full caste poster snip



A summary of the presentations at a conference on caste and development September 2015

Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Chair, Indian Council of Social Science Research

Professor Thorat presented on Caste as a form of Economic Organisation.  He spoke about his personal experience of discrimination to illustrate how caste-based discrimination in access to employment and educational opportunities continues even now that access for Dalits to previously prohibited economic options has improved.    His presentation focused on the impacts on economic growth of caste-based restrictions on occupation and access to education, including on levels of unemployment, labour mobility, human resources, efficiency and inequality, highlighting how even businesses run by Dalits are affected by discrimination in access to inputs and markets.  He summarised some of the empirical evidence for this.

In conclusion, Professor Thorat called for legal safeguards against discriminatory practices in markets, and affirmative action to help address imbalances, explaining how while the Indian Constitution and subsequent legislation provide for non-discrimination in access to jobs, services and facilities in the public sphere, these do not address discrimination in employment in the private sector which drives growth and is the main source of employment.


Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics, Delhi University

Professor Deshpande presented The New Grammar of Caste:  Changing Contours of Caste Disadvantage in India.   She challenged the notion that the practice of caste is dying out, citing how new forms of assertion of caste identity are still occurring.  She also argued that economic disparities remain very significant within complex caste hierarchies, despite sometimes being masked by aggregated social categories such as ‘scheduled caste’, which fail to capture the full picture of diversity and disparity within and between different groups.

Professor Deshpande presented evidence of discriminatory practices in labour markets, including wage disparities and access to jobs, and discussed employer attitudes, such as an emphasis on ‘family background’, and recruitment processes, such as hiring through social networks, which limit opportunities for Dalits.  While the entry of Dalits into a wider range of occupations in cited as an indicator of change, inequalities in access to opportunities and benefits remain.   She went on to discuss how entrepreneurial activities, seen as a means of escaping labour market discrimination and developing a ‘Dalit Capitalism’ which will provide jobs for excluded groups,  are also subject to discrimination which means most Dalit entrepreneurs remain trapped in ‘bottom-of-the-ladder’ low productivity survival activities.   Despite the new opportunities presented by globalisation and liberalisation therefore, the economic outcomes for socially excluded groups are still, to varying degrees, mediated by caste hierarchies.


Barbara Harriss-White, Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Oxford University

Professor Harris-White spoke on Dalits and Adivasis in India’s Business Economy, describing how in India 95% of firms have less than 5 employees, and growth is characterised by a multiplication of small businesses.   The proportion of Dalits employed in small businesses is greater than in the wider population, so the market barriers faced by small businesses due to caste based discrimination are important.

The question Professor Harris-White explored was how Dalits fare as owners of small businesses.  The picture is a mixed one.  Caste is an institution which regulates the Indian economy, including labour and market relations, but it is not the only factor.   Across India, there are marked geographic variations in the balance of forces which either perpetuate or break down caste hierarchies or other patterns of social exclusion and discrimination (such as against Scheduled Tribes or indigenous people).   Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes are in very different positions in the way their labour and businesses are incorporated into the non-farm market economy.  For Dalits, disadvantage appears to have intensified the picture is very complex.  As India’s economy changes, the different and gendered barriers to entry into non-farm employment experienced by different social groups needs to be more deeply understood.

Dr Ramesh Nathan, General Secretary, National Dalit Movement for Justice

Dr Nathan spoke about the scale and extremity of violence perpetrated by dominant groups against Dalits, describing this as systematic, despite the legal safeguards in place.  He highlighted the need for interventions that address individual attitudes and prejudices which fuel violence and a degree of acceptance of it.

Prakash Louis, Researcher and Activist

Prakash Louis presented on Civil Society Activism and Transnational Advocacy on Caste and Development.  He spoke of the need to make visible those who are socially excluded and develop analysis on social exclusion and resultant vulnerability.  He also expressed the continuing need for more opportunities to be created for Dalits including for affirmative action and equality of opportunity in employment, and for greater support for Dalit voice and empowerment.   International NGOs, he suggested, can do much more to identify who is being excluded from development and why they are being left out, and to support visibility and voice of excluded groups including building capacities for articulation of demands.  He also recommended greater use of tools such as the Dalit Discrimination Index to put pressure on governments.  Inclusion, he argued, must be proactive.  Dalit organisations and networks such as DSN need more support and the issue of caste-based discrimination needs to be highlighted internationally.  INGOs and UN agencies operating in India need to address discrimination take affirmative action in their recruitment policies.

Prakash also spoke of the need for attitudinal towards a more progressive Indian mindset which is egalitarian and inclusive, and for policy changes that ensure Dalit issues are addressed across all budgets, programmes and development initiatives.   Finally he made the point that alongside equal access to the productive resources of jal (water), jungle (forests) and zamin (land), Dalits need above all zameer (dignity).


Anand Kumar, Director, PACS

Anand Kumar spoke on Access to Service and Entitlements.  He began with a very important point: while we wish to bring the issue of caste based discrimination ‘out of the shadows’ we must at the same time address what he called the ‘darkness’ i.e. the practice of caste and the social norms that perpetuate it, since these are the greatest barrier to access to rights.   The Dalit movement, he argued, is not an anti-government movement at all, since Indian legislation and government programmes, as well as the Indian Constitution itself, recognise and institutionalise measures to challenge caste discrimination.  The problem as he sees it is that much of Indian society does not share the values on which these are based, and it is that which needs to be addressed.

Anand described some of the many rights and welfare programmes provided by the Indian Government, including for rural employment, health, nutrition and scholarship, as well as some of the legal provisions for protection and affirmative action, and about the need to break the silence around the hidden barriers that prevent full uptake and implementation of these.  Addressing these, he pointed out, is long-term work requiring engagement and collaboration with all stakeholder.  There is no space, he argues, for being ‘neutral’.  Non-discrimination must be a central value alongside social justice, dignity and equity.  Process of empowerment take time, and involve building leadership and voice, capacity-building and accompaniment and creation of more inclusive organisations.


Asha Kowtal, General Secretary, All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum

Ms Kowtal spoke about the violence perpetrated against Dalit women, expressing her concern that the brazenness of crimes against Dalits, and particularly Dalit women, seems to have worsened, along with impunity for these crimes.  She also questioned the authenticity of data on atrocities, highlighting how much is not reported nationally.

There are complex layers of oppression at the nexus of caste and gender.  Ms Kowtal recommended intersectionality as an approach that seeks to understand the individual experiences of women who face difficult circumstances, often because of multiple inequalities including gender and caste hierarchies.  Women are not a homogenous groups and it is critical that the specific set of barriers faced by Dalit women is addressed at all levels.  At the local level, there is a greater need to understand how social protection or other schemes designed to bring benefits to socially excluded groups address the specific issues of women within these groups.  At national levels measures are needed to change attitudes and mindsets on both caste and gender (particularly of people in positions of power) and to challenge discriminatory social norms.  At the global level there needs to be a much greater understanding of how caste and gender intersect and the impact of interesting inequalities on the realisation of human rights.  Finally Asha spoke about the need for solidarity with Dalit women among wider movements.


Dr Jayshree Mangubhai

Dr Mangubhai spoke about the overwhelming role women play in carrying out occupations that are traditionally assigned to Dalits, such as the clearing of human excrement and agricultural labour, and of the ‘backlash violence’ perpetrated against Dalit women who are perceived to be stepping out of these roles.  She highlighted the need for more research on the situation of the many Dalit women employed as domestic workers and spoke of the urgent need for Dalit women to acquire the skills to compete for other jobs and for access to productive resources. Beyond this, she also discussed the need for much greater solidarity among the wider women’s movement which can be somewhat silent on issues of caste.  Dr Mangubhai referred to Professor Thorat’s work on the continued prevalence of untouchability practices and highlighted the role of dominant groups, including the women among them, in perpetuating these.  In this context, she noted, caste can ‘trump’ gender.  Dr Mangubhai also explored some of the ways in which inequalities based on caste and gender intersect, marginalising Dalit women even in interventions, such as quota systems, designed to provide more equality of opportunity for women or Dalits.


Ashif Shaiklh, Secretary, Jan Sahas Social Development society

Ashif spoke about the appalling discrimination against Dalit children in Indian schools.  For example, they may be considered so polluting they are not allowed to touch books.  The need to change prevailing attitudes is great.  He also described some of the successes in his organisation’s campaigning work to end manual scavenging, which has had to overcome a denial on the part of government that the problem persists through a ‘knocking the door’ campaign to get engage parliamentarians.    There is a much greater need for widespread understanding about this practice, which should not be regarded as ‘employment’, but rather a form of slavery, perpetuated in the most part not because of a lack of alternative sanitation arrangements but rather as a means of subjugation of Dalits.  Ashif also spoke about the issues faced by Dalit Muslims, among whom there are very high levels of poverty.


Questions and answers

Some of the main areas of enquiry and discussion included:

  • The idea that discrimination has a functional role in the economic sphere. The economic advantage that caste hierarchies confer on dominant groups to the cost of others. The fact that this is amplified by patriarchy and exploited for economic gain
  • Access to knowledge, how gender norms affect the educational achievements and aspirations of Dalit men and women differently. The ‘reproduction of low self-esteem’, and how humiliation is used as a way to assert power.
  • The gap between policy and practice. Clearly legislation is important but insufficient.  Dalit and especially Dalit women are disadvantaged in all areas of life because the attitudes and prejudices of people in positions of authority who have the responsibility to implement policy or are the ‘gatekeepers’ to entitlements
  • The need for targeted budget allocations especially for Dalit women’s rights and support services for survivors of violence


Breakout sessions outputs

Social development

  • We need to look at the hierarchies of power, and how women and Dalits become perpetrators of power
  • We need to look at prejudice and how to address it, including in the UK, and issues of white prejudice and white power
  • Civil-society organisations need to self-reflect. What are the barriers NGOs face in bringing up caste as an issue?

Economic development

  • The concept of pro-poor growth needs to be developed and promoted (i.e. growth that benefits the poorest groups disproportionately thus narrowing inequalities)
  • More analysis is needed of the impacts of modernisation on e.g. labour rights and employment and displacement from land and livelihood
  • More understanding of the enabling factors for pro-poor growth needed
  • More understanding of the impacts of liberalisation and new orders of wealth and power. These are not supporting social mobility
  • Affirmative action in employment must be extended to the private sector.

Caste meets gender

  • Complexity of caste structures and how these impact on women and men, requires deeper understanding of this among INGOs
  • Within South Asia, need to change attitudes among those whose responsibility it is to implement existing policies.  Education and training to this end was mentioned but also the need for greater focus on promoting accountability to existing legislation through advocacy at all levels (e.g. facing the corporate sector)
  • INGOs should keep the focus on building the agency of Dalit women and create spaces for Dalit women to share their diverse stories and experiences, including the success stories of how women and men have overcome multiple forms of discrimination.
  • INGOs can also support linkages including with the wider feminist movement; ensure Dalit women’s rights are addressed in their advocacy; and internationalise the issue of caste and its intersectionality with gender.
  • INGOs also need to promote non-discrimination, gender equality within their own processes and programming.  More capacity building on this could be achieved e.g. through BOND in the UK
  • The wider women’s movements in South Asia and globally could do much more to amplify the voices of Dalit women and create opportunities to build their leadership skills.  They need to be challenged to ask themselves, ‘who is being left out’.  In transcending caste, these movements could perhaps learn from the experiences of other oppressed groups of women such as those from indigenous minorities in Latin America or Afro-Caribbean women in Europe or North America
  • Funding is helpful to some extent but support for political voice is also needed along with building allies and solidarity, psychosocial support for survivors of atrocities, celebration of Dalit culture and building solidarity within Dalit movements e.g. Dalit Bahujan.  Continued support for movements and networks was emphasised.  Dalit women and men are the source of hope and resistance and removing the barriers to their empowerment paramount.
  • What can Dalit movements do?  Within the Dalit movements, there is a need for more participatory governance, debate on approaches, and particularly space for women as leaders.  A question was raised about how caste identity can ‘trump’ gender so that gender inequality is marginalised within the movements.
  • There was a discussion about how changing mind-sets is key, and how to do this across caste, class and gender boundaries.  It was suggested that movements need to demonstrate the social gains from this to be effective, and to address everyone’s fears.
  • It was pointed out that historically successful campaigns (e.g. anti-apartheid, civil rights and feminist movements) have relied on (often uneasy) alliances and also politicisation of issues.  This means that rather than presenting stories of atrocities we need to understand and communicate how these crimes arise from and contribute to a system that benefits some people to the detriment of others, and consider the role of the state in the perpetuation of this.
  • There were some points about language, including that Western media tends to use euphemisms where it would be better to ‘tell it like it is’ e.g. ‘forced excrement and rotting flesh collection’ instead of ‘manual scavenging’, and the fact that this is not a job but slavery.
  • Linked to the above point, there’s a need to educate media. We can also make creative use of new media to create spaces for Dalit women to tell their own stories to diverse audiences

Panel discussion

So, what do we need to do?

Some important points raised in concluding panel discussion:

  • We need to think more about what we need to know (evidence) and how we need to know it (e.g. through action research to enable Dalits to generate their own knowledge and understanding of what it needed)
  • Withdrawal of a number of funding agencies form India has had a big impact on Dalit groups. We need to consider how this can be addressed
  • IDSN and other expressed the importance of working more closely with academia to highlight the importance of the research presented at the conference and other current research on Dalit issues
  • We need to raise the consciousness of the UK public about the causes of poverty
  • UK INGOs need to better coordinate e.g. for joint advocacy through BOND
  • INGOs can afford to take more risks and work in solidarity with Dalit groups
  • INGOs can support the agency of Dalit women and their links to other radical women of colour
  • Through the Business and Human Rights mechanism, demand that businesses comply with local CSR legislation
  • Support a framework/discourse on how to change caste mind-sets
  • Encourage governments to address caste in their implementation of the SDGs
  • Develop ‘scorecards’ or other means e.g. ‘exclusion indices’ to assess the compliance of companies with non-discriminatory standards, and communicate this to international buyers.
  • Understand better the nexus between discrimination, employment and education