Monday, May 15, 2006

Caste and employment opportunities in India and the question of quotas and reservations for lower castes

After my post drawing attention to Joseph D'Souza's excellent piece on this subject, I did not think that I would put pen to paper on this subject.

However, I see an article in India's Business Standard today reporting research showing that "upper castes in the country do not have a dramatically higher chance of getting top jobs in comparison with SC/ST and OBCs, in case all of them have the same level of education, i.e. at least a high school degree".

BTW "SC/ST" and "OBC" are abbreviations for the various levels of caste in the country (SC/ST= Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which are lower than the "OBC" or "Other Backward Castes" which are slightly higher in the hierarchy).

The lowest castes (which form the majority of the population) used to be called the Untouchables, then Mahatma Gandhi started calling them "Harijans" ("people who belong to God"), but their own name for themselves is "Dalit" ("the oppressed masses")

I have not been able to locate and check the figures used, but it is clear that, even if the figures and calculations are correct, it does seem to me this is a case of "lies, whopping lies and statistics" - because the figures and calculations are being used to suggest that there is no need for continued, let alone increased, reservations for lower castes in India.

Drawing on data from the National Sample Survey’s 1999, the calculations "show that upper castes who’ve passed out of school (at the very minimum), whether they’re Hindus, Sikhs or Christians, have a 39 per cent chance of landing a good job (if) a good job is defined as a professional, managerial or technical job held by a person who has at least passed high school. In 1999, the NSS says there were 8.3 million upper castes in such jobs who had passed high school, and there were a total of 21.1 million upper castes who had passed high school — i.e. the probability of an upper caste getting employed in a good job was 39.2 per cent. This is not dramatically different from the situation for other groups. While educated OBCs who passed high school had the smallest probability of getting a good job, of 28.6 per cent in 1999-2000, this was 31.7 per cent in the case of SC/STs".

The difference between 39.2% and 28.6% is huge! And the differential between the employment rates clearly suggest that the existing system of reservations is having an impact so far as the SC/STs are concerned, there is need for some action on behalf of OBCs to bring them up even to the same level in terms of proportions of the educated employed.

However, the article's suggestion is that no reservations are needed, because the Indian employment system is relatively meritocratic or at least egalitarian!

The lie is given to this impression because, as the article itself acknowledges, "there are a lot more upper castes in top jobs than there are SC/ST or OBC high school-pass students".

If the Indian system is more or less egalitarian and meritocratic, how can this be?

Because of course the calculations reported in the paper look at the number of high school graduates and THEIR chances of making it in percentage terms.

The results of the Indian system are non-egalitarian because the number of high school graduates is itself enormously biased towards the high castes.

Though the caste system is breaking down slowly and at varying speeds wherever modernity reaches, it is still true that, only a few miles outside India's cities(where the middle classes and upper classes rarely venture, except to speed through to some other city or desirable location) the traditional Indian caste system is kept in place as far as possible, by violence if necessary.

For example, where schools exist, it is more difficult for lower caste children than for upper caste children to attend for practical reasons (financial and so on) but, in addition, lower caste children are prevented from coming to school by threats, intimidations and beatings.

In any case, India's "prestige" institutions (such as an Indian Institute of Technology and an Indian Institute of Management), mostly run either by the national government or by the churches, are world-class. But they are very few for a nation of over one billion people. The moment one steps outside the "prestige" institutions, the quality of education (as in the USA) begins to decline dramatically. When one leaves the cities, schools themselves begin to vanish.

In the rural areas, many schools exist only on paper and it is possible to sit exams by proxy, and indeed to buy qualifications without having appeared in any exam and indeed entirely without benefit of instruction of any sort.

The key question therefore is not the employment and preferment chances of those who succeed in getting educated, but the proportion and number of people who get any education in the first place.

No wonder the top positions are still disproportionately occuped by the traditional upper castes (such as my own), which have held the country to ransom for thousands of years.

The hold of the upper castes is weakening. However, instead of trying to cling on to our millennia-old privileges which gave us a huge share of a relatively small pie, we upper castes should be pleased that modernity is giving India the chance of enormously increasing the size of the pie.

Even if we upper castes have a smaller and smaller share of that increasing pie, we will still be actually better off than with a large share of a small pie.

With affirmative action of the sort we have had since Independence, and which we should continue and extend, the lower castes, whom we have oppressed and exploited for so long, now not only have a chance of some kind of human life after all these years, but will contribute to creating a prosperous and modern country of which we can all be fully proud - instead of hiding from and having to be ashamed of such a large proportion of our history and culture.

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1 comment:

Gordon Lickfold said...

Hi Prabhu
Thanks for a most informative article, from which I learned quite a lot about the corruption implicit in the caste system in your home country. Naturally I agree with your conclusions.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Indian government had the guts to change things. It rather reminds me of Wilberforce and slavery in the UK, whose 200th anniversary (of its abolition) is next year.