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The economics of caste inequity

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Reactions to the caste question are fairly predictable in India. The average (upper caste) response is that the policy of reservations has gone on far too long and that discrimination is very much a thing of the past. As to why certain social groups remain extremely poor and backward despite the legal safeguards, the usual explanation is that Dalits are either not well educated or do not have the merit to make it to good jobs.

Blocked by Caste should come as an eye-opener to those who subscribe to this view. It proves that the social and economic exclusion of Dalits (and Muslims) continues to be pervasive in a nation that speaks the global language of meritocracy and level playing fields but has been unable to shed historical caste prejudices. Edited by Sukhadeo Thorat, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the book brings together empirical researches undertaken by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) in Delhi over the past six years, and is the first major attempt to study the linkages between caste discrimination and economic outcomes.

This set of scholarly essays by economists and sociologists sheds light on some significant issues, such as the role that caste plays in private sector employment, the correlation of university education and employment prospects for the marginalised groups, of public health services to health outcomes and patterns of caste discrimination in rural markets and wage structures.

What it does reveal is that the dominant Brahminical ideology, which categorises the Dalit and the Muslim minority as the ‘other’, has tinted the view of the private sector to a large degree. Economic discrimination is a subject that has received little attention and this book focuses on contemporary patterns of discrimination in various markets, labour in particular, along with discrimination in the delivery of public goods and services by the government.

Some of the research in this volume is modelled on landmark studies on race discrimination in the US, specially the novel experiment conducted by Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan which firmly established the employment discrimination faced by Blacks in the US. The two sent out fictitious resumes to job advertisements in Boston and Chicago newspapers using White as well as Black names with similar qualifications for the two sets. What they found was that Black name job-seekers needed to send out 15 applications to 10 sent out by White name candidates and that a Black needed eight more years of experience to get the same callbacks as Whites.

Thorat and Paul Attewell, professor of sociology at the University of New York, used a similar methodology in India to arrive at similar conclusions. They sent out three sets of applications for jobs advertised in major dailies over a 13-month period, using a stereotypical high caste Hindu name, a recognisable Muslim name and a distinctive Dalit name. The consistent result: applicants with Dalit and Muslim names had a significantly lower chance of a positive outcome than persons with a high caste Hindu name.

Another significant US study, which revealed the stereotypes Chicago employers had of Blacks (poorly educated, low skilled, unreliable and unruly), resulting in unequal employment outcomes, inspires similar research in the Indian context. Katherine S Newman, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for International and Regional Studies at Princeton University and a co-editor of this volume, and Surinder S Jodhka, director of the IISD and professor of sociology at JNU, uncover the hidden nuances of caste prejudice in the language of globalisation that contemporary India speaks. In a pilot study carried out in Delhi, they interviewed 25 human resources (HR) managers in 25 large firms which have manufacturing capacities and retail outlets across the country and employ over 250,000 workers. The two researchers found that the HR bosses, one and all, swore by merit in their choice of candidates and were dead set against reservation of jobs. But, the commitment to merit was voiced along with the conviction that merit tends to be distributed by caste or region! Such stereotyping, they found, made it impossible for highly qualified, low-caste applicants to be hired for their skills and accomplishments. In sum, employers were not “caste blind” as they claimed.

In another study, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Delhi University (DU), and Newman tracked 108 students from JNU, DU and Jamia Millia Islamia for two years. The main findings: Dalit students bring different level of resources compared to non-Dalit students. Worse, employers question the legitimacy of reservations and by that logic, the legitimacy of these students’ credentials.

These are among the more accessible essays in this collection. A few are meant purely for the econometricians and the overdose of mathematics and formulae can be daunting for the lay reader. On the whole, Blocked by Caste offers a commendable body of research that could prove extremely useful to policy-makers in designing programmes and policies to end this pernicious practice.

Economic Discrimination in Modern India
Edited by: Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine S Newman

Oxford University Press
377 pages; Rs 750

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First Published: Fri, December 18 2009. 00:29 IST