The economics of caste inequity
Latha Jishnu / New Delhi December 18, 2009, 0:29 IST
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.
BLOCKED BY CASTE
Economic Discrimination in Modern India
Edited by: Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine S Newman
Oxford University Press
377 pages; Rs 750
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