Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
Untouchable in Pune: Mixed media by SAVI SAVARKAR
  On economic exclusion and inclusive policy - 2

  Vol VI : issue 4 & 5

  Sukhadeo Thorat
  Thomas Weisskopf
  Sitaram Yechury
  Omprakash Valmiki
  Rajendra Yadav
  Malkhan Singh
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Sukhadeo Thorat


Caste and ethnicity-based exclusion

In India, exclusion revolves around the societal interrelations and institutions that exclude, discriminate against, isolate and deprive some groups on the basis of group identities like caste and ethnicity or religion. The nature of exclusion revolving around the caste system particularly needs to be understood and conceptualised. Caste-based exclusion has formed the basis for various anti-discriminatory policies in India.

Historically, the caste system has regulated the social and economic life of the people in India. Theoretical formulations by economists like George Akerlof, Deepak Lal and B.R. Ambedkar recognised that in its essential form, caste is a system of social and economic governance or organisation (of production and distribution), governed by certain customary rules and norms which are unique and distinct. The organisational scheme of the caste system is based on the division of people into social groups (or castes) in which the civil, cultural and economic rights of each individual caste are predetermined or ascribed by birth and made hereditary. The assignment of these rights is therefore unequal and hierarchal. The most important feature of the caste system, however, is that it provides for a regulatory mechanism to enforce social and economic organisation through the instruments of social ostracism, or social and economic penalties. As observed by Lal and Ambedkar, it is further reinforced by justification and support from the philosophical elements of Hindu religion.

The caste system’s fundamental characteristics of fixed civil, cultural, and economic rights for each caste, with restrictions on change, implies forced exclusion of one caste from the rights of other caste, or from undertaking the occupations of other castes. Exclusion and discrimination in civil, cultural and particularly in economic spheres such as occupation and labour employment is, therefore, internal to the system and a necessary outcome of its governing principles. In the market economy framework, this occupational immobility would operate through restrictions in various markets such as land, labour, credit and other inputs and services necessary for any economic activity. Labour, being an integral part of the production process of any economic activity, would obviously become a target of market discrimination.

This interpretation implies that the caste system involves the negation of not only equality and freedom, but also of basic human rights, particularly of the low castes, which become an impediment to personal development. The principles of equality and freedom are not the governing principles of the caste system. This is because the underlying principles of the caste system assume particular notions of ‘human rights’.

Unlike many other human societies, the caste system does not recognise the individual and his/her distinctiveness as the centre of social purpose. In fact, for the purpose of rights and duties, the unit of Hindu society is not the individual. Even the family is not regarded as a unit in Hindu society, except for purposes of marriage and inheritance. The primary unit is caste and hence, the rights and privileges (or the lack of them) of an individual flow from membership of a particular caste (Ambedkar, 1987). Also, due to differential ranking and the hierarchical nature of the caste system, the entitlements to various rights become narrower as one goes down the ladder in the caste system. Various castes get artfully interlinked and coupled with each other with respect to their rights and duties, in a manner such that the rights and privileges of the higher castes become causative reasons for the disadvantage and disability of the lower castes, particularly the Untouchables. In this sense, as Ambedkar observed, a caste does not exist singly, but only in the plural. Castes co-exist as a system of endogenous groups, which are interlinked with each other in unequal measures of rights and relations in all walks of life. Castes at the top of the social order enjoy more rights at the expense of those located at the bottom. Therefore, the low castes located at the bottom of the caste hierarchy have much less economic and social rights.

Forms of exclusion and discrimination

The practice of caste-based exclusion and discrimination thus necessarily involves failure of access and entitlements — to use Sen’s words — not only to economic rights, but also to civil, cultural and political rights. It involves what has been described as ‘living mode exclusion’ — exclusion from political participation and exclusion from and disadvantage in social and economic opportunities. Caste and ethnicity-based exclusion thus reflects the inability of individuals and groups like former Untouchables and Adivasis to interact freely and productively with others and to take part in the full economic, social and political life of a community. Incomplete citizenship or denial of civil rights (freedom of expression, rule of law, right to justice), political rights (rights and means to participate in the exercise of political power) and socio-economic rights (economic security and equality of opportunity) are key impoverishing elements.

In the light of the above, caste and untouchability-based exclusion and discrimination can be categorised in the economic, civil, cultural and political spheres as follows:

Exclusion and the denial of equal opportunity in the economic sphere would necessarily operate through markets and non-market transactions and exchange.

Caste and untouchability-based exclusion and discrimination is essentially structural in nature and comprehensive and multiple in coverage, and involves the denial of equal opportunity, particularly to excluded groups like former Untouchables

First, exclusion may be practised through the denial of jobs in the labour market; through the denial of access to capital in the capital market; through the denial of the sale, purchase or leasing of land in the agricultural land market; through the denial of sale and purchase of factor inputs in the inputs market; and through the denial of sale and purchase of commodities and consumer goods in the consumer market.

Secondly, discrimination can occur through what Sen would describe as ‘unfavourable inclusion’, namely through differential treatment in the terms and condition of contracts, reflected in discrimination in prices charged and received by groups discriminated against. This can include the price of factor inputs, consumer goods, the price of factors of productions such as wages for labour, the price of land or rent on land, interest on capital, rent on residential houses and charges or fees on services such as water and electricity. Groups discriminated against may get lower prices for the goods they sell and may pay higher prices for goods they buy, as compared with the market price or the price paid by other groups.

Thirdly, exclusion and discrimination may occur in terms of access to social services supplied by the government or public institutions, or by private institutions in education, housing and health, including common property resources like water bodies, grazing land and other land of common use.

Fourthly, a group (particularly the Untouchables) may face exclusion and discrimination from participation in certain categories of jobs (such as the sweeper being excluded from jobs within the household), because of the notion of purity and pollution of occupations, and engagement in so-called unclean occupations.

1. In the civil and cultural spheres, Untouchables may face discrimination and exclusion in the use of public services like public roads, temples, water bodies and institutions delivering services like education, health and other public services.

2. In the political sphere, Untouchables may face discrimination in the use of political rights and in participation in the decision-making process.

3. Due to physical (or residential) segregation and social exclusion on account of the notion of untouchability (or ‘touch-me-not sum’), they can suffer from general social exclusion.

4. Since there is a societal mechanism to regulate and enforce the customary norms and rules of the caste system, Untouchables may generally face opposition in the form of social and economic boycott and violence which acts as a general deterrent to their right to development.

After having brought some clarity to the concept of caste-based discrimination, from which Untouchables and other backward castes suffer the most, we now turn to another form of exclusion from which groups like Adivasis suffer. This type of exclusion is linked with the ethnic identity of a group. Anthropologists tend to define ethnicity as a set of cultural elements shared by a community of individuals who organise their daily life around them.

In rural areas, ethnicity is an attribute commonly associated with native communities that have limited contact with other communities. Historically, the Adivasis have suffered isolation, exclusion and underdevelopment due to their being ethnically different from mainstream Indian society, and due to their having a distinct culture, language, social organisation and economy (they generally practise hunting and gathering and shifting cultivation, and have traditionally inhabited river valleys and forested regions). The historical nature of their isolation and deprivation has resulted in considerable deprivation. In their case, exclusion can take several forms, such as denial of the right to resources in their vicinity and unintended and intended consequences of policies of government and societal processes — what Sen would call ‘active and passive exclusion’. The Adivasis can further suffer from what Sen would call the ‘constitutive relevance’ of exclusion, which arises due to their inability to relate to others and to take part in the life of the community, which can directly impoverish the members of these groups.

This overview of the development of the concept of exclusion in general, and that of caste, untouchability and ethnicity-based exclusion and discrimination in particular, brings out various dimensions of the concept in terms of its nature, forms and consequences. Caste and untouchability-based exclusion and discrimination is essentially structural in nature and comprehensive and multiple in coverage, and involves the denial of equal opportunity, particularly to excluded groups like former Untouchables. In the case of Adivasis, exclusion is not systemic or structural in nature but in its outcomes — in some respects, if not all — it is similar to that of former Untouchables.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

Sukhadeo Thorat is Chairman of the University Grants Commission, Government of India.
He is also Director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and Professor of Economics
at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He lives in New Delh