November 13, 2023
Towards a More Equal India
By Nitin Desai
The recent Bihar Caste Survey provides data about the links between caste and economic status that was not readily available earlier. It focuses on three measures: The incidence of income-linked poverty in a caste group, the proportioof the group holding government jobs, and the average level of education within the caste group. All three are relevant for a broader concern about trends in inequality in the economy, which are reflected in differences in income levels and the incidence of poverty among caste groups. Access to government jobs matters because these jobs are still the main source of income increase and social mobility for the underprivileged, such as the children of an agricultural labourer. Access to education matters as it is the principal basis for occupational mobility from a traditional family job. The sub-caste wise data on poverty indicates that 42.93 per cent of the families belong to Scheduled Castes (SC), 42.7 per cent to Scheduled Tribes (ST), 33.58 per cent to extremely backward castes (EBC), 33.16 per cent to other backward classes (OBC), and 25.09 per cent to the general category (GC) of upper castes. When it comes to government jobs, the general category castes, such as Bhumihars, Brahmins, and Kayastha, had the highest share with 3.19 per cent of their population in government jobs. The corresponding figures for the EBC, SC and ST are 0.98 per cent, 1.13 per cent and 1.37 per cent, respectively. A measure of the differences in access to education is provided by the substantial difference in the percentage of people who are graduates in different caste groups — 14.54 per cent in the general category, 9.14 per cent in the OBC category, 4.44 per cent in the EBC category, 3.12 per cent amongst Scheduled Castes, and 3.53 per cent amongst Scheduled Tribes. It is possible that this caste-wise difference is more striking in Bihar because of the strength of the traditional caste system that is reflected not just in its economy but also its politics. But the political dynamics of most parts of India suggest that the impact of caste on inequality in the economy may be quite widespread. The traditional system of castes in India rested on three principles: Hierarchy, social separation, particularly for marriage, and occupational specialisation. However, this was combined with positive links between castes through jajmani relationships, which added rights to duties for every caste, and fostered a spirit of multi-caste unity at the village level, particularly in the relationship with rulers. We are now in an India that has moved far beyond the ancient kingdoms, which were networks of semi-independent villages. Yet caste hierarchy and social separation, though diluted to some extent, still persists. Even the belief in castelinked occupational specialisation remains in activities like waste management. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) made an assessment of the number of generations required to move from the bottom 10 per cent of the income distribution to the mean income level. This was done by examining the rate of change of income between father and son. According to this assessment, the transition time from the lowest to the mean level of income in India is seven generations, a level comparable to that in China and above that in Europe and the US. The persistence of caste inequity may well be the reason for this. One can argue that the hierarchical sense dug deep in the idea of caste in India adds both social and economic barriers to advancement. Or, in the words of journalist Thomas Noah: “It’s hard to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart.” Social and economic mobility is vital for addressing the challenge of economic inequality. In India, according to the World Inequality database, this has widened sharply between 1990 and 2018, the latest year for which they present an estimate. Over this period, the share of the top 10 per cent in pre-tax income has gone up from 34.4 per cent to 57.1 per cent, while the share of the bottom 50 per cent has fallen from 20.3 per cent to 13.1 per cent. Note also that the top 1 per cent account for nearly half of the increase in the share of the top 10 per cent. Income inequality is, of course, rather different from the incidence of income below the poverty line, which according to most evaluations, has fallen significantly during the post1990’s high-growth period. However, in a democracy what matters is reducing inequality and improving prospects for social and economic mobility.
A recent report from Azim Premji University1 and several research papers provide useful data on the present trend of social and economic mobility and what needs to be done to accelerate it. From the point of view of intergenerational mobility, we need to look at the extent to which children of low-level workers have progressed. Azim Premji University report points out: “In 2004, over 80 per cent of the sons of casual wage workers were themselves in casual employment. This was the case for both SC/ST workers and other castes. For non-SC/ST castes, this fell from 83 percent to 53 per cent by 2018, and the incidence of better quality work, such as regular salaried jobs, increased. It fell for SC/ST castes as well, but to a lesser extent (86 per cent to 76 per cent)”. The report also points out that while nonagricultural employment increased over this period, it was mostly in casual labour and in the unorganised sector. From a mobility perspective, what matters is the growing access of lower caste workers to regular wage employment in the organised sector. Do note that wages in regular organised sector employment are more than two-and-a-half times higher than in casual employment. One positive feature of intergenerational mobility is the fact that sons generally have twice the length of schooling than their father had. However, many of the educational institutions they attend are relatively low in terms of quality. Instances are not uncommon where graduates from lower social strata, residing in rural areas, end up working as manual labourers. Hence, a strong focus on the democratisation of quality higher education is necessary to promote the accelerated intergenerational mobility that is necessary for reducing inequality in the Indian economy. As India urbanises and modernises, a caste-based hierarchy can become an impediment. The time has come to follow B R Ambedkar’s advice in his famous tract, The Annihilation of Caste. The key lies in the elimination of occupational specialisation through the democratisation of education and skill acquisition. Given the persistence of the caste hierarchy in the minds of upper-caste individuals who still dominate in senior bureaucratic and management jobs, a measure of caste-linked reservations may still be required for a defined length of time. However, the primary approach must be a substantial improvement in the access of the socially and economically underprivileged to higher quality education and skill development