Dalits continue to suffer from social, economic, and political discrimination. Development efforts have not truly benefited the Untouchables. Resources and professional jobs are still dominated by the higher castes. Dalit birthrates are high, while their living standards remain very low. The government is sensitive to caste issues in its rhetoric, but not in its actions. Statistics show a great disparity between the higher castes and the Untouchables. Primary school attendance nationwide is 80%; yet of the 20% of children not in school, 95% are Dalits. The literacy rate among male Dalits is only 17%, and among females, 7%. By contrast, 80% of Brahmins are literate. The GDP per capita for non-Dalits is $210 per annum; among Dalits, it is only $39 per annum. The life expectancy of non-Dalits is 57 years of age; among Dalits, it is only 42 years.
Many Dalits believe that the biggest obstacle they currently face is still Bahunbad. Nepal is a Hindu state, and Hinduism is the gatekeeper of Bahunbad. These Dalits demand 1) a secular State; 2) Affirmative Action and a Dalit appointed to the Ministry level; 3) Empowerment on the ground level, including increased education and skills and professional development programs for Dalits, and 4) Creating greater awareness of discrimination issues and Dalit problems among all castes.
Dalits also believe that Brahmins are now exploiting them in new ways. Since government and international donors place a heavy emphasis on Dalit projects, many Brahmins proclaim themselves to be Dalit supporters just to get their hands on jobs and money. The high castes are seen as opportunistic and simply following the trend mandated by the international community, testifying not only to inter-caste tensions, but also to the effect of international influence on Nepalese politics and society. The urban elite talks about equality constantly, and are forced to respond to caste issues due to the Maoist conflict. However, they put very little effort into changing the minds of their own families and may not want genuine social change. For these reasons, joint advocacy between Dalits and non-Dalits is still very deficient.
Rural Untouchables and Maoists still have an intimate relationship. No other party except the Maoists has really affected the Dalit situation in the countryside. Most Untouchables look up to Baburam Bhattarai, the “Prime Minister” of the “People’s Government” or Maoist governing body, a highly educated Brahmin who is seen to have revolutionized the Dalit plight. Maoist leaders are now forced to keep the caste issue high on their agenda, as they have thousands of armed Dalits in their military ranks. Urban Dalits, however, are opportunistic in their advocacy and in general do not support the Maoists.
Some positive trends do exist for Dalits. Since 1990 secondary school and university attendance have increased, and there have been changes in social practices and attitudes. Some urban elites and educated people are true supporters of social change. A number of active and transparent civil society groups are dedicated to Dalit issues. Finally, both urban and rural Dalit youth are increasingly active and eager to fight discrimination with any skills they have. Perhaps the future of their children will be brighter than their own.
Posted By Kate Kuo (Nepal)
Posted Aug 13th, 2003