Reducing Caste to Class

Popular opposition to measures tackling caste inequality is based on the so-called universality of class to explain backwardness. Such an analysis does not take into account the prevailing disparate outcomes across caste lines, nor the historical context of caste which shaped Indian society and the ensuing materialist deficits.

However, many upper caste (UC) students and policy makers deride India’s caste-based reservation system and anti-caste activists based on this poorly stitched class assumption. Often, this opposition is also cloaked behind discriminative attitudes. It is lost on many that the purpose of reservation is to offset the poor representation and exclusion of marginalized castes in public spaces and ensure upward mobility, rather than the explicit aim of poverty alleviation.

According to estimates from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), in 2005, the average annual household income of

  • poor UCs was 49,496 INR,
  • poor SCs was 27,870 INR (56% of poor UCs).

In 2012, the average annual household income of

  • poor UCs was 89,011 INR,
  • poor SCs was 64,652 INR (73% of poor UCs).
Source: Deshpande A, Ramachandran R (2019) The 10% Quota: Is Caste Still an Indicator of Backwardness. Economic and Political Weekly, 30, 27-31.

Several such analyses have shown that there are divisions within the poor with a skew in income levels towards UCs. Thus, the argument that the poorer ones are not able to reap benefits due to the wealthier candidates in a caste-based reservation system also logically implies that a purely economic status based reservation program if enacted would predominantly benefit the UCs at the expense of the lower castes! Caste inequality consequently would rise miserably, with this narrow class assumption. The disadvantage is also obvious for Scheduled Castes (SCs) who have worse outcomes in primary education (see the above table).

In this context, where can we place institutional opposition to anti-caste measures? The percentage of white-collar jobs held by different groups can be seen from the following table. The data is divided into five cohorts from Cohort 1 belonging to those who were born in 1947–57 to Cohort 5 belonging to those who were born in 1987–96.

Source: Deshpande A, Ramachandran R (2019) Traditional hierarchies and affirmative action in a globalizing economy: Evidence from India. World Development, 118, 63-78.

Close to 10% of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and 5% of SC-STs have white collar jobs in the last cohort but the corresponding number for UCs is close to 20%. This differential remains fairly consistent across all cohorts, meaning caste inequality and divisions have not eroded in skilled jobs except for minor improvements since independence. Remember that UCs make up less than 30% of the Indian population. In contrast, we have made tremendous progress in overall poverty alleviation through PDS, subsidized schools/colleges and other amenities.

Source: Datt G, Ravallion M, Murgai R (2016) Growth, urbanization, and poverty reduction in India. National Bureau of Economic Research.

OBCs who constitute over 40% of the Indian population and SC-STs who constitute close to 25% of the population are not well represented in government jobs till date. This representation gets worse when you go back in time. The relative improvements in public spaces were made due to caste-based reservations.

Source: Handbook on Social Welfare Statistics (2018), Government of India.

At a more fundamental level, dominant castes irrespective of their income, are not barred from essential services, refused from using wells and excluded due to their caste (viz a viz untouchability). According to IHDS 2012, 27 percent of the country still practiced untouchability. The practice is particularly prone in states with poor social indicators. This has continually affected Dalit progress and their upward mobility.

Source: Thorat A, Joshi O (2020) The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 55(2), 37.

This does not stop once you go up the ladder. In a seminal work, researchers created the same CVs with simply different stereotypical names to reflect their caste. Thousands of such CVs were sent to private companies that advertised entry level jobs in leading Indian newspapers for 66 weeks. For every 100 UCs selected for the first stage interview, on average, only 67 Dalits were selected. Systemic barriers in the framework of caste exist in the Indian job market. Is social exclusion really a thing of the past as many believe? How do constructions of modernity that are blind to caste explain such exclusions?

Source: Thorat S, Attewell P (2007) The legacy of social exclusion: A correspondence study of job discrimination in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 4141-4145.

Caste is not an archaic ritual system but a dynamic aspect of modern economies.

David Mosse

Despite all this, when you get a job and try to move to a new location, being a Dalit can get you rejected by tenants. A study along this line was conducted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Notice the negative/exclusion row for Dalits in the following table from the study. A whopping 43.94% of Dalits were refused a rental home due to their caste identity in the National Capital Region (popularly known as NCR) in a simple face to face audit. A similar result in the study was also apparent with a telephonic audit. Note that NCR is an important urbanized economic hub in India.

Source: Thorat S, Banerjee A, Mishra V K, Rizvi F (2015) Urban rental housing market. Economic & Political Weekly, 27, 47-53.

In conclusion,

  • caste inequality is a major fault line in India,
  • economic status-based reservation (based on class) would further caste inequality,
  • tremendous progress has been made in poverty alleviation, but not in caste inequality for which the current reservation system is intended,
  • caste fault lines exacerbate education outcomes and job markets,
  • caste divisions and discrimination in Indian society persist till date and require constant remedy.

All the advantages and disadvantages depending on the caste you were born in are sustained through generations via caste endogamy. Over 90% of the marriages in India are within the same caste. However, irrational fear over affirmative action programs and the subsequent privileged caste assertion through the template of ‘deprivation of merit’ have hindered the progress of lower caste communities and has minimized the rise of progressive political spaces to voice out vital concerns. In a diametrically opposed framework, privileged castes have imagined a space where the depravities due to caste is inverted.

Source: Varma S (2016) Economic gap between upper castes and Dalits persists. The Times of India.

Historical deficits and the skew in modern capital can only be addressed through corrective social justice initiatives based on a rational premise. A progressive and inclusive future lies in addressing these concerns.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Quora.

Published by Egalitarians India

Egalitarians is a leaderless, voluntary, and not-for-profit group deeply committed to the principle of equality. We are a group of volunteers working with a common understanding for a common goal of creating a casteless egalitarian society.

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