For the Day:

Poverty and Priority



here can be no quarrel with the historic St Xavier’s College of Calcutta inducting European non-resident Indian billionaire Lakshmi Narain Mittal and India-based billionaire Sanjiv Goenka on its board of governors. Both are alumni, and their presence on the board will perhaps help their alma mater not just to build up a decent endowment corpus, as is done in the UK and the US by even older iconic centres of education. St Xavier’s long-standing aspirations to become a university in its own right may also be speeded up. It helps to have some of the biggest names of the corporate world associated with the institutions.

Knowing the Jesuits for a long time, one is sure it will not in any way dilute their single-minded pursuit of justice, emancipation and development in a cultural and economic environment which has had a historic and endemic tradition of caste, class and gender discrimination. Jesuits have been in many ways the mainstay of Church’s moral presence in the struggles of the poor, ably assisted by women religious congregations and some, but not all, of the clerics of the Catholic Church.

Solidarity with these life and death struggles of the poor has come under severe pressure in recent months. There is a noticeable hesitancy in certain Congregations to dilute or reduce participation in programmes of advocacy and empowerment that face punitive action by the government through its coercive black laws controlling foreign assistance, for instance.

But persons like Mr. Mittal can be a bit of an embarrassment for those working among Tribals. Environment and people’s rights activists look askance at tycoons such as he and Mr. Aggarwal of Vedanta. Their global search for minerals for their refining plants and industries has injured the interests of tribals in many parts of the world.

It is of course a pure coincidence that the news from Kolkata came a day or so after the government of India admitted that despite 67 years of Independence and many laws, there are 1,80,650 manual scavengers in India. This data seems much lower than the findings of various experts. Even Delhi has at least seven families still using their hands to clean the toilets – the polite word for dry latrines – in upper caste homes.

The government was supposed to publish the caste-based data it had gathered for the first time since the 1931 Census. But perhaps they fear the data will further fuel the existing divisions and confrontations in caste and faith based politics. It is little wonder that the government has also not yet disclosed the religion data of the 2011 census.

But it has disclosed the contours of the socio-economic reality of rural Indian found by the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, done across 17.91 core rural families on aspects of housing, land-holding, landlessness, educational status, income and status of women. The highest numbers of manual scavengers were identified in the State of Maharashtra while Madhya Pradesh has the second highest number, followed by Karnataka, Tripura, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Daman and Diu and Bihar.

The data reveal that tribals are the worst off in terms of income, health, education, nutrition, infrastructure and governance. They have also been unfortunately at the receiving end of the injustices of the development process itself, analysts say. “Around 40 per cent of the 60 million people displaced following development projects in India are tribals, which is not a surprise given that 90 per cent of our coal and more than 50 per cent of most minerals and dam sites are mainly in tribal regions”, the media noted.

Many developed districts paradoxically include pockets of intense backwardness. In Korba and Raigarh districts of Chhattisgarh, Valsad of Gujarat, Pashchimi Singhbhum and Purbi Singhbhum of Jharkhand, Kendujhar, Koraput and Mayurbhanj of Odisha, the most industrialised subdistricts are flanked by the most underdeveloped. Invariably these are overwhelmingly tribal.

These names are familiar to the Church. This is where outreach and solidarity is most needed. It remains a moot question if Church as an entity, or those in charge of its denominations, Rites, Congregations and dioceses will try to understand the importance of the government census and commit themselves to the most deprived about whom we had known empirically through our own field experience, and are now officially admitted to have remained so much on the margins.