rights under the Constitution, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) also extends protection to Scheduled Tribes.
Article 164 also provides for the appointment of a minister in charge of tribal welfare in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, who may also be in charge of the welfare of the Scheduled Castes and backward classes or any other work.
The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution outlines the provisions for administration of Scheduled areas. It assures the establishment of Tribes Advisory Councils, with three-fourths representation from the tribes in the area, in states with Scheduled Tribes but without Scheduled Areas. The council’s duties include to advise on matters of welfare and advancement of the tribes.
The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution also contains provisions for the administration of Tribal Areas, but in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.
The SC/ST Atrocities Act places Scheduled Tribes under its ambit as well.
Apart from Constitutional safeguards, Scheduled Tribes are also assured other protections under the law to safeguard their geographical interests, including protections for forest lands.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was implemented to assure and protect the individual and community rights of tribal people in forest areas. It also assures them the right to free and prior informed consent in the event of their displacement and resettlement.
However, the Xaxa Committee, which was constituted in 2013 to study the conditions of tribals and suggest policy initiatives for their upliftment, reported that the Government circumvents the Constitutional safeguards, and exploits tribals by notifying rural areas or potential scheduled areas as ‘urban areas’ to keep them out of the scope of protection.
The Xaxa Committee report adds that:
Communities that have been historically marginalised in India, and continue to face oppression and social, economic and educational isolation, but do not fall into the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes list, fall into the Other Backward Classes category.
Article 340 gives the President the power to constitute a committee to investigate the conditions of backward classes in India and recommend measures for their welfare, upliftment, and development. The Mandal Commission was constituted under this article.
The Mandal Commission was constituted in 1978, under Article 340 of the Constitution, by the Janata Party Government, to identify backward communities in India and recommend policy initiatives for their upliftment and welfare.
The Commission listed 11 criteria, falling under social, economic, and educational categories, to identify and classify communities as Backward Classes.
The National Commission for Backward Classes places Backward Classes within the expression of the term “Scheduled Castes.”
The National Commission for Backward Classes is also tasked with maintaining and updating the state-wise list of Other Backward Classes, based on these criteria, and upon notification by the President.
Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution which are applicable to members of Scheduled Caste communities, apply to members of the Other Backward Class communities as well.
The Mandal Commission submitted its report in 1980. Based on the criteria it had set out to measure backwardness, it estimated that nearly 52% of India’s population fell under the Other Backward Class category. To ensure that OBCs had adequate representation and opportunities to participate in the governance of the country, it recommended seat reservations for OBCs, in addition to the existing seat reservations for SCs and STs, in educational institutions and avenues of public employment.
While the initial recommendation of proportionate reservation would have mandated 52 percent reservation just for OBCs, this would have crossed the constitutionally mandated ceiling of no more than 50 percent.
As a result, the Commission recommended a reservation of half that percentage, 27 percent, in addition to the existing 22 percent reservation for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. So, the final percentage of seats reserved in State-funded educational institutions and government employment would amount to 49 percent.
Reservation of seats for Backward Classes in public employment or State-funded institutions is allocated at 27 percent.
A 2015 report in the The Times of India stated that despite the 27 percent reservation of seats for OBCs, the actual number of OBC employees in government ministries, statutory bodies and departments stands at under 12 percent!
The report states that this equates to roughly 9,040 OBC employees out of over 79,483 posts.
The report adds that 40 ministries, including the Ministry of Social Justice, held back the information which was sought under the RTI act by Chennai-based professor, E Muralidharan.
Citizens having an income of less than Rs 1 lakh per annum, but do not fall into the SC, ST, or OBC categories, are categorised by the Indian Government as the Economically Backward Class.
The Centre set up a commission for Economically Backward Classes in 2004. The commission’s duty was to suggest criteria to identify EBCs, to recommend welfare measures, percentages of reservation in government employment and educational institutions, and suggest changes to the constitutional machinery for the implementation of the same measures.
To receive an Economically Backward Class certificate, a citizen has to show proof that their annual income does not exceed Rs 1 lakh.
Citizens falling under the Economically Backward Class are eligible for the Dr Ambedkar Post-Matric Scholarship, as well as subsidies for overseas study under the Dr Ambedkar Central Sector Scheme of Interest Subsidy on Educational Loans for Overseas Studies.
Both the schemes aim to reduce the financial burden on EBCs seeking education.
(With inputs from The Hindu, The Wire, The Sunday Guardian, The Times of India, The Mandal Commission Report(1980), The Xaxa Committee Report (2014), The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, The National Commission for Scheduled Castes, and the National Crime Records Bureau.)
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