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The Roma and Dalits: Collectivity and Fraternity


By Gopalakrishnan Karunanithi*

In this guest blog Professor Karunanithi draws some parallels between the Roma in Hungary and Dalits in India to explore the transferability of models of empowerment, self-help and development for marginalised women.  

Since 1999 I have been visiting the Institute of Sociology and Social Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest to undertake collaborative research programs and teaching assignments as well. However, in 2013, as a result of my frequent discussions with Professor Andrew Ryder based at the Corvinus University and several visits to the Roma settlements in and around Budapest organised by him and a few scholars of Romani studies developed a deep interest to know much more about the Roma and their experiences.

I saw the Roma in Hungary as a parallel community in some respects to marginalised communities in India, particularly the Dalits, who were once deemed ‘untouchables’ in India and are now included in the list of Scheduled Castes (meaning that their socio-economic and educational marginalisation has been recognised in the Indian constitution, and accordingly they are eligible to get assistance in education and employment and enjoy several affirmative measures). This comparative perspective became an inner drive motivating me to work on Roma issues in tandem with that of the Dalits.

In the first instance, I made an attempt to examine the transferability of a development model from India (comprising of Self-Help Group, Microcredit and Microenterprise applied to the Dalit women in order to empower them) to the Roma community in Hungary, particularly the Romani women. During 2009-2012, I conducted a few surveys in Tamilnadu, a southern state of India, on the empowerment of marginalized women in Self-Help Groups (SHGs) through this development model. I came across success stories of the model in the case of a majority of SHGs.

Notwithstanding the differences between the Roma and the Dalits, the Indian model may be experimented with the former to get similar results. It is, therefore, an imperative that more is done in Hungary to organise women’s Self-Help Groups with the help of local NGOs and enable them to get access to microcredit facilities in order to start collective business enterprises. Indeed, the Roma women in certain parts of Hungary are engaged in various types of work, including agriculture and allied activities. For instance, some women in a Roma settlement close to Pecs, a city in southern Hungary, collect rare plants to prepare herbal medicines. If they are organised into groups and supported with bank loans to formalise their collective work, given guidance and help to market their products, then they would make more profit and become independent economically.  Of course some ventures could depart from traditional or agricultural activities and take Roma women into new and lucrative economic areas which might encompass greater skills sets such as protecting the environment, running local transportation, organising social get-togethers and cultural events, supervising primary health services and children’s education, and maintaining community centres, playgrounds, parks, church activities and the like.

In association with Malay Mishra, former Indian ambassador to Hungary, I made an attempt to conduct a quick but brief survey of collective development activities in the southern Hungarian countryside. This survey revealed some of the features of the Indian model, which were being successfully applied in relation to the development and empowerment of the Roma community. It is therefore relevant to draw a comparison between these models, to look for some useful aspects for exchange and transferability. Such attempts would meet the aspirations of advocates of Roma rights such as Járóka Lívia, Member of the European Parliament, who has stated that the forms of self-help and collectivity adapted in India to support the marginalised groups could be transferable to the Roma communities in Hungary. In addition to this, the European Union advocates different forms of microcredit for the Roma through the framework of National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS). Looking at experiences from the Indian model could thus be of use for the Roma but also India could develop new insights by looking at the progress of such models in a European context.

Most of the SHGs in India are systematically guided and supported by NGOs in terms of taking initiatives to get bank loans, start small business enterprises, participate in entrepreneurial activities collectively, and market their products. Moreover, the NGOs organise training programs for the SHG members to acquire necessary skills for the proposed business enterprises. Overall, the NGOs regulate the activities of the SHGs and solve their problems. Given the paucity and lack of local NGOs for the Roma, it is vital for the development of local Roma NGOs to go hand in hand with efforts to promote SHGs and forms of mutual and collective economic and social enterprise.

I see that throughout Hungary a large majority of Roma suffers disproportionately from poverty, illiteracy and lack of access to basic amenities. They are treated as second-class citizens and often subject to discrimination and injustice. Many Roma are forced out of the formal economy and become demoralised and sadly disengaged from politics. This inequality has to be rooted out by promoting their socio-economic development in part by following the model as suggested here. For me it is a fraternal endeavor that I as a citizen of India and campaigner there for social equality feel proud to be associated with through my work with Roma NGOs, activists and universities in Hungary.

*Professor Gopalakrishnan Karunanithi is Professor of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences & Languages, Vellore Institute of technolog, Tamil Nadu, India. He is also one of the editors of the special issue of the Indian Journal of Social Work: Collectivity and Empowerment in Addressing Marginality: The Roma and the Subaltern Communities of India, Vol 78, No 1 (2017). To access this issue visit:

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