Building Socially Inclusive Commons Through Public Infrastructure

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(from Vocabulary of Commons, article 54)

by Anita Cheria and Edwin

Public infrastructure: Building socially inclusive commons

Nature or ‘the environment’ in itself belongs to all and is owned by none. It would therefore be common to all—the primordial commons. On this base is built many other ‘commons’. There are different types of built commons—from the physical systems and structures (the hardcoms) like the panchayat and post office to the knowledge commons such as culture and religion (the softcoms). The current situation in terms of access, benefit and control (the ABCs of commons) is mediated by the state and non-state institutions. Control could be direct because of physical location or it could be, proxy control through service provider supervisor, governance structures, or religio-cultural indoctrination.1

Nation building has always been contentious in India, with the vulnerable sections of the population—the Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST)—paying disproportionately the costs, from pollution to displacement and the dominant sections reaping the benefits disproportionately. This is a carry over from the old model where the Dalits were not allowed into the village (now the fruits of development) but had to pay the cost for it.

By definition, the village commons should be accessible to those in the village. At least the built commons of the democratic state, built with public money should be free access without discrimination. However, the state has clearly taken a position that is far more insidious than just the defence of property over commons. Through various means, it has clearly showed itself to be on the side of perpetuation of the hierarchical, exploitative system by various means, and has come down actively on the side of the destruction of the commons. This is despite the constitutional responsibility of the state to build a more democratic, egalitarian social and economic system with distributive justice. Tillnow, that is not the case. Experience shows that discrimination starts right with the definition of ‘village’ itself. That needs to change.

Gandhigram or Ambedkargram: Which village?

There are two main ideological streams in India when it comes to the ‘village’—the Gandhian and the Ambedkarite. This is rather ironic since one of the main platforms on which India fought for independence was gram swaraj—free village republics. But these two visions are not only diametrically opposite in their perception of the village, but also in conflict with each other.

There has been a long standing myth that the village in India was analogous to the Arcadia of the west. This was the view held by M K Gandhi, who called it Ram Rajya, and his successors in the Congress. In this view—the predominant in the Indian intellectual stream—once power is handed over to the people in the villages, all will be honky dory. The Gandhian vision was to create ‘self governing village republics’ with a strong khadhi/village industries base. The guiding principle would be ownership of property based on the ‘trusteeship’ concept and the philosophy would be ahimsa, non-violence.2

Yet there has been a persistent subaltern stream that holds that it is not an unmixed blessing that it is portrayed as. While many laud the decentralisation of power, one must keep in mind that no less a person than B R Ambedkar opposed it. He totally rejected the Gandhian idealised picture of the Indian village and saw it for what it really is—an oppressive caste-slave system. He argued forcefully against the concept and dared his opponents to prove that a Brahmin and a Dalit could sit and decide as equals in a village panchayat. He even believed that the destruction of village–India was essential for the liberation of Dalits. The experience at the grassroots, as to the monopolising of decision making at the village level by the caste–Hindus, and how the panchayat ‘justice’ works against Dalits to the point of being inhuman, reinforces his view.

In his later years, Gandhi did realise that the caste system was a form of violence, and even said that if the only way to do away with the caste system was to do away with Hinduism, then Hinduism must go.3 But the ideological evolution of Gandhism did not even keep pace with its originator. The proponents of an Arcadian, romanticised Gandhian stream of thought, have carried the day.

The no-name villages

The dominant vocabulary has perfected a means to include the Dalit villages in vocabulary and exclude the Dalits in practice—include for expropriation and exclude for benefits. This is accomplished with élan by the phenomenon of ‘no-name’ villages that the Dalits live in. This phenomenon results in all the infrastructure being located where it is inaccessible for the Dalits. So what is this ‘no-name villages’? India, it is said, is a land of 600,000 villages—638,365 according to the census of India 2001. The curious fact is that these do not count the Dalit villages. Instead, the Dalit villages are recorded as Dalit ‘colonies’ ‘Toli’ or ‘Dalit-para’ of the ‘main village’. Therefore a Dalit village near a dominant caste village called Belur would be called Belur Dalit colony. Dalit villages are called ‘colonies’ because they are the colonies of the dominant caste village. It is a continuation of the social construct that the Dalit cannot ‘own anything’4 — so lowly as to be even without caste5 — even the village where a Dalit lives cannot ‘own’ a name or an identity.6

The consequences of this ‘no-name’ status are well known to those in the women’s movement, where many of the issues facing women were ‘problems with no names’. No-name villages are identified and treated as a colony of the ‘main village’ (the Gandhigram) where the dominant live, and for whom those from the ‘Dalit colony’ (the Ambedkargram) have to compulsorily provide free or subsidised ‘services’. Just as any colonised people, the Dalits are virtually slaves of the dominant caste village. They are forbidden entry into the villages (since they would pollute it) except for performing ‘unclean tasks’ that would ‘pollute’ the dominant. The dominant village (the Gandhigram) has the first right to all the resources (natural and human) of the colony (the Ambedkargram). It is only after fulfilling the labour requirements of the Gandhigram that the denizens of Ambedkargram can venture out.

Providing free labour as a caste function is mandatory. These include beating the drums for festivals, marriages and funerals. It results in the Dalit building many of the common spaces and infrastructure of the ‘village’ yet being excluded from these commons due to notions of ritual pollution: the temples—including the idol in the sanctum sanctorum, ‘common’ cultural spaces such as the marriages where their labour is considered a community common resource, yet inter-dining is prohibited and they are made to eat the leftovers separately.

The built commons: Hardcoms and softcoms

The pattern of discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion is visible in rural India for Dalits collectively. There is certainly an urban/rural divide, and a regional bias in development. However, even where basic services exist, they are invariably in the ‘Gandhigram’ part of the village and seldom in the ‘Ambedkargram’. It would do well to remember that the Dalits (who have to stay in Ambedkargram) are allowed extremely restricted access, if at all, to the main village (Gandhigram). In very many places they are not only segregated, but also walled off.

All the infrastructure is cornered only by the dominant village. Since the Dalit village does not have a separate existence, even when government records show that the village has all infrastructure (schools, primary health centres, telephones, community centres, primary health centres, child care centre, water supply, electricity....), in reality, all these are only in the dominant caste village (the Gandhigram) which the Dalits are forbidden to enter or to use. The Dalit village (the Ambedkargram) does not get any of these. So the Dalits are denied all these facilities, while the government statistics show that the ‘village’ has all the infrastructure. In older infrastructure (water, burial grounds, land) there is discrimination.7 In the newer technology and infrastructure there is exclusion and denial of service (roads, electricity, community halls).8 They are forbidden from the ‘modern’ government financed burial grounds and crematoria, built on ‘public’ property. So whether it is 100% electrification or the 100% broadband connections promised by 2012,9 the Dalit village will be excluded.

That this exclusion is systemic discrimination is proved by the fact that the location of infrastructure not used by the dominant castes— such as government child care centres used almost exclusively by the Dalits since the dominant caste children go to private ‘convents’— are also located in the dominant caste locality. Since the Supreme Court has ordered cooked meals to all students, there is insistence that the cook not be a Dalit since that would make the food impure. Of course, meat is banned in the diet for ritual reasons.

An attempt to build the ‘software’ of these commons is in making the village council democratic. Unfortunately, the democratic local government has followed the terminology of the local language, and calls these local government institutions as ‘panchayats’. This terminology colours the composition and functioning of these bodies, since traditionally ‘panchayats’ were all male, and each caste had its own ‘panchayat’. The ‘village panchayat’ was the panchayat of the dominant caste. In the attempt to make it democratic, the Indian state has made it compulsory in most cases to have half the representatives and presidents as women (some states have only a third as women), and made it mandatory to have a certain percentage of vulnerable sections—Dalit and Adivasi—in its membership and as presidents.10 Dalits are not allowed into the ‘new commons’ of the village council. In the physical building—made with public funds—that is in the dominant caste village, the Dalit representative is already in ‘hostile territory’, and needs permission to enter, even if president. Even when forced by law to be inclusive, the Dalit President is often made to sit on the floor while the others sit on chairs. Dalit and other women are specifically excluded from these meetings, except when they are to be reprimanded or punished, leading to the saying that ‘Dalits don’t go to the panchayat, they are summoned by the panchayat’. The ‘all party meetings’ called for peacemaking after caste conflicts seldom have any Dalit. Yet their verdicts are binding on the Dalits.

The physical evidence

Tracking basic services in villages and where they are physically located brings out the practical, physical infrastructural consequences of vulnerability rather graphically. The basic services could be random, covering the ones most likely to be present in a village. It must be kept in mind that the ‘village’ is not one cluster of houses, but a cluster of clusters.

The physical location of ‘public’ infrastructure—drinking water bore well/hand pump, electricity, Primary Health Centre, PDS Outlet, Community Hall, Balwadi, Anganwadi, Primary School, High School, Post office, Panchayat office, Bank/cooperative society, Police station, Polling booth, Bus stop, place of worship (Temple, Mosque, Church etc)—is an accurate reflection of power and dominance. Control is an obvious corollary.

Data available shows irrefutably which sections of India are privileged which are excluded.11 It is valid even within communities, where data shows who are the ‘Dalits among Dalits’, the age, sex and regional composition of such exclusion. This provides a good starting point for reflection of how much of the infrastructure, both government and government supported, has been to reinforce this apartheid.

The need for ‘inclusive’ commons: Stratification in prosperity

Stratification in prosperity is a well known phenomenon. When all people are poor, then there is not so much of a difference in opportunity or wealth. However, as the community moves up in standard and quality of life, the powerful invariably corner most of the benefits. Studies show that the gap between the rich and the poor actually got wider in the periods of economic growth,12 though there is some debate whether the poor got poorer and the rich got richer. The new opportunities and spaces created by knowledge, technology and economic growth need to be seen as the new commons where all must have an equal opportunity. Else the same inequality and discrimination will be carried forward with more stringent enforcement there. Since the Dalits are the more vulnerable section, the opportunities will open up the divide between the rural Dalit and the dominant castes.

This loss of opportunity will lead to further handicap in the job market. Marginalisation in the job market will delay the formation of a critical mass of the Dalit middle class. The same can be said of virtually every vulnerable section—from sexual minorities to women, children, senior citizens to the mentally and physically disadvantaged to the diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups.

For inclusive development, areas of such vulnerability need to be identified before they become formalised or crystallised. The 10% variance in gap results in insurmountable barriers as society becomes stratified. The consequences of such disparity are detrimental to the growth and development of society and its constituent individuals. Creating a society based on equity and justice thus is a key factor in ensuring sustained progress.

Democracy by design: Planning for equity, not concretising prejudice

Social inclusion does not ‘just happen’. It has to be carefully planned, comprehensively designed and sensitively executed. It needs to be an intrinsic part of the programme, not an optional add-on. ‘Development’, without a careful embedding of democracy and equity, results in the consolidation of prejudice, stratification and social exclusion rather than the reverse. Instead of consolidating bias, there must be constant vigilance to ensure delivery of services, that the poorest are included and their needs are fulfilled on a priority (first call on resources). Rather than making them pawns in the dominant master plan of ‘development’ they should be enabled to set their own equity goals (both positive and negative) where they will stop or dilute discrimination, and where they will practice inclusion.

In urban areas too this becomes important. ‘Unfenced space’ is rare in urban areas. There are no fields, only parks in upmarket enclaves that are fast becoming ‘gated communities’—another way of making sure that the vulnerable are excluded through economic means. Shorn of the means of livelihoodand spaces for recreation, the youth then take to crime... yet ‘common spaces’ are becoming increasingly scarce.

A distinct vocabulary for inclusion: A name to start with

In the softcoms, the change in terminology could be to rename the governance bodies as councils, so that they are liberated from the carryover caste and gender baggage of ‘panchayat’. As for the Dalits, if they are serious about their development and in the share of national progress, they could first ensure that their villages get named. Else they will continue to see a drain of investment made in their name go to the dominant.

A campaign for locating these modern instruments of liberation in Dalit villages—or at the very least in commonly accessible places—is an essential first step. This is a non-negotiable and others can only build on this. Another is to ensure the visibility of these ‘gaps’. For this a simple linguistic change is sufficient. Dalits should make the naming of their village, and getting a unique PIN Code for it, a priority political demand. Once that is done, India will have not 600,000 villages, but 1.2 million. The temptation to name all the villages as ‘Ambedkar’ villages will be strong, but must be resisted. If there are too many Ambedkar villages, then they will again be Belur Ambedkar Village etc, defeating the purpose of capturing mindspace and attitudinal change.

Choice of the development paradigm is crucial. Will it be ‘separate but equal’ or ‘integrated’ or will it be ‘integrated’ with some autonomous spaces? The location of the commons becomes critical either way. Location of new infrastructure in Dalit areas will not automatically benefit the excluded. It could just as easily result in large scale displacement with no benefits to them, as the Adivasi have found to their dismay for centuries. Unless the Dalits are strong enough to defend their commons, it could be counterproductive. If they can defend their commons, then the assertion of their distinct identity as a separate village will have liberative consequences. Just as name change from harijan to Dalit, and upper caste to dominant caste makes a difference, this renaming will also make a significant difference.

A nation cannot always have citizens and tenants. While modernisation is the way to go, there needs to be conscious social re-engineering with the state being arbitrator with a bias toward the voiceless. Acknowledging that there were large sections of society that were excluded from the community and the commons, it is necessary for public infrastructure to be inclusive in access, benefit and control. The fluid boundaries of natural topography literally get concretised with modern infrastructure. Therefore it is imperative to make them as democratic and inclusive as possible—literally building an inclusive commons.


1 The authors acknowledge the input given by Tom Thomas in sharpening this chapter.

2 Harijan, 25-10-1952

3 I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived. Round Table Conference 1931. Tendulkar, D G Mahatma Vol 3 p128. 1960.

4 Manusmriti (8: 417) A priest may with confidence take away any possession from a servant; for since nothing at all can belong to him as his own, his property can be taken away by his master and (10:129) A servant should not amass wealth, even if he has the ability, for a servant who has amassed wealth annoys priests.

5 Manusmriti 10:4

6 The Manusmriti has this to say about names (2:31): (The name) of a priest should have (a word for) auspiciousness, of a ruler strength, of a commoner property and (the name) of a servant should breed disgust.

7 Shah, Ghanshyam, Harsh Mander, Thorat Sukhadeo, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar. 2006. Untouchability in Rural India. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

8 ibid.

9,%204-Nov-2008 (accessed 20 October 2010)

10 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution.

11 Country Profile India; Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) At a Glance; July 2010 p5.

12 Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries; 2008.