Written by Adv. K.M. Amar [i] and Anusha Ann Paul [ii]
[i] Veeksha Law LLP, Bengaluru, [ii] 3rd Year, B.B.A LL.B School of Law, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru
Source: The Leaflet
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
India is one of the most culturally heterogeneous countries across the world. It is after all the land of culture and diversity and is often applauded by many for its diversity. However, there runs a deep, common and an ugly evil that cannot be overlooked despite India’s culture of inclusivity - untouchability. Untouchability is the Achilles heel of the Indian society. Eradication of this social evil has always been the goal of India ever since it gained independence. Sadly, the rising number of atrocities committed against people hailing from the lower rung of the social hierarchy shows that victory to eradicate this evil is still a distant future.
Caste-based social systems are not only restricted to India but it extends beyond India. More than 260 million people across the globe suffer from this ‘hidden apartheid’. The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was the first to explicitly outlaw caste-based discrimination within its mandate. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are two other treaties that state the need to eradicate discrimination on the basis of caste and creed. Article 2 and Article 14 of the ICCPR states that state parties cannot discriminate against their citizens on the basis of caste and that every person shall be equal before the courts and tribunals. Article 7 of the ICESCR states that state parties are required to provide for equal opportunity to work and provide fair wages.
In order to address discrimination, our founding fathers who envisioned a more inclusive society for India and introduced Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 21 in the Indian constitution.
They believed that the nation can rise up to the expectations of being an inclusive society. The reflection of their belief could be seen through the first sentence of the preamble of the Constitution- “We, the people of India” and to provide citizens a land of social, economic, political justice and equality of status and opportunity. While the constitution provides for upliftment and equal protection, the reality speaks a different story.
Untouchability affects the young and the old all alike. Dalit children often face discrimination in schools, where they are denied to use common toilets and water sources as their classmates. Due to their poor background and social discrimination, they are doomed to dropout from schools and eventually becoming prey to bonded labour. Dalit girls are forced to become prostitutes for dominant-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual harassment against women is used by landlords to inflict political “lessons” and crush dissent within the community. Less than 1% of the perpetrators of crimes against Dalit women are ever convicted. The repercussions of caste-based discrimination reflect in the economic condition of Dalits as well. Dalits are often paid lower wages which is 25 percent less than other workers.
What makes the issue of untouchability more concerning, is the lack of strong implementation of legislations such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The low conviction rate has dismantled the very objectives of the aforesaid Act. Condemnation of untouchability is required through law and its servants for the realization of the gravity of this issue. The application of affirmative action policies through the constitutionally entrenched provisions of reservations has consistently been limited by the Supreme Court in a series of judgments. The Supreme Court in a recent case held that the very application of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities), Act 1989 Act was “perpetuating casteism”, calling it an adversary of “constitutional values”. The language in these judgments by the apex court reflects the inherent stereotypes against the idea of reservations.
The condition of Dalits in present times calls for the necessity and fulfilment of SDG-16 (Sustainable Development Goal 16) now more than ever. In September 2015, world leaders came together to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and came with 17 Sustainable Development Goals. SDG-16, which emphasizes on the importance of strong institutions, is a toolkit that can provide civil societies and non-government stakeholders with guidance on how to engage with the government to eradicate untouchability and to hold them more accountable in order to make society more accepting and inclusive of different communities and castes. India is a party to international conventions; however, India maintains that the country has already eliminated caste-based discrimination through the constitutional provisions in 1950.
The need for accountability and realization of the present-day caste system needs to come from the people and most importantly, the institutions that promise to protect the people. The need for stronger implementation and condemnation of caste-based violence such as mob lynching, honor killings, rapes etc. needs higher conviction rates to eradicate untouchability from the Indian society.
The importance of fulfilling SDG 16 is crucial as it is interconnected with other development goals. Without fulfilment of SDG 16, other goals such as good health and well-being (Goal 3) Gender equality (Goal 5) and reduced inequalities (Goal 10) cannot be achieved. SDG 16 cannot be achieved by the government alone. It’s implementation should not be top-down, but rather guided by alliances and collaborations across all industries and segments of society to ensure that the SDG is genuinely "people-centered." Private-Public Partnerships and investments are key for stepping up progress on SDG 16- an objective, a necessity, a hopeful future for India.
 BBC Global Survey: A world divided (April 23rd 2018) https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/bbc-global-survey-world-divided
 International Dalit Solidarity Network, Caste Discrimination https://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights art 2., 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171, Can TS 1976 No 47 (entered into force 23 March 1976).  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights art 4., 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171, Can TS 1976 No 47 (entered into force 23 March 1976).  International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 7, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993, p. 3.  India's Social Sector and SDGs: Problems and Prospects. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2019 https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/India_s_Social_Sector_and_SDGs/Qcy4DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=sdg+16+and+untouchability&pg=PT291&printsec=frontcover
 Ranjan K Panda, Socially Exclusion and Inequality: Opportunities in Agenda 2030 https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/11145Social%20exclusion%20and%20Inequality-Study%20by%20GCAP%20India%20.pdf
 Conviction rate in crimes against Dalits abysmally low: MHA report https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/conviction-in-crimes-against-dalits-is-abysmally-low-mha-report/articleshow/63833473.cms
 Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v The State of Maharashtra and anr. AIR (2018) SC 1498  Goal 16 Advocacy Toolkit, TAP Network, A practical guide for stakeholders for national level advocacy around Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/9935TAP%20Network%20Goal%2016%20Advocacy%20Toolkit.pdf
 India's Social Sector and SDGs: Problems and Prospects. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2019 https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/India_s_Social_Sector_and_SDGs/Qcy4DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=sdg+16+and+untouchability&pg=PT291&printsec=frontcover  Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-16-peace-justice-and-strong-institutions.html