"Ours is a battle for freedom, ours is a battle not just for economical gains and political power, ours is a battle for reclamation of human personality”
— Babasaheb Ambedkar

Annihilate Caste and Structural Inequalities in Implementing the 2030 Agenda (South Asia)

Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), Regions Refocus 2015, and Asia Parliamentarians Forum on Dalit Concerns (APFDC) co-convened “Annihilate Caste and Structural Inequalities in Implementing the SDGs,”
As global leaders met to define a new sustainable development agenda in 2015, concerns of structural, social, and economic inequalities have taken center stage in debates on economic progress and the eradication of poverty. In South Asia, which holds 25 per cent of the world’s population and 40 per cent of people living in poverty globally, caste-based exclusion is a dominant cause of poverty. To address this context, Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), Regions Refocus 2015, and Asia Parliamentarians Forum on Dalit Concerns (APFDC) co-convened “Annihilate Caste and Structural Inequalities in Implementing the SDGs,” from 22 through 27 September, 2015, in New York. Examining the 2030 Agenda, participants evaluated pertinent development objectives related to inequalities, poverty, education, health, and gender within the context of eliminating caste discrimination in South Asia. As the 2030 Agenda has failed to explicitly mention caste, participants envisioned creative strategies to use the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 10, “Reduce inequalities within and among countries,” as a tool to visibilize and address discrimination and violence faced by the Dalit community. The gathering also marked the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a pioneer of Dalit rights and equality in South Asia.
Event Sept 2015 webThis week-long series of events sought to strengthen the ADRF and APFDC to address exclusion, inequalities, and violence against Dalit communities at the national, regional, and global (UN) level. It aimed to analyze current and potential policies and their degree of implementation at the national to regional levels, to gain an understanding of the 2030 Agenda and develop a roadmap with concrete actions by parliamentarians and civil society to shape its implementation in each country.
During the first event, Parliamentarians and civil society leaders addressed three clusters of the Sustainable Development Goals: accountability and peace; gender and social justice; and economic and ecological justice, in light of national circumstances of Dalit communities and necessary steps in implementing the SDGs. Participants from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka analyzed existing and potential legislation, policies, and affirmative action to eliminate the economic, social, and religious manifestations of discrimination based on work and descent (caste). Parliamentarians and civil society leaders examined proposals to implement the 2030 Agenda, elaborating desirable state and non-state actions at the national and regional level, and identifying mechanisms required to sustain these actions. Finally, participants consolidated policy asks and political engagement strategies towards the UN Sustainable Development Summit and policy dialogues with Permanent Missions to the UN.
The panels served as a platform for regional solidarity in response to pervasive impunity, emphasizing the need to address failures in implementation even where mechanisms exist within the region. Dalits are often ignored in development processes, despite constituting 260 million people worldwide, including 201 million in India (16.6% of the population), 3.5 million in Nepal (13.2% of the population), 3.5-6.5 million in Bangladesh, 4-5 million in Sri Lanka, and 330,000 in Pakistan. Though Dalit political mobilizations have achieved better recognition of their human rights, caste discrimination and deep-rooted caste prejudices and practices, including the notion of “untouchability” in society, still exist at the local and national levels. This makes the implementation of international human rights standards as well as existing domestic laws one of the biggest challenges for South Asia and beyond.
From 22-27 September 2015, “Annihilate Caste and Structural Inequalities in Implementing the 2030 Agenda” was co-convened by the Asia Dalit Rights Forum, Regions Refocus 2015, and the Asian Parliamentarians’ Forum on Dalit Concerns. This 14-minute video captures an overview of the national policy landscapes on caste in five South Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, from the perspectives of Members of Parliament and civil society leaders gathered in New York for this week-long series of programming. Participants present a range of progressive policy proposals to “annihilate caste” (in the words of Dalit rights pioneer and key architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar) and eliminate structural inequalities in their region.
Following the Parliamentarian and Civil Society Exchange, a strategic seminar of Dalit leaders engaged with US-based movements for immigrant rights and racial justice to address casteism and racism in a global context. Civil society and Parliamentarians from India and Nepal, along with Claudia de la Cruz of Da Urban Butterflies and Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez of United We Dream, addressed discrimination and differences in international intersections of gender, race, class, caste, and sexuality. As part of their advocacy around the post-2015 framework, South Asian activists call on both governments and UN agencies to articulate their plans for addressing the intersectionality of caste and gender, and specific measures they will take to integrate the elimination of caste-based discrimination and exclusion into their development policies. Simultaneous contestations around gender and caste are essential in publicly addressing the deep-rooted structural factors around caste dominance, discrimination, and violence faced by Dalit women in particular. Therefore, indicators at global, regional, and national level must measure caste as structural variables in addition to gender, with data disaggregated according to caste and gender. These concerns are central to an inclusive development agenda that works towards structural justice. The Casteism and Racism forum served as a step towards recognizing this intersectionality and towards building a new internationalism amongst movements for Dalit rights, immigrant rights, and racial justice.
On 23 September, at Barnard College of Columbia University, an informal, strategic discussion on “Challenging Systems of Casteism and Racism” was held amongst Parliamentarians, academics, and social movement leaders from across South Asia and North America. In this historical moment in the US of protest and organizing around immigration and racial justice, including under the banner of Black Lives Matter, this exchange fostered awareness and solidarity around the parallels between structural racism faced by African Americans and endemic discrimination on the basis of caste. Activists, academics, and policy-makers share experiences and strategies in activism, and advancing policy in the struggles against racist and patriarchal violence and discrimination in the US, South Asia, and beyond.
These initial discussions and deliberations were followed by a Global Youth Summit to address the SDGs (25 September); a rally to “Educate! Agitate! Organize!” for Dalit rights, across the street from United Nations Headquarters (26 September); and a concluding celebration at Columbia University of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy in combatting caste discrimination (26 September), all facilitated by ADRF and APFDC.