Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Caste system sustains poverty

by Kuldip Dhiman

Never before in recorded history were there so many two-legged creatures on this planet, and never before have they ever multiplied at such an astonishing rate. By the time you finish reading this review, 2000 more children will have been added to the world population, and before long the number of people in this world will touch the mindboggling figure of six billion. The world population has doubled in the past 40 years, and what must set the alarm bells going is the fact that last billion has been added in the past decade!

And in a country like ours, which is already overpopulated, there are other issues that need to be addressed, most of which are directly or indirectly related to the population explosion. Will there be sufficient food, proper health care, decent education, enough work for the millions added every year? Can the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots ever be bridged? Will we ever solve the caste problem? Has corruption become part of our culture, and is our judicial system just?

Dedicated to the memory of the late S. Guhan, Professor Emeritus, the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and a highly respected civil servant and scholar, "Illfare in India" tries to grapple with such puzzling and seemingly intractable issues. Being a collection of 13 in-depth essays covering various socio-economic issues such as population, health, education, economy and poverty — supported by detailed tables and charts and equations — this book will delight the serious reader.

What is "illfare"? The editors, Barbara Harriss-White and S. Subramanian, have coined a word that is the supposed to be the opposite of welfare. "We dispense with the polite convention," they say, "of employing a 'nice' appellation for a subject only to end up discussing precisely its opposite."

"Population and development revisited" by Robert Cassen, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, deals with the problem of population growth for development at the individual and national level, especially in the Indian context. There are people, who believe that overpopulation is a burden on society; and there are others, especially those who live below the poverty line, who believe that a new born comes into this world not only with a mouth, but also a pair of hands.

Malthus feared that if population kept growing in geometric proportion, one day it will outrun food supplies. But Cassen sees no evidence of this happening. Food output in India has continued to grow faster than population, at 2.5 per cent annually for foodgrains and 2.7 per cent for all crops between 1970-71 and 1990-91.

K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, addresses the complex issues of "labour market and the employment generation programmes in his paper "Labour market characteristics and employment generation programmes in India". "There is one important point regarding the nature of the states at the two ends of the unemployment spectrum. . . . states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which have very high levels of unemployment, can also claim to be relatively more advanced or modernised in socio-economic terms in the country. . . . In sharp contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, we have states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan — with low levels of unemployment — which are generally considered backward in socio-economic terms."

One of the points the author makes is that higher levels of poverty are associated with higher levels of "feminisation" of the labour force, "the sex ratio for workers is distinctly higher for the poor sections. This is because while the male work participation rate tends to decline with higher levels of poverty, the female work participation rate tends to increase".

Barbara Harriss-White expresses concern over the disabled, and the low priority they get in state welfare agendas. No one has made a systematic study about how the disabled make a living, and how they adjust to society, and society to them. The author feels that disability and poverty are closely related. "In a country with mass poverty, it is also possible that poverty causes disability. The mechanisms include malnutrition, inadequate access to preventive and curative medical care, and risks of accident or occupational injury. . . . It is society which is disabling rather than people who are disabled."

P. Radhakrishnan, professor, the Madras Institute of Development Studies, looks into the caste system in "Caste, politics and the reservation issue". "As social discrimination is the essence of the caste system of which the bulk of Indians have been victims, it is only to be expected that this principle, aimed at helping such victims, should lead to much populist rhetoric, and have a close nexus with caste constituencies — which are its principal claimants and beneficiaries — and vote-bank politics."

We often boast rather loudly about our 5000-year-old culture, but we conveniently overlook the blackest spot on our culture — the caste system, in fact, most of us, including the so-called highly educated ones, even defend it. They argue that the caste system was originally nothing but a division of labour, that society was not divided into four watertight compartments in the Vedic times.

They all forget the fact that our scriptures are full of social discrimination: wasn't Eklavya "sacrificed" to ensure the supremacy of the high-caste Arjuna? These enlightened gentlemen wouldn't be speaking in these terms if they were treated as slaves, if they were not allowed to enter a temple, if they were made bonded labourers, and if they were denied all basic rights. It was hoped that Independence would result in the death of the caste system, but that is not really happening. M. N. Srinivas made an apt remark in the fifties, "with the coming of democracy, caste system got a new lease of life".

Other papers by V.R. Muraleedharan, D. Jayaraj, Venkatesh Athreya, Manabi Majumdar, Sriram Panchu, S. Janakarajan and Paul Seabright are very well written and very informative, and if they are not commented upon here, it is only because of lack of space. The piece de resistance of this book is "Public action and inequality" by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze based on their book "Economic development and social opportunity." One factor responsible for social inequality is the deprived sections themselves The authors express their impatience with the "patient man" who is too resigned to his fate, too lazy to improve his lot, and too happy to be played for a sucker by the powers that be who have "reason enough to rely on the unending patience of the neglected and deprived millions, who have not risen in fury about illiteracy, hunger, illness or social insecurity. The stubborn persistence of these deprivations has much to do with that lack of fury". The government lacks political will to solve these problems.

After the devastating 1943 Bengal famine, why has India successfully managed to escape famines? In a democracy, the authors reason, a government that has to "face criticism from opposition parties and free newspapers, and that has to see re-election, cannot afford to neglect famines, since most famines are conspicuous miseries which can be easily brought into the arena of public discussion by newspapers, opposition parties and active Parliamentarians. . . . However, the reach of public criticism can be less effective when the deprivations are less extreme, more complex to analyse and less easy to remedy, as in the case of regular — but not too extreme — undernourishment and economic insecurity, and lack of medical care for endemic diseases".

The authors stress on the role of public activism at local level in influencing government policy. For minor problems such as misuse of public funds by officials, misuse of materials, absenteeism, etc. local pressure can be a lot more effective than any legal action from the centre.

The editors and publishers deserve compliments for good printing and high production values. The cover design should have been a little more inspiring, though. Economists, sociologists, NGOs, professors and students will find this book a welcome addition to their reference library.




Gargi Arora said...

It is very ironical that rather than teaching respect for human beings and human life all that we socialise our childen is about the closed system of stratification...the so called Caste System...why cannot we give to our youngones...values on how to love,respect others,be kind to others.
Are we strong enough to change the contents of our legacy...to make this world a better place to live in?

Dhiman said...

Dear Sir,

It really an enlightening & wonderful article but at the same time I feel very embarrassed as well.

It’s our irony that even after 60 yrs of independence and being one of the rising economies in the world.

These kinds of discrimination & Stigma still exist in our society.

We should rather change our selves before guiding others, as we are also the part of this society,

Till the time we stop implementing these kind of practice in our day today life.We cannot expect that the society with no discrimination and right to individuality.

Yogender Dhiman

hitech staff said...

Despite the fact that the thought of "KAN KAN MEIN BHAGWAN" was given to the world by thinkers of this land, the upper strata of our society could never see Bhagwan in the flesh and blood of a lowly placed hindu man,woman or child.Saints and Gurus have tried their best to eradicate this deep rooted prejudice against poor low castes but failed misrably.Castewise gurudwaras of punjab are a terrible failure of the panth philosophy.

Viswanath said...

"We often boast rather loudly about our 5000-year-old culture, but we conveniently overlook the blackest spot on our culture — the caste system."
Why is caste the blackest spot in our culture? I am not interested in getting some quotes from myths.