How Dalit Bandhu scheme may tilt community's votes in KCR's favour

The scheme is causing friction between dalit groups and upper caste groups

28-K-Chandrashekar-Rao Keeping them close: Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao at the launch of the Dalit Bandhu scheme in 2021.

KATUKOORI JAYARAJ HAS not forgotten the times he had to beg at a railway station for survival. “It is embarrassing to share this part of my life but it is a fact,” he says. Today, Jayaraj, 28, is small-scale entrepreneur in Karimnagar in north Telangana, brimming with confidence in his neatly pressed semi-formal clothes. And he has only one person to thank for it. “It is KCR,” says Jayaraj, his voice full of gratitude.

Unsurprisingly, the scheme is causing friction between dalit groups and upper caste groups owing to the changing social dynamics.

Jayaraj is one of the 38,323 beneficiaries of Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao’s flagship scheme, Dalit Bandhu. It offers Rs10 lakh to every eligible dalit family in the state. Rao launched it in 2021, just before the crucial by-poll in the Huzurabad constituency in Karimnagar. It is being implemented across the state in phases.

The scheme seems to have hit the right notes in the dalit community, as they often struggled to raise money even for small ventures. Jayaraj said he was once kicked out of a public sector bank when he went to apply for a loan. Today he is the proud owner of a diagnostic centre, which earns him Rs40,000 to Rs1 lakh a month. And his marriage prospects have improved significantly.

Not too far away from Jayaraj’s diagnostic centre is Kalyan’s American Tourister showroom. It was the Dalit Bandhu cash assistance that helped him get the franchise. The annual turnover is about Rs70 lakh. Kalyan worked at another showroom of the brand for years before he started one on his own.

The government has kept the application process simple. Applicants will go through scrutiny, and the proposal is cleared by the district administration. The officials stress on sanctioning money to businesses that the candidate has some experience in. The sanctioned business assets include crop harvesting equipment, taxis, tea stalls, restaurants, DJ equipment and drones.

“It wasn’t a big task identifying the eligible candidates,” says R.V. Karnan, Karimnagar district collector, who has been involved with the scheme from inception. “We have analysts who verify details like ration cards and other information. In the Huzurabad constituency, all the 18,000 eligible dalit families received assistance from the Dalit Bandhu scheme.”

Karnan said the scheme was the first of its kind in the country. “It is economically empowering and it breaks the caste structure. While the community has reservation in jobs and politics, there is no such system in entrepreneurship. We can see that 80 to 90 per cent of them are in blue-collar jobs or work as labourers. This scheme will help many of them transition from worker to owners,” he said.

Rao’s party, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, lost the Huzurabad constituency by-poll in 2021, but the scheme’s larger implications seem to be working in its favour. The target is the 2023 assembly polls in which the BRS hopes to score a hat-trick. Telangana has around 54 lakh dalits, who make around 20 per cent of the electorate.

The BRS has been wooing dalits, and embracing B.R. Ambedkar. Rao named the new secretariat after him, and unveiled a 125ft statue. “Fifty per cent of dalits may vote for the BRS because of the scheme and also because of elevating Ambedkar’s status through the projects,” said Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, dalit writer and social activist. “The BRS is in an advantageous position as the dalits were earlier known to support the Congress.”

But he is not sure about the long-term benefits of the scheme, and is of the opinion that the projects of the Andhra Pradesh government work better for the poor dalits in rural areas. “The Dalit Bandhu scheme does not improve the future of dalits. I don’t think it is a sustainable model with just Rs10 lakh. Also, the dalit entrepreneurs have to shift to semi-urban areas to be successful, whereas the Andhra Pradesh government’s welfare schemes target the health and education of the underprivileged sections and is contributing to the strengthening of the rural economy, which also comes back through GST. There is another fundamental difference; the AP schemes transfer money to the poor and lower castes whereas in Telangana, the money is flowing to the rich in a big way (with schemes like Rythu Bandhu, which covers landlords also) and poor in some way,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the scheme is causing friction between dalit groups and upper caste groups owing to the changing social dynamics. “It will now be difficult to find labourers. The government should also think about that. Who will do the farming work now?” asked a farmer from a backward community, who owns five acres in Warangal. Some feel that the scheme should be extended to other communities as well.

When Rao launched the scheme, he had envisaged it as an idea of ‘uplifting the dalit community and empowering them’, rather than a freebie. The opposition, however, is questioning its implementation and its success as an uplifter of dalits. “They are not implementing the scheme at all,” said Congress leader Bhatti Vikramarka. “It is as good as the three-acre land that the CM promised to dalits, which was never fulfilled. Dalits have started feeling that they are being cheated. They would have benefitted more with the proper utilisation of SC/ST sub plan funds. But they are deprived of it.”

The BJP alleged only BRS members are chosen for the scheme and it would start a campaign to enlighten the dalits about the ‘reality’ of the BRS. “The BRS is not honest about its intentions,” said S. Kumar, national secretary of the BJP’s SC Morcha. “KCR had promised to make a dalit the chief minister in Telangana, which he did not fulfil. In his cabinet, there was a dalit deputy CM; but he was removed.”

Telangana goes to the polls at the end of the year. Many of its 119 seats have significant numbers of dalit voters. And how they vote may decide if Rao gets another term.