The Scheduled Castes or the Harijans suffered for centuries from a number of social disabilities among which the following may be noted.
1. Lowest Status in the Hierarchy:
In the Caste hierarchy the Scheduled Castes are ascribed the lowest status. They are considered to be ‘unholy’, ‘inferior’ and ‘low’ and are looked down upon by the other castes. They have been suffering from the stigma of ‘untouchability’. Their very touch is considered to be polluting for the higher caste people.
Hence they have been treated as the servants of the other caste people. The Scheduled Castes have always served the other castes, but the attitude of other castes is of total indifference and contempt.
They were kept at a distance from other caste people. In some instances (in South India) even the exact distance which an upper caste man was expected to keep between himself and the Harijans was specified.
2. Education Disabilities:
The Harijans were forbidden from taking up to education during the early days. Sanskrit education was denied for them. Public schools and other educational institutions were closed for them. Even today majority of them are illiterate and ignorant.
3. Civic Disabilities:
Prevention from the use of Public Places. For a long time the untouchable castes were not allowed to use public places and avail of civic facilities such as—village wells, ponds, temples, hostels, hotels, schools, hospitals, lecture halls, dharamashalas, choultries, etc.
They were forced to live on the outskirts of the towns and villages during the early days. Even today they are segregated from others spatially. In South India, restrictions were imposed on the mode of construction of their houses, types of dresses and patterns of their ornamentation.
Some lower caste people were not allowed to carry umbrellas, to wear shoes or golden ornaments and to milk cows. They were prohibited from covering the upper part of their body. The services of barbers, washermen and tailors were refused to them.
(b) Religious Disabilities:
The Harijans also suffer from religious disabilities even today. They are not allowed to enter temples in many places. The brahmins who offer their priestly services to some lower castes, are not prepared to officiate in the ceremonies of the ‘untouchable’ castes. They do not even bow down to the duties of these ‘untouchable’ castes.
The Vedic mantras which are considered to be more pure could not be listened to and chanted by the Harijans because of the taboos. They were only permitted to make use of the upanishadic mantras which are considered to be less pure. Burial grounds were also denied for them in many places.
(c) Economic Disabilities:
The Harijans are economically backward and have been suffering from various economic disabilities also.
1. No Right of Property Ownership:
For centuries the Harijans were not allowed to have land and business of their own. It is only recently their ownership to the property has become recognised. The propertied people are comparatively less in them. Majority of them depend upon agriculture but only a few of them own land.
2. Selection of Occupations Limited:
The Caste system imposes restrictions on the occupational choice of the members. The occupational choice was very much limited for the Harijans. They were not allowed to take up to occupations which were reserved for the upper caste people.
They were forced to stick on to the traditional inferior occupations such as—curing hides, removing the human wastes, sweeping, scavenging, oil grinding, tanning, shoemaking, leather works, carrying the dead animals, etc. These occupations were regarded as ‘degraded’ and ‘inferior’.
3. Landless Labourers:
Majority of the Harijans are today forking as landless labourers. More than 90.1 of the agricultural labourers in India belong to the depressed classes which include the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. More than 77.1% of the Scheduled Caste workers in rural areas are agricultural labourers.
A large number of Harijan families are in debts. About 64.1% of the agricultural labour households of the Scheduled Castes were indebted during 1956-57 as against 45.1% in 1950-51.
The average accumulated debt per household increased from Rs. 47 in 1950-51 to Rs. 88 in 1956-57. Their indebtedness is increasing day by day. The Harijans are economically exploited by the upper caste people. Even today they are the lowest paid workers; some of them continue to suffer as bonded labourers at the hands of the higher caste people.
(d) Political Disabilities:
The untouchables hardly participated in the political matters. They were not given any place in the politics, administration and the general governance of India, they were not allowed to hold any public post.
Political rights and representation were denied for them. Under the British rule, they were given the right to vote for the first time. After independence equal political opportunities and rights have been provided for the Harijans also. Politically, the Harijans are yet to become an organised force.