08 October 2014
Assessing how Indian farmers manage climate and weather risks in India

India’s caste system is still alive and well

India’s caste system continues to divide society, restricting opportunity for large numbers of Indian citizens and preventing the nation from realizing its full human potential.

Unfortunately, India’s caste system is still alive and well, despite some waning in its influence over the past half century. It continues to divide society, restricting opportunity for large numbers of Indian citizens and preventing the nation from realizing its full human potential.

“I can sweep your living room, Ma’am, but I cannot sweep your garden. Someone from another (lower) caste must do that”.

This fragment of a conversation between an Indian maid and her Western employer reveals many things. First, despite some waning in India’s caste system, it is still alive and well, even in a big city like New Delhi. This should not be totally surprising. England’s time-honored class system is also still alive and well, despite industrialization, urbanization, modernization and democracy. Second, India’s caste system is also more complex than the simple four groups presented in introductions to Indian society.

Academics are still debating the origin of India’s caste system. However, all societies have been shaped by social stratification, which was more deep-seated before modernization. But India’s caste system has now endured longer than most others, and seems more rigid.

The caste system is typically classified into four castes, namely, Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (artisans). Dalits or untouchables were excluded from this classification. In reality, there are thousands of sub-castes. And even within the Dalit, who account for over 200 million of India’s total population 1.3 billion, there are reportedly more than 900 sub-castes.

The term Dalit means in Hindu "ground", "suppressed", "crushed", or "broken to pieces". Traditionally, they have worked in “impure” occupations involving leatherwork, butchering, removal of rubbish, animal carcasses, and cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. Hence, the argument for separating them from other castes. While upper castes were happy to employ Dalit for these tasks, even today some Dalit are keen to keep their monopoly over these occupations.

Discrimination against lower castes is illegal under India’s constitution. And since 1950, the government has implemented a number of affirmative action initiatives, such as college entry quotas and job reservations, to improve socio-economic conditions.

There certainly has been much progress in the situation of Dalits, especially in the urban environment. Some Dalit success stories are the elections of K.R. Narayanan as President of India from 1997 to 2002, K.G. Balakrishnam as Chief Justice, Mayawati Kumari as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Meira Kumar as the first female speaker of the Indian parliament.

Today, Dalits are doing much better than before in terms of education, health, and poverty. Inter-caste marriage is also increasing, though limited in this country where arranged marriages are still all too common.

Despite these positive trends, Dalit poverty is twice the national average and discrimination on the ground remains endemic, especially in rural areas where most Indians live. In parts of India, Dalit communities are still denied access to community water sources, denied service by barbers, served tea in separate cups, barred from entering shops, excluded from temples, and prevented from taking part in community religious and ceremonial functions. Not surprisingly, most people of low caste background remain low in the social order today, and most of those from the higher castes, are still top of the social pecking order today.

In 2007, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that “de facto segregation of Dalits persists” and highlighted systematic abuse against Dalits including torture and extrajudicial killings, an “alarming” extent of sexual violence against Dalit women, and caste discrimination in post-tsunami relief. The Committee called for effective measures to implement laws on discrimination and affirmative action, and sought proper protection for Dalits and tribal communities against acts of “discrimination and violence.”

Human Rights Watch, an activist organization, reports that Dalits endure segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services. They are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and upper-caste community members who enjoy the state’s protection. Entrenched discrimination violates Dalits’ rights to education, health, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law. Dalits also suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or -sanctioned acts of violence, including torture.

Manmohan Singh became the first sitting Indian prime minister to openly acknowledge the parallel between the practice of “untouchability” and the crime of apartheid. Singh described “untouchability” as a “blot on humanity” adding that “even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country.”

In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documents how Indian schools persistently discriminate against Dalit, tribal, and Muslim children, denying them their right to education. Four years after an ambitious education law went into effect in India guaranteeing free schooling to every child ages 6 to 14, almost every child is enrolled, yet nearly half are likely to drop out before completing their elementary education mainly because of caste or other forms of discrimination at school.

Another Human Rights Watch report from 2014 documents the coercive nature of “manual scavenging”. Across India, “manual scavengers” collect human excrement on a daily basis, and carry it away in cane baskets for disposal, despite longstanding legislation and government policy to end manual scavenging. More than 1.3 million Dalits -- mostly women -- clear human waste from dry pit latrines, while men do the more physically demanding cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The report describes the barriers people face in leaving manual scavenging, including threats of violence and eviction from local residents but also threats, harassment, and unlawful withholding of wages by local officials.

Looking ahead over the next ten years, half a billion young Indians, many of whom are Dalit, will enter the labor force. At that time, one-quarter of the world's working-age population will live in India.

India has the potential to reap a large demographic dividend thanks to this large, youthful and energetic labor force. But to realize this demographic dividend, India will need an economy that generates enough jobs, a serious attempt to provide them with education and training, and a labor market that does not discriminate on the basis of caste. Unless India successfully confronts these challenges, a demographic dividend could quickly become a demographic time bomb. Social unrest in Arab countries and elsewhere shows the social and political risks of large populations of unemployed and frustrated youth.

Before we complete our quick overview of India’s caste system, please don’t think that it is the only country with an untouchable class. Japan has a similar outcast group, the Burakumin, who are at the bottom of the Japanese social ladder. Like in India, the Burakumin worked as executioners, undertakers, workers in slaughterhouses, butchers or tanners or other unsavory occuptions.

Japan’s Burakumin can still be subject to discrimination today, especially in the context of marriages, for which background searches are often made. A high profile case of discrimination was that of Hiromu Nonaka, a Chief Cabinet Secretary, a natural candidate for Prime Minister, who was reportedly sidelined because of his Burakumin origins.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, caste system, dalits, discrimination, Burakumin

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