Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In face loss to govt, Gujarat Information Commission orders release of CEPT University study on untouchability


By Our Representative
In a major loss of face for the Gujarat government, the State Information Commission has ordered the state social justice and empowerment department to hand over a copy of a report on untouchability in Gujarat's villages within a month. About a month and a half ago, giving a strange explanation, the state government declared that providing information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on prevalence of untouchability in the state will lead to “a sharp rise in incidence of enmity in the rural areas of Gujarat.”
The explanation came in reply to an RTI application, filed by top NGO Navsarjan Trust's senior activist Kirit Rathod, who had wanted to know details of a report, titled “Understanding Untouchability”, prepared by the Centre for Environment and Town Planning (CEPT) University, commissioned by the Gujarat government on October 22, 2010.
Rathod approached State Information Commissioner Balwant Singh against the state government decision on May 8, saying that there was little reason for providing the report, as untouchability remains a major social evil of Indian society. 
“Why are so many programmes being organised to end untouchability, if the problem has already been deemed as solved? Why is a Citizens' Cell operating, again with the aim to fight untouchability? Why is a special court functioning to punish those guilty of practicing untouchability? Why does the chief minister minister call the meeting of the monitoring committee on Dalits, if untouchability had ended?”, he wondered.
Finding the government explanation totally unacceptable, Rathod said, “Does the Gujarat government believe that untouchability should continue and those who practice it should go unpunished? Or does it think that by practicing untouchability the village peace remains intact?”. 
Significantly, the government explanation did not just include the imagined prospect of a sharp rise in incidence of enmity in villages in the state in case information on untouchability is provided, but also such reasons like “possibilities of hurdles in the process of dialogue between different castes” in the rural areas, and chances of “a sharp decrease in interdependence” between different castes, which allegedly characterizes the “homogenous atmosphere” in the state's rural areas.
Saying that if information is provided, “relations between different communities may be in jeopardy”, the reply to Rathod further said that in case incidence of untouchability are “proved to be true” in villages, this would lead to “rise in the atmosphere of peace, dialogue and compromise” which may be prevailing in the villages.
“There is also a possibility that the person who reports on untouchability would find living difficult in the village”, the government believes, suggesting how Dalits in some villages, in order to maintain an atmosphere of homogeneity, take steps which apparently ensure that the overall atmosphere of peace in the village is not marred.
“In some villages, for instance”, the government explanation said, “the Dalits themselves do not want to enter into villages.Similarly, in some other villages, if the barber refuses to entertain a Dalit wanting to have hair-cutting, the Dalit decides to go to a town-based barber in order to avoid any possibility of a dispute taking shape in the village between different castes.” Further: in case the information is provided, it would lead to a situation where the Dalits may be deprived their source of livelihood. “This is because the Dalits' livelihood depends on the job provided by higher castes”.
Rathod, who had wanted to know about details of the untouchability report prepared by the CEPT University, had sought details like on-the-spot inquiry of incidence of untouchability in the state's rural areas, made by the CEPT University scholars, as also the explanation on untouchability provided by the state's state-level and district-level officials. The government, while denying the details, said it acted under the RTI Act's section 8(J).
The Gujarat government had sponsored the study, titled “Abhadchched in Bhal” (Understanding Untouchability) to the CEPT University following Navsarjan Trust's “Census on Untouchability”, a complete survey report on prevalence of untouchability in the state's rural areas, carried out in as many as 1,589 villages. The Navsarjan Trust released the results of the survey on January 27, 2010.

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