'Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class, and Inequality in Twenty-First Century India' review: The missing trickle-down effect

Field work of a group of social researchers shows economic growth hasn’t really benefitted the poorest of the poor, Dalits and Adivasis

May 12, 2018 11:44 pm | Updated 11:44 pm IST

Tamil Dalits, the traditional workers in Kerala’s tea plantations, are impoverished and their unionisation is thwarted by the labour contractors getting Adivasi workers from Jharkhand.

Tamil Dalits, the traditional workers in Kerala’s tea plantations, are impoverished and their unionisation is thwarted by the labour contractors getting Adivasi workers from Jharkhand.

Is there structural oppression of Dalits and Adivasis in neo-liberal India? A group of social researchers explain how caste, tribe and class interact to produce oppression of the marginalised classes. The term ‘growth’ in the title, pinpoints the process that grinds down the dispossessed. The book’s argument runs against the neo-liberal homily that untrammelled economic growth will benefit society through a trickle-down effect. Neo-liberalism also suggests that capitalist development as pure economic growth will erase all differentiations of caste and tribe, bringing equal chance for prosperity to all through the Smithian invisible hand. The book’s chapters deflate these universalist claims, elaborating critical directions pioneered by, among others, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz.

Understanding class

The main insight of the volume is that class must be understood relationally, rather than as some essential category of analysis. These relations are not only between the capitalist and labourer as in Marxism, but also on how the working class is further differentiated through socially imposed hierarchies of caste, minority and tribe.


The introduction critiques ‘intersectionality’ which has become somewhat fashionable since the 1990s as a method to investigate discrimination, poverty and oppression. The authors argue (but I am not completely convinced) that intersectionality treats the intersecting categories (race and gender originally) as hypostatised independent ‘variables’ which are then described to generate intersectional effects. In contrast, the authors ‘draw attention to the fact that identity-based social oppression is constitutive of people’s relationship to the means of their production and reproduction, placing centre stage the analysis of political economy under which class relations, caste, tribe gender and region are inextricably interlinked’. I would have liked a stronger argument here which positions the theoretical notion of class in relation to that of caste and tribe, rather than treat them as simply diverse categories. This would have been valuable especially since the authors revert to race theory before intersectionality, drawing on Marx, Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall among others to sketch three axes of analysis of these relations: a) inherited inequalities of power; b) super-exploitation of migrant workers; and c) conjugated oppression.

K.P. Kannan’s essay draws on his work on the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector and establishes through statistical macro-indices that the trickle-down effect is directly related to one’s caste and class position: the ‘lower’ one’s position, the less the trickle-down.

Migration, discrimination

Jayaseelan Raj’s essay on the tea belts in Kerala explores how the slump affects tea plantation workers. Tamil Dalits, the traditional workers here, are impoverished and their unionisation is thwarted by the labour contractors getting Adivasi workers from Jharkhand. The Adivasis are marginalised by their alienation from the region and culture. The Tamil Dalits go back to work in the open market, find better means to survive, but are forced to confront their untouchable status.

Brendan Donegan’s essay on the Cuddalore region probes how industrialisation here is not about outward migration of people from villages to towns, but about in-migration of industry into the rural area. Vanniyars and Gounders dominate the local hierarchy through their shift to industry and perpetuate caste discrimination against the Nattar (fishers), the Paraiyar (Dalits), and the Irula (Adivasis), with cross-cutting gender effects. Local workers in the bone factory are held in check by migrant contract workers from Bengal and Odisha.

Dalel Benbabaali’s essay about the Bhadrachalam Scheduled Area describes the changing patterns of discrimination faced by the Koyas (Adivasi) and the Madigas (Dalit), the improving fortunes of the Lambadas who are introduced as members of the Scheduled Tribes in this territory, and the increased status and wealth of the Kamma agricultural caste which now dominates the industrial landscape in this resource-rich region. Her essay shows how various regulations including constitutional provisions are derailed to make way for industrial capitalism.

Clearly in these three studies, the capitalist bourgeoisie don’t slaughter the landed aristocracy (as in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ) but emerge seamlessly out of the latter.

How tribes suffer

Richard Axelby’s comparative study of two scheduled tribes — the Gaddi and the Gujjar (Muslim) of the Chamba valley in Himachal Pradesh — explores the relation between nomadism and seasonal migration through the views and experiences of protagonists Prakaso and Mussa. The essay examines the change from pastoralism to agriculture and studies the new kinds of work (road, dam, power plant and bridge building) that provide a precarious subsistence.

Vikramaditya Thakur’s study of the Bhils of Narmada valley looks at three pathways of the Bhil predicament in modernity: a) those who live in their traditional villages; b) those who have migrated to towns to work; and c) those who have been resettled in the Narmada Project. In each of these pathways, the study delineates the process of differential oppression (due to their being Bhils) at the hands of various dominant castes, including the Gujars of Gujarat.

The conclusion collects the threads of argument running through the chapters and highlights the three axes of analyses described above. The book ends with a description of problems that lie ahead.

The research team has worked together over several years, collaborating, obviously mentoring each other. They have produced nuanced development studies and specific methods of research as models for further work.

The future remains bleak.

Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class, and Inequality in Twenty-First Century India ; Alpa Shah, Jens Lerche & Others, Oxford University Press, ₹850.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.