One of the topics that I have focused on from time to time is the Dalit movement in northern India, primarily concentrated in Uttar Pradesh (UP). I started with a discussion of how Dalits saw the modern Indian nation, moved on to their cultural emergence in the Indian heartland and their views on the current government of Mayawati.
In their latest paper, Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in UP in the Market Reform Era; Devesh Kapur, Chandra Bhan Prasad and others present an innovative survey on the self perception of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the survey was that it was designed by Dalits themselves. The idea was that the social and economic changes that a non-Dalit might have ignored would be included by Dalits. Another interesting feature was that it was comparative, it asked Dalit households how their current social and economic life differed from twenty years ago. The survey was also comprehensive, it surveyed all Dalit households in two blocks of districts in UP.
The thesis of the study was that conventional macro indicators like Gini coefficients cannot capture or may even give one the wrong impression about changes in local socio-economic conditions. The authors say,
The reason is that cognitive and social aspects of inequality – self respect, servility, full participation in social and political life – need to be factored in to make an adequate comparison.
In fact, they go on to challenge the conventional wisdom about growing income inequality in India saying,
Improvements in self-respect in daily interactions may matter more to rural Dalits than the income inequality from increases in wealth among Mumbai industrialists.
Thus, markets may drive changes in social relations by restructuring local economic relations.
The survey indicates tremendous changes in the asset ownership and consuming habits of Dalits. As examples, the percentage of households living in ‘pakka’ houses increased from 28 % to 75 %, television ownership increased from 0.8 % to 33.5 % and cell phone ownership increased from 0.15 % to 34 %. Even more dramatic changes were noted in consumer goods consumption. 95 % of respondents used either toothpaste, shampoo or hair oil as compared to 13 % in 1990. The authors point out,
As markets expand, consumer durables become the markers of social prestige. While some might decry this consumerism, the only marker of prestige earlier was one’s birth, and Dalits could not alter their social standing irrespective of their economic position.
It would seem tempting to conclude that the social inequality the Indian state has been trying to erase over the last 60 years has been eroded more by 20 years of a free market !
The authors take their analysis forward and argue that the social and economic forces of Dalit emancipation are coupled and reinforcing. They use some statistical analysis which I cannot reproduce here, but their conclusions are important,
if we decompose the change in [toothpaste] usage into an income component and a social shift component, the difference between the actual level of toothpaste use of 82 % and the 1990 income predicted use of 66 % can be predicted by an increase in assets, but this still leaves the vast majority of the shift – from 3 % to 66 % at the same level of assets to be explained by other factors.
And what could those other factors be ? The Dalit political emergence of the last two decades ? The mainstreaming and spread of a Dalit culture and the words and deeds of Dalit heroes like Dr. Ambedkar ? I would lean towards this factors, but it will indeed be interesting to see how scholars in India and America explain these statistics.
Not only consumption patterns, the economic lives of Dalits seem to have undergone a sea-change. Their occupations, the main markers of their caste have become vastly different from what they were twenty years ago. The authors note that,
there is a significant shift of Dalits into non-caste traditional occupations. Second, there has been significant migration of Dalits into cities. Third, there have been major shifts in the practice of agriculture as Dalits are increasingly less likely to work the fields of traditional landlords.
To get an idea of the magnitude of these shifts consider the following numbers. The proportion of Dalits engaged in traditional ‘Dalit professions’ like halwaha1 and lifting dead animals fell from 16 % and 46 % in 1990 to 0.65 % and 2.9 % in 2007. On the other hand the proportion of Dalits migrating to cities and engaged in professions like masonry/tailor/driver or self employed increased from 25 % to 80 % in the same years.
But perhaps most importantly the nature of the social relationship between the Dalits and non-Dalits seems to have changed significantly. Most Dalits now are not seated in separate areas at weddings, they are treated as equals when guests in upper caste homes and have their children delivered by non-Dalit midwives. All of these practices were virtually unheard of in 1990. As the authors see it,
Passing a law against discrimination will not make an upper caste invite a lower caste person into his house, or, even if he does, to offer him something to eat and drink.
Although technically they are correct, the authors seem to have needlessly undermined the role of laws in eliminating discrimination. A law may not make an upper caste landlord invite a Dalit to his home, but it indicates to the landlord that violence against Dalits will not go unpunished. So while laws may be inffective for promoting positive social practices, they are effective in removing negative ones.
That being said, what comes out forcefully in this impressive research is the absent state. Apart from increases in school enrollment, none of the gains the Dalits made in the last twenty years can be attributed to the state. Yes, the political emergence of Dalits has clearly empowered them at a local level, but the local agents of the state remain indifferent or even hostile to the cause of equality. As one of the Dalits interviewed in a paper I discussed earlier put it,
Who will cry about our sadness ? Who will listen to us ? …. How can we complain to local state officials ? The people whom we would complain are the same people about whom we would be complaining!
I will say what I have said many times before. Only the state can provide justice. Only the state can provide security. Only the state can protect minority rights. While this generation of Dalits might feel good about just being able to use toothpaste and not being discriminated at weddings, the next generation will not.
1: Halwaha is basically a form of temporary bonded labour, which was widespread in pre-Republican India.