Caste is an elephant in the living room of Indian social development professionals. Although caste has always been at the heart of the country’s electoral politics, it remains marginal in mainstream development thinking.
Also globally, it is absent from social characteristics of concern, such as gender, race or age in the Sustainable Development Goals, despite the emphasis on equal opportunities and reducing inequalities in results.
The growing inability of India’s agrarian sector to support landless cultivators and laborers has intensified the exodus of the poor from rural India to urban centres. According to a survey conducted by People’s Research on India’s Consumer Economy published in 2021, there has been an increase in the share of poor people in cities.
In 2016, 90% of the poorest 20% lived in rural India, but this number had fallen to 70% by 2021. In contrast, the share of the poorest 20% in urban areas has increased from around 10 % to 30% now.
Unplanned, and therefore unprepared, cities welcome people whose education and skills are insufficient for their survival in the new context. The informal sector swells at the bottom of the skills pyramid, as does the insecurity associated with it. Unemployment, malnutrition and food insecurity, lack of education and health facilities, crime and drug addiction are beginning to color the city.
This is where most civil society organizations come into the picture, sincerely seeking to engage in what ultimately appears to be urgent and symptomatic.
Today, climate change is recognized as one of the main reasons why the agrarian sector has been in irresistible decline in recent times. Globally, until 2000, climate change was widely seen as an environmental issue. But soon poorer countries and development non-governmental organizations became concerned about the varying impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable communities.
the The Up in Smoke coalition, which formed in 2003, sought to bridge the gap between environmental and development non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, this change has had no visible echo in Indian development discourse.
Data on how climate change differentially affects cultivators, who are mostly caste Hindus, and landless workers, who are mostly Dalits, remains scarce. Because of the precariousness of the Dalits – residing in the slums, suffering from poor health conditions, underemployment, catastrophic social security – it is not difficult to imagine that they are the first and most affected.
The distress dimensions of migration are invariably underscored by highlighting the deteriorating situation of dryland agriculture created by drought or floods and crop failures, low prices of agrarian products and low wages.
The 2015-2016 Agricultural Census indicated that Dalits own only about 9% of the total agricultural land and 71% of Dalits are landless labourers. Having little land to fall back on, in times of distress the only option for them is to move to a big city and be prepared to squat in misery and take the lowest paying jobs.
According to the 2011 census – the most recent data on Dalits in urban areas and slums is more than ten years old – 28% of India’s urban Dalit population lives in slums. Neighborhoods with large populations of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes often lack access to amenities such as running water and toilets in cities.
Lack of access to basic amenities cannot be due to poverty, as there is enough evidence around the world to suggest that residential segregation itself is a cause of poverty, reducing opportunities for education and life. employment of marginalized groups.
According to statistics from the National Sample Survey Office 2011-2012, the share of salaried workers among Scheduled Castes was 63%. Among salaried workers, Scheduled Castes also have a much larger share of casual salaried workers at 47%, which means greater job insecurity and poor earnings. In contrast, migrants in the “generalist” category, due to their historical advantages, are able to find better safety nets and higher paying jobs in urban areas.
A study by the Center for Women’s Development Studies in 2012 pointed out that about 66% of “upper caste” female migrant workers were engaged in white-collar services, compared to other caste groups with other castes backward at 36%, scheduled castes at 19% and scheduled tribes at 18%.
While this is the situation on the demand side, on the supply side we could get a much more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon if civil society organizations collected data on dropouts from training programs, d employability and placement according to caste. . It is necessary to understand the cultural composition of the participants in these programs, and of the dropouts, to make sense of their alienation vis-à-vis the solutions we propose.
Cast out of development
The National Population Commission predicts that by 2036, about 38.6% of Indians, or 600 million, will live in urban areas. The United Nations also points out that the size of India’s urban population will almost double, from 461 million to 877 million, between 2018 and 2050. Yet there appears to be little preparation, even on the part of organizations in the civil society, as to how the millions of people who will arrive in India the city will have a dignified life.
One reason could be that development ideas and leaders increasingly feel the pressure to move away from systemic and structural issues. Civil society organizations have clearly moved away from creating and supporting social movements since the start of the neoliberal world order three decades ago. Directly or indirectly, both sarkar and bazaar seem have pushed or restricted Indian civil society organizations from providing services or solving social problems only at the level of their symptoms. This situation has further worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Recent years have seen an unprecedented erosion of the public sphere, where the space to question the government and its policies has shrunk considerably. Fear of attracting negative attention from the government has compelled civil society actors to stay away from issues made ‘political’. The “social”, like the caste, is extremely political in a society where social inequality functions as a source of power.
Civil society actors need to open their eyes to the elephant in the room. Caste continues to impact a number of development outcomes. For example, in education, the focus is usually on enrollment and learning outcomes, disregarding the fact that earnings can vary widely by caste.
A 2019 United Nations Children’s Fund study suggests that for people from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, the transition from primary to secondary and from lower to upper secondary is the most difficult because they are not only under-prepared to take on challenges at the next level of their education, but lack of aspirations and self-esteem and the pressure to earn money early also cause them to give up. Dropout rates from upper primary to secondary school are highest for those from Scheduled Tribes, followed by those from Scheduled Castes. Data on denotified tribes remains scarce.
Caste often creates an existential dilemma for the dominant civil society which then prefers to ignore its structure and its exclusionary practices. To overcome this, one of the steps could be to review the social profile of CSO board members and their leadership team and ensure representation of the marginalized in decision-making bodies.
There is no caste-based analysis of civil society leadership available in India. The general observation is that the direction of social development is mostly Unscheduled Caste and Unscheduled Tribe. The same can be extended to funding bodies and Indian corporate social responsibilities.
There have been instances of funding organizations insisting that a civil society organization, whose stated mission is to work for the welfare of the marginalized, must have representation of these sections on its board. administration. At the same time, these funding bodies themselves refused to implement similar measures while building their own boards and leaders.
Caste cannot be treated as an archaic Indian cultural phenomenon erased by migration to the cities. Civil society groups have moved away from the role of mobilizing people to challenge established power relations, such as caste, which reproduce inequality.
One way to fix the script would be to improve the national data. Putting global caste data in the public domain could be a good start. There is an urgent need to examine the strategies, programs and results of civil society organizations from a caste perspective to “reach the furthest away first”, and to do this we must consider the continuation of the system castes as a violation of the human condition. rights.
Arun Kumar and Diksha Shriyan are researchers and social change professionals based in London and Mumbai respectively.