, Dalits bear disproportionate degrees of premature death and illness by virtue of their destitute living conditions. Dalits are individuals who comprise the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. Inequitable distributions of income and wealth conscript Dalits into poverty and illness. The health and wellness for Dalits can be best pursued through a human rights framework. Only the rights paradigm can attract enough civil society organizations to marshal in meaningful change. India
Caste System 101
A caste system is a society that is stratified along the lines of status, class, and party. One’s caste is inherited at birth, caste determines one’s level of purity or impurity, and individuals are encouraged to marry within their own caste group. Caste ideology is endowed as sacred and, as such, assumes the status quo (Gerth & Mills, 1958). The Hindu caste system divides society into four occupational groups that range from priesthood to manual labour. The most marginalized individuals are the Dalits who are considered outcastes; socially and economically confined to working as servants, sweepers, and manual scavengers.
Caste societies produce marked inequalities in health, with Dalits assuming the greatest degrees of mortality and morbidity. Infant mortality, for instance, is significantly greater among the bottom 20% of income-earners in
compared with the top 20% of income-earners (Subramanian et al., 2006). India
B. R. Ambedkar, a former Dalit scholar and politician, mobilized the Dalit population beyond any other movement in the past. As the chief architect of the Indian Constitution of 1950, Ambedkar instituted affirmative action policies that reserved spots for Dalits in universities and government. However, affirmative policies fail to deliver Dalits with meaningful gains in wealth and, more importantly, in health (Banerjee & Knight, 1985). Income refers to one’s earnings. Wealth refers to one’s assets, such as property and land. In
, “the average size of per capita land owned…by [Dalits] is less than half of that for the [non-Dalit] households” (Kijima, 2006). Consider the wealth divide between those who rent versus those who own their home. India
Into The Future
Future social movements must rise above affirmative policies; challenging the social, political, and economic conventions that impede Dalits’ access to the human right of health. Since 1978, at least 6 health promotion declarations from the World Health Organization have embodied values of social justice and peace, and the promotion of health as a human right. The Indian People’s Health Charter specifically declares “health as a justiciable right…demand[ing] the provision of comprehensive health care as a fundamental constitutional right” for the people of India.
Even if income inequalities persist in India, as they will, a basic basket of human and health services should be constitutionally guaranteed to all individuals; healthcare, a living wage, education, and affordable housing. The premature mortality and morbidity rates of Dalits, compared to non-Dalit Indians, extend far beyond the issue of caste: it is an issue of human rights.
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