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 Principles of Politics
Not caste in stone
The Indian Express, India Monday, September 13, 2010

The cabinet has cleared the census of caste groups from next year, and we need to demolish some dominant caste myths. The earnings of different castes differ among various states. The assumption that differences in income automatically imply discrimination, and therefore suggest affirmative action makes little sense, writes Sunil Jain in The indian Express.

While readying for the deluge of data on various caste groups, now that the cabinet has cleared the census of caste groups from next year, we need to demolish some dominant caste myths.

The most important one, of course, is that caste groups are uniform monoliths. Look at the data and there is no doubt that, at the all-India level, upper castes will have higher incomes than other backward castes — who, in turn, have higher incomes than Scheduled Castes who earn more than Scheduled Tribes. At an all-India level, upper caste households earn an average of Rs 86,690 per annum, OBCs earn Rs 59,741, SCs Rs 45,889 and STs Rs 40,753.


The averages, like all averages, miss out on the important differences. So, an analysis of the NCAER data (in the book Caste in a Different Mould, of which I am a co-author) shows that while SC households in Uttar Pradesh earn Rs 39,655 per annum, those in Punjab earn Rs 63,055; OBCs in Bihar earn Rs 40,839 as against Rs 73,223 in Maharashtra. Similar differences hold true for all caste groups.


The second myth, related to the first, is that differences in income automatically imply discrimination, and therefore suggest affirmative action is called for. Apart from the impact the “state” of development, as it were, has on income levels, the differences are largely explained by education, by the industry/service you are employed in, by whether an individual is situated in a rural area or a small town or a big metro, and the list can go on. Even where groups are classified as ‘graduate and above’, if the group has more post-graduates, income levels are certain to be higher.


There’s education as well. So, a large part of the higher income levels in urban settings are probably also a reflection of higher education, not just location — but because it needs sophisticated econometrics, and even that can go wrong, this is often ignored. An OBC household that has is headed by an illiterate earns Rs 24,363 per year, and this rises to Rs 32,169 in case the head of the household has studied till class V, Rs 67,371 in case s/he has studied till class XII, and to Rs 105,285 in case the head of the household is a graduate. Just 20 per cent of OBC households have graduates as compared to 35 per cent for upper castes.

A recent study of Dalit villages in Uttar Pradesh by Devesh Kapur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett and D. Shyam Babu confirms the role urbanisation plays.


All of which would suggest the solution cannot be a uniform one. It has to be education in some cases, urbanisation in some and industrialisation in others. With over 75 per cent of ST households having studied only till class X (38 per cent till just class V) reservations in colleges are unlikely to be a solution, to cite one instance. Affirmative action also poses a problem in terms of implementation since 90 per cent of all ST households are in rural areas.


The moral of the story is that it’s not so much about affirmative action as it is about urbanisation, industrialisation and education. Not that this is easy either. The agitation against land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh shows the limits to the pace of urbanisation, Niyamgiri and Singur does the same for industrialisation, and the Right to Education Act, though wonderful in spirit, will end up slowing the development of low-cost unrecognised private schools.

This article was published in the The Indian Express on Monday, September 13, 2010. Please read the original article here.
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