Economics of caste

Print edition : December 02, 2011

The author establishes how disparity in society is entrenched within the caste-occupation nexus.

IN the late 1990s, Dalit activists in many parts of India had started debating whether the institution of caste that prevailed in the country had similarities with the concept of race as was often conceptualised in the West. In fact, before the Durban Conference on apartheid and racism, many Dalit intellectuals believed that caste and race were almost similar in the context of India. The question is why these Dalit intellectuals and the Dalit counter-public tried to insist on this sort of an analogy. As has been argued by critics such as Shiv Visvanathan, there possibly had been attempts by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working among Dalit communities to integrate them at the grass-roots, State, national and international levels.

Indeed, such a strategy reflected an element of flexibility whereby the state was visualised not only as an agency of reform but as one whose powers violated the dignity of Dalits in their everyday life. The focus was on entitlement, and in this ambience the exercise of rights assumed great significance. In other words, it added fuel to the arguments of Dalit activists, notably those attending conferences such as the Durban Conference, that the reactions to caste and caste-based discrimination were akin to the reactions that had been set in motion by race and racial discrimination.

Sociologists have for long argued that what sets India apart from other societies is the overwhelming dominance of the caste order. Indeed, there is an opinion that there are no phonotypical differences between castes and it is specific, coded substances that differentiate one caste from another. These differences are often expressed in terms of purity and pollution which are to be observed very strictly by individuals in their quotidian experience as human beings. As in terms of race, physical separation was also given primacy by social theorists working on Indian communities.

Dipankar Gupta has argued that what makes caste stand apart from other forms of stratification is the elaborate and ritualised rules that not only insist on the observance of these distinctions but also prescribe sanctions in cases where the norms are violated. In his words, It is this obsessive attention to the slightest variation in ritual-making that marks out caste from other forms of stratification. More importantly, while it is difficult to provide a quantitative interpretation of the impact of caste on Indian society, its formidable presence in terms of a hierarchical order resembling racism continues to baffle scholars interested in the study of caste both as a cultural and an economic system.

However, scholars increasingly argue that it is difficult to accept the provocative position as adopted by Louis Dumont in his well-known work Homo Hierarchicus, which says that pure hierarchy was a state of mind to which all those within the caste system abided. This model of an all-embracing hierarchy had a great deal of similarity with the version of the Indologists of the 19th century who preferred an uncritical interpretation of the brahmanical texts such as the Yagnavalkyasmriti and the Manusmriti. It is now being argued that caste identities cannot be straitjacketed within a single universalised system, where the pure and the impure remain unproblematically firm in times of interaction.

Inequity and poverty

What needs to be stressed is that caste order is characterised not simply by the contesting notions of hierarchy but by issues of inequality and poverty. In her book, Ashwini Deshpande strongly asserts that caste could be an important group identifier vis-a-vis issues relating to economic disparity and discrimination. A few years ago, there were articles in academic journals that Dalit children were being chased out of schools in some villages of Tamil Nadu since they wanted to participate with the rest of the children in the government-run midday meal programmes. The dominant castes rejected such action on the basis of their caste pride and did everything possible to stall such moves.

More glaring were the reports from Patna, Bihar's capital city, where the government's public distribution shops owned by the dominant castes refused to distribute goods to Dalit customers until cloth screens were hung to save them from the gaze of the so-called polluting presence of the untouchables. The Indian Institute of Dalit Studies conducted a survey of 531 villages in five States of India in 2003 and exposed the patterns of exclusion and discrimination that beset the much-publicised midday meal schemes and the public distribution system.

The author has rightly argued at the very outset that since the non-economic literature on the Indian caste system is vast, there may be a question as to whether an economic enquiry can make any additional worthwhile contribution (page 3). She expresses her discomfort with many of the contemporary writings which emphasise that the links between occupation and caste are breaking down and that all this is resulting in the release of enormous entrepreneurial energies in different parts of India. An economist by training, Ashwini Deshpande acknowledges that while occupational structures may have witnessed a rapid transformation, caste division is ubiquitous in contemporary India.

Caste-class overlap

The author tries to answer questions as to whether the lower castes tended to get absorbed into low-paying and less-prestigious occupations, while there was a pronounced presence of the upper castes in modern occupations. In fact, there can be little disagreement with her proposition that social and economic mobility is still a distant dream for members of the lower castes. In other words, while links between caste and jati can snap, there are enough examples to lend credence to the old Marxian logic of a caste-class overlap in India.

Ashwini Deshpande draws our attention to the growing incidence of the breakdown of the traditional subsistence economy. But this does not essentially establish the fact that the influence of caste is waning; rather there are signs that it is making its presence strongly felt in the different dimensions of the economy. She alludes to a number of studies which stress that untouchability is not only present all over rural India but have survived' by adapting to new socio-economic realities and is taking on new and insidious forms. She points out that the extrajudicial power exercised by caste panchayats, particularly in the sphere of inter-caste romantic/matrimonial alliances, is proof of the lasting relevance of caste in rural society.

However, the author does not intend to confine her study to economic investigation; her intention rather is to establish how through a discursive reading of the past there can be a crucial understanding of the material aspects of disparity, as was entrenched within the caste-occupation nexus.

Ashwini Deshpande's volume is based primarily on her own academic interests spanning over the last decade vis-a-vis issues of contemporary caste inequalities in India. Her work takes an all-India view, recognising the regional and subregional variations. Apart from a concise introduction, she brings out the diversities in her work through the various chapters. In one of the chapters, she discusses the possibilities of employing a few economic theories to investigate how social identity has impacted on the economic outcome, leading to discriminations in market settings. She insists that both classical/neoclassical interpretations and heterodox traditions, including Marxian, have stressed that social identity of the economic agent does not matter. She contests such understandings by arguing that unfortunate and stark life experiences have proved that issues of identity are not so peripheral that they can be ignored by scholars. She highlights the contradictions inherent in them, despite the overarching supremacy of neoclassical economic theories, since social discriminations are found to be acceptable within the market traditions and within the system of profit maximisation.

In this context, it has been pointed out that though the conversion of Dalits to other religions, including Christianity and Islam, was influenced by an urge to escape from exclusion and discrimination, such conversion did not ensure the improvement of the social status of the converted individual.

General equilibrium model

The most interesting part of her argument is that which highlights the assumptions of the general equilibrium model. This model establishes the point that profit-maximising agents could encourage discrimination until there were policies of affirmative action or a coalition of employers who were interested in breaking free from all social stereotypes. The general equilibrium model suggests that all employees get paid according to their productivity, whereas in a world with statistical discrimination, employees get paid according to their group identities.

The hallmark of Ashwini Deshpande's analysis is that she tries to explain these complex economic theories in terms of the discourses which have taken place on caste and the Hindu social order since the last decades of the 19th century. Like the present-day economists, social theorists of the 19th century argued that the very affiliation to a certain social category determined the level of wages and issues broadly related to human security. In other words, an individual belonging to the lowest social classes could barely expect highly rewarding jobs.

Ashwini Deshpande feels that despite the popularity of a number of economic models, there are a whole range of questions on the caste system and its role in the economy that are unanswered. In this context, the author has raised the problems arising out of conflicting social prescriptions. Subsequently, she also raises the problem of identity formation.

In India, she argues, the usage of terms such as Dalits and Harijans often gives rise to a great deal of contestation. The official emphasis on the usage of the term Harijan is found to be offensive by the advocates of Dalit identity since they find it to be too pejorative if not patronising. The construction of identity is itself a complex phenomenon, and the self-perceived identity also displays a degree of homogenisation or enforcement, thereby creating conflicting ideas of self-respect within a particular community. This identity sometimes appears to be the real identity, but sometimes it is also fissured along the lines of class, territoriality and gender. Possibly, it is these complexities that economists lose sight of when they present their theoretical models based on a singular consensual identity. In the case of India, most of these studies bring out a number of interesting dimensions.

Dalit workers engaged in manual cleaning of pits of public toilets in Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka. Social and economic mobility is still a distant dream for members of the lower castes.-VISHWA KUNDAPURA

Land reform legislation

The author stresses the fact that while there are conflicts between the middle and upper layers of rural societies over issues relating to social distribution, such conflicts are less marked among the lower castes. The reality is that members of the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in rural areas continue to depend mostly on upper-caste landlords for their daily employment. This situation could be directly related to the lack of initiative on the part of rightist and centrist political parities of India to support land reform legislation on a large scale. The example of Uttar Pradesh in this regard would not be out of place, where Dalit politicians, despite capturing political power, did not introduce land reform legislation for the benefit of the majority of S.C. families.

Such actions on the part of Dalit politicians are often based on their own understanding of social hierarchy and that of power relations in society. Presumably, this explicates the rise of the Chamars as an important force in Dalit politics in northern India. The Chamar identity thus gets privileged over other identities such as all-embracing identities like those of the Ravi Dasi or Kabir Panthis.

Nonetheless, the discrimination against Dalits in matters relating to access to educational institutions and land ownership cannot be overlooked by scholars working on contemporary India. In West Bengal and Kerala, which have witnessed long years of progressive governments, the S.Cs continue to be treated as landless communities. In several other States, Dalits have been classified as non-agricultural communities because they are scavengers, leather workers or those engaged in other menial occupations.

Interestingly, economic liberalisation and globalisation have not brought about much change in the socio-economic status of Dalits. Indeed, there seems to be very little evidence, as the author suggests, of a departure from the earlier experiences of caste inequalities. For instance, the economic forces of liberalisation and globalisation have generated a number of jobs in the outsourcing industry where recruitment is based on fluency in English and computer literacy. Dalits, because of their educational disadvantages, find it difficult to compete for such jobs.

It has also been argued that the emulation of upper-caste norms by members of the Dalit communities have led to the undermining of the role of women in the family and in the workplace. This is a change from the earlier times when these communities were noted for their relative egalitarianism in gender-related issues. Gita Nambisan, in her researches, has pointed out how Dalit girls faced discrimination in schools because of the double stigma of gender and caste. The author has highlighted how through a variety of ways such stigma manifested itself in the everyday lives of Dalits. Her in-depth qualitative investigations dealing with gender differences in education, both at rural and urban localities, bring out the prevalence of such a phenomenon.

The author has also highlighted the caste-class interaction and its implications for the participation of women in the employment sphere. She states emphatically that an upper-class background often enabled urban women to break free from the traditional caste diktats. This is reflected in their greater presence in higher education and professional occupation and also in their marriage choices. But an S.C. woman has little option other than continuing with her traditional caste occupation. This explains why women from these communities carry on with their traditional tasks and become craftswomen, petty traders or midwives.

Finally, highly educated workers enjoy appreciable hikes in their wages, whereas women engaged in menial work do not. In other words, the author proves convincingly how educational attainment for women have a direct bearing on their income capability. But the other major issue that she brings out is the evidence of sharp discrimination existing within the earning patterns. Ashwini Deshpande argues that while this pattern may be true for all women, the inter-caste division undoubtedly suggests that it is more so for Dalit women.

Affirmative action

The most important premise of Ashwini Deshpande's work lies in the fact that despite legislation, the problems of disparity and discrimination remain untouched. In fact, the benefits of high growth do not reach the marginalised, that is Dalits and tribal people. It is on the basis of such arguments that the author investigates the impact of the policies of affirmative action in India. It has been pointed out that unlike countries such as Malaysia, there is no national enforcement mechanism for affirmative action in India.

It is well known that the uppercaste, elitist bias of the Indian judiciary prevents the adoption of strong redress measures to end the discrimination against the less-privileged caste groups. But these issues often get integrated into a bigger debate as to whether caste should be the determining factor of backwardness. Some sections of Indian society believe that reservation should be class-based for two reasons.

First, if the state accepts caste as the basis for backwardness, it legitimises the caste system, which contradicts secular principles. Secondly, the traditional caste system on the lines of the jajmani system has broken down and contractual relationships have emerged between individuals.

The implicit belief in such arguments is that the life chances of an individual in contemporary India are determined by one's economic conditions and not by the membership of any social group. But the efficacy of the policies of affirmative action lies in the fact that the majority of the people who are eligible for benefits remain outside its confines; the beneficiaries are only certain caste groups which have been pampered for narrow, selfish political dividends. This possibly lends strength to the entire idea of the domination of the creamy layer as the major beneficiaries of state policies.

Nonetheless, through a lot of information drawn from interviews with students from prominent educational institutions in Delhi, the author firmly reiterates that Dalits strongly support the policies of affirmative action. Yet, there is a feeling that reservation should be targeted more towards poor and rural Dalits rather than second- or third-generation recipients of quota admission. While all these policies have led to the emergence of a Dalit middle class, the majority of Dalits continue to be untouched by quotas in government offices and educational institutions. Thus, the quota system has not been the universal phenomenon for removing caste-based discrimination.

The author, through her in-depth analysis based on economic theories, interpretation of statistics and a broader discussion of the affirmative action programmes, will definitely influence social theorists to debate more on issues of equity and citizenship. She establishes that the study of caste and its role in Indian society, which earlier had been the domain of anthropological writings, can be taken up by economists to give it a more holistic interpretation. Rather than downplaying the nature of caste identities and the encounters between multiple hierarchies, the Indian state and Dalits should explore in detail the flexibility, mobility and political possibilities of castes so that such work leads to a more composite identity and a more balanced economic strategy based on a proper inclusion of all the marginalised sections of society.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor