Discrimination against members of communities classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is not just an agglomeration of individual acts of prejudice. Despite the Constitution of India and laws prohibiting and punishing such acts, these have not been able to adequately tackle the systemic discrimination Dalits and Adivasis face in the country. Reservations, for instance, have opened up access to institutions earlier closed to Dalits, but have not been able to ensure that the universities and colleges do not become hostile places for them.
Even the private sector is not entirely immune to the systemic discrimination. A study showed that those with identifiably Muslim and Dalit surnames were less likely to receive interview callbacks from private sector companies in the country, despite having the same qualifications as a candidate hailing from a upper caste Hindu family. Dalit entrepreneurs find it harder to obtain loans from banks, government schemes notwithstanding. In this milieu, therefore, it should come as no surprise that companies and executives find themselves facing legal consequences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 (as amended in 2015).
An example of this is the complaint made under the Act by villagers affected by the soft drinks bottling plant in Plachimada. But, the conflict between private corporations and local communities is likely to acquire more severe dimension in the future, especially in the context of tribal communities displaced by mining.
In a society as deeply unequal as India, the poor, marginalised, and dispossessed almost always find themselves bearing the costs of the present economic system while the benefits go upwards. It is a reflection of a social system that was designed to achieve precisely this purpose. For corporates, which are otherwise attuned to understanding and responding to customers and the community around them, to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.
Individual actions that the Atrocities Act punishes are usually driven by the need to reinforce existing social hierarchy. There's no reason why a company, peopled by those who are from this same society, should be particularly exempt from this impulse. What is required, therefore, from corporates and executives is greater awareness of the deep social inequality around them, and attempts to seriously address it.
The writer is a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy