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Government, Social Services

Harijans, Untouchables, Welfare programs, scheduled castes, supplemental nutrition

India’s central government has focused on improving the welfare of the Indian people since independence. The focus has been on transforming the health of the population and providing benefits for the weakest members of the society, especially scheduled castes and tribes, women, and children. These efforts have resulted in improvements, although the degree varies by state.

Health-care facilities have been extended to all parts of the country, with more than 20,000 primary health centers and more than 100,000 subcenters in 1995. Still, the number and quality of personnel staffing them are less than desirable, and spending levels have been low. Although the number of hospital beds in relation to the population has increased since independence, there are still too few doctors for the population, particularly in rural areas. The government also promotes family planning and alternate systems of health care, particularly those with deep Indian roots such as Ayurvedic medicine.

Life expectancy at birth was 63 years in 2002, compared with 32 years in 1941. The infant mortality rate is still high at about 61 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2002, down from about 150 per 1,000 live births in the late 1940s. Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, and deaths on a large scale due to cholera, influenza, and other similar diseases have also been eliminated. Malaria and tuberculosis occur at much reduced rates, but new drug-resistant varieties are cause for concern. While the number of cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were few in the mid-1990s, the number of people with the virus that causes AIDS had exploded by then, with some estimates of more than 1 million infected. Efforts to check the spread of the disease, particularly prevalent among prostitutes in major cities and among drug users in some of the northeastern areas, have not been very effective. Malnutrition remains a serious problem, despite the gradually increasing amount of grain available per capita (rice, wheat, and grains such as millet remain the major food source of most Indians). Public sanitation facilities are not adequate, and in most areas, including most towns, smaller cities, and the countryside, are almost nonexistent.

Welfare programs for the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes (including the Harijans, or Untouchables) have centered on “compensatory discrimination,” which is similar to affirmative action: Positions are reserved for this population in the legislature, civil services, and educational institutions. Also, education subsidies are provided, including scholarships and reduced fees. A national commission for scheduled castes and tribes monitors progress in ending discrimination against these groups and progress in their social and economic standing. Public discrimination has become rare, and quite a few individuals have risen to positions of influence and respect, including India’s first Harijan president, Kocheril Raman Narayanan, who was elected in 1997. Private discrimination in housing and employment continues, however, and the desperately poor of the countryside, constituting the majority of these groups, remain virtually powerless against exploitation and physical abuse.

There are a wide variety of programs intended to improve the welfare of women and children, but they have had little impact in parts of the country (particularly the northern states) where the problem is most acute. Female children suffer particularly: They are often neglected in infancy, sometimes resulting in death. Also, they may be kept out of school or married off early. Programs for children, such as those for supplemental nutrition, have little effect in situations where child labor is endemic.

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