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Updated: March 9, 2010 15:28 IST

Caste & the labour market

MADHURA SWAMINATHAN
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This is an excellent volume — carefully-researched and eye-opening — on caste-based injustice in our society and economy. Now, while there is a literature that documents discrimination and the denial of civil liberties, there is very little understanding and research on the practice of caste discrimination in markets, notably in modern, urban and metropolitan settings, and in public institutions. This book takes up the challenge of understanding the latter by means of systematic research on the question.

A useful four-fold classification of the types of discrimination is proposed by Thorat and Newman: complete exclusion, selective inclusion, unfavourable inclusion, and selective exclusion. Complete exclusion would occur, for example, if Dalits were totally excluded from purchase of land in certain residential areas. Selective inclusion refers to differential treatment or inclusion in markets, such as disparity in payment of wages to Dalit workers and other workers. Unfavourable inclusion or forced inclusion refers to tasks in which Dalits are incorporated based on traditional caste practices, such as bonded labour. Lastly, selective exclusion refers to exclusion of those involved in “polluting occupations” (such as leather tanning or sanitary work) from certain jobs and services.

Study in rural areas

There is a body of research on discrimination in rural areas and on the continuation of caste barriers to economic and social mobility in village India. There is a myth, however, that caste does not matter in the urban milieu and that, with the anonymity of the big city and with education and associated job and occupational mobility (assisted by affirmative action), traditional caste-based discriminatory practices disappear. This book explodes that myth in a set of chapters that focus on the formal labour market. These chapters use methodologies developed in the United States to study racial discrimination, and are written in collaboration with scholars from the U.S.

Thorat and Attewell ran an experiment to test caste discrimination in the urban labour market. For one year, researchers collected advertisements from leading English language newspapers for jobs in the private sector that required a university degree but no specialised skills. The researchers then submitted three false applications for each job. The applicants, all male, had the same or similar education qualification and experience. One of them had a recognisable upper caste Hindu name, another a Muslim name and the third a distinctly Dalit name. The expected outcome was a call for interview or further screening.

An analysis of the outcomes, using regression methods, showed that, although there were an equal number of false applicants from three social groups, for every 10 upper caste Hindu applicants selected for interview, only six Dalits and three Muslims were chosen. Thus, in modern private enterprises (including IT), applicants with a typical Muslim or Dalit name had a lower chance of success than those with the same qualification and an upper caste Hindu name.

In another chapter, Jodhka and Newman report on detailed interviews with human resource managers of 25 large firms in New Delhi. All the managers insisted that hiring was solely on the basis of “merit,” and old practices such as hiring kin or members of the same community did not exist.

At the same time, every hiring manager said “family background” (including the educational level of parents) was critical in evaluating a potential employee. This is clearly discriminatory, for Dalit applicants may not have the same social and educational background as those from the upper castes. As the authors note, “one must take the profession of deep belief in meritocracy with a heavy dose of salt.”

These findings raise serious questions about allowing the corporate sector to monitor itself in respect of “inclusive employment” instead of making it abide by a policy of reservation.

Another set of chapters explores the patterns of discrimination in public services and public institutions, including in health care services, in schools, and in programmes of food security.

Sanghmitra Acharya gives a detailed account of various forms of discrimination experienced by Dalit children in gaining access to health care from both private and public providers in rural Gujarat and Rajasthan. Untouchability was reported by children “seven out of 10 times” from “doctors, laboratory technicians, and registered medical practitioners”, and it was “more vigorously practised by pharmacists, ANMs and AWWs.” Geetha Nambissan writes of similar experiences of Dalit children in schools in rural and urban Rajasthan.

Or, take the case of the public distribution system (PDS). Fair price shops are owned privately or run by cooperatives or, in a few cases, by government. An analysis by Thorat and Lee, drawing on a survey of PDS outlets in 531 villages across five States, shows that there was discriminatory behaviour against Dalits by the PDS staff in respect of prices in 28 per cent of villages and in respect of quality in 40 per cent. In 26 per cent of the villages, dealers practised untouchability “by dropping goods from above into cupped Dalit hands below, so as to avoid ‘polluting contact'.”

As the authors say, to term the prevalence of such practices as merely the “phenomenon of caste discrimination remaining or still continuing or lingering” is to not understand that these practices are associated with new institutions set up after Independence and after the legal abolition of untouchability.

Penal action

An important and urgent policy implication of this set of studies is that the government needs to ensure that its own policies and progarammes (such as the public distribution system or provision of mid-day meal to school children or of health care at Public Health Centres) are implemented in a non-discriminatory manner. Institutions (whether public, cooperative, or non-governmental) that accept government funds or implement government programmes must be held responsible and penalised if they practice untouchability.

A fair-price shop dealer is both a private individual and an arm of public policy, and the severest action should be taken if he is found to discriminate against Dalits or those from other socially disadvantaged groups.

In conclusion, this book — based on careful and a methodologically innovative research — shows that caste discrimination not only persists but has taken new forms and penetrated into new systems and institutional structures. It also raises serious questions about patterns of economic development.

BLOCKED BY CASTE, ECONOMIC DISCRIMINATION IN MODERN INDIA: Edited by Sukhadeo Thorat, Katherine S. Newman; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 750.

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