The Indian government on Wednesday removed an income requirement from a program offering cash incentives to Hindus who marry members of the marginalized Dalit community, amid complaints that the scheme was not doing enough to remove the stigma of inter-caste marriages.
The scheme introduced in 2013 offered 250,000 rupees (U.S. $3,872) to upper-caste Hindus who marry Dalits on condition the high caste spouse’s annual income was less than 500,000 rupees ($7,744).
India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on Wednesday changed course, saying it would offer the payment to all couples where one spouse is from the Dalit community regardless of income.
The “Dr. Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration through Inter-Caste Marriages,” is aimed at encouraging higher-caste Hindus to marry Dalits, who have for centuries been referred to as untouchables and relegated to the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, ministry spokesman Sanjay Kumar told BenarNews.
“The scheme has been floated by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation,” Kumar said, adding, “it falls under the purview of the ministry.”
“As part of the new plan, the amount of 250,000 rupees would be given to an inter-caste couple, in which one spouse is a Dalit, in two installments,” Kumar said.
The scheme was founded on the ideals of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the proponent of Dalit rights “to reduce caste-prejudices, abolish untouchability and spread the values of liberty, equality, fraternity,” thereby bringing about “sustainable social integration.”
Marriages between upper-caste Hindus and Dalits are rare in India’s deeply caste-entrenched society.
Inter-caste couples often are subjected to violence, mostly at the hands of their own clan members. Although official figures are unavailable, rough estimates gathered by human rights groups suggest that more than 600 people are killed each year in India for marrying outside their castes.
The scheme has fared poorly since its inception. Only five couples were given the incentive in 2014. In 2015, 72 of the 522 couples who applied for the incentive were approved, while 45 of the 736 applications were cleared in 2016.
This year, the government has received 409 proposals, of which it has cleared 74 couples for the payout.
Even as they welcomed the change, rights activists said more needs to be done to do away with the stigma of inter-caste marriages.
“The cash incentive is a good policy, but it’s far from enough. The government needs to ensure protection for inter-caste couples and provide prompt legal support. There needs to be a helpline for them,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told BenarNews.
“Simply extending monetary assistance is inadequate. And why just upper-caste Hindus marrying Dalits, there should be cash incentives for inter-faith marriages, too,” she said.
Ramesh Nathan, general secretary of the New Delhi-based National Dalit Movement for Justice, also welcomed the government’s move.
“This is a positive change. I hope it will encourage new generations to choose their life partners based on love, not caste. It seems like a good plan,” Nathan told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, another activist said the scheme was fundamentally misconceived as it tried to use cash to end an age-old system rooted in prejudices.
“I know of several inter-caste marriages, but they are all done in secret or under police or court protection. What we need is not cash incentives but a social upheaval to end discrimination against Dalits,” John Dayal of the All-India Christian Council, said, according to The Guardian.