Caste and Social Churning in India

November 4, 2010 11:45 AM

Mahatma Gandhi will be a theme of President Obama's visit to India. For the Mahatma, eliminating the scourge of caste and improving the plight of untouchables ("Dalits" as they are now referred to) was his life's objective and life-time obsession. With good reason.

In the Indian state of Kerala, the lowest of the low were not merely untouchable, they were unseeable: When a Brahmin approached, a Dalit had to cry out in advance to prevent his social superior from even seeing him. Even a few decades ago, lower caste folk had to bow their heads and avoid eye contact while stepping aside to offer privileged access to the village well to upper caste neighbors. The irony is that the struggle to affirm one's moral worth in a hierarchical society such as India's expressed itself through a competitive debasement of others: Untouchability, for example, has been routinely practiced by the Dalits themselves.

The unambiguously good news from India—that President Obama should be aware of—is that at last, several caste–ridden centuries later, the plight of the Dalits might be changing fundamentally and rapidly. Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania along with Indian and American colleagues, in a landmark piece of research that has just been published, surveyed all Dalit households in the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh (population about 190 million), focusing on the changes to their lives between 1990 and 2007. All indicators of economic well-being have improved, but the striking findings relate to the social situation of Dalits.

First, it is not just that Dalits have become less poor but also the nature of their economic occupations is being transformed. They no longer undertake activities traditionally associated with lower caste status, such as handling of dead animals or employment as bonded agricultural labor. They now are much more likely to contract tractors or land from high caste groups than sell their labor to them.

Second, there have been major changes in the grooming, consumption, and ceremonial patterns of Dalits. These changes signal that the lower castes are consciously striving to achieve higher social status by adopting the consumption patterns of those above them in the hierarchy. For example, they consume less of low-status foods like sugar cane juice and are switching to diets containing rice and fresh vegetables. If poverty, as Adam Smith argued, is relative and about consuming things so as to appear in society without shame, then the Dalits are clearly less poor.

These attempts to overcome their low social status are succeeding judged by the behavior of the upper castes. For example, separate seating at social functions, which was a feature of rural life about 75 percent of the time, happens between 10 and 20 percent of the time now. Non-Dalit mid-wives are more likely to attend childbirths at Dalit homes. And Dalits accepting offers of hospitality in non-Dalit homes, such as drinking a cup of tea, is now not an uncommon occurrence where previously it was unheard of. Thus, the social stigmatization and exclusion of the lower castes is clearly on the decline.

What explains these changes? The opportunities created by economic growth over the last 25 years are an important factor. The positive trends are evident after 1990, which coincides with the period of accelerating growth. The timing of these changes is less favorable to any major role for affirmative action programs, which have been in place for Dalits since independence in 1947. But the social changes have also outpaced improvements in underlying economic conditions. For the last two decades, lower caste groups in India have acquired political power in states such as Uttar Pradesh. They have used, and also abused, the instruments of power to advance their interests. In some cases, the governance and corruption costs have been high but that is perhaps the unavoidable price that India is paying for reversing centuries of social disadvantage and humiliation.

At the end of Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize winning novel on contemporary India, The White Tiger, the amoral protagonist says of his act of slitting his master's throat: "I'll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant."

Caste has by no means disappeared from Indian society (indeed it is thriving in politics). But India's economic growth and dynamism are finally providing less macabre ways for achieving, and expressing, liberation from caste and servitude.

Arvind Subramanian is the author of India's Turn: Understanding the Economic Transformation (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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