Caste remains an impediment to occupational mobility in the Indian society

By Shashwat Singh

The caste system is one of the most distinctive features of the Indian society which attempts to divide it into four distinctive hierarchical varnas, namely the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, with a large sub-population of untouchables excluded entirely from the system. A key feature of the caste system is that the varna status is inherited by birth. 

Given the traditional distribution of jobs according to the varna or the caste, the social restrictions imposed by this hereditary system have been seen as one of the biggest impediments to social mobility for the poor and the downtrodden. It holds that the son of a poor, uneducated barber is also likely to end up as a poor, uneducated barber because owing to the several restrictions placed on him by the strict varna system, the son of the barber finds it really hard to find employment in other occupations. 

Caste, which was supposed to ensure ‘division of labour’ (a point used by several defendants of the caste system) has now transformed into a ‘division of labourers’. According to Ambedkar, any civilized society requires ‘division of labour’ in order to function efficiently, but no civilized society needs a ‘division of labourer’ accompanying it. He heavily criticized the caste system for acting as an impediment in the development of human capabilities to allow people to choose their own occupations, restricting them to the tasks that they have been appointed based on their birth in a particular caste with no preference given to their individual preferences and feelings. 

Economic mobility is one of the major requirements for development to take place. In an age where the market constantly changes, the individuals must be allowed to choose their occupation, but the caste system tends to restrict this upward occupational mobility for individuals, becoming a major cause of unemployment in the country. Ambedkar was of the opinion that a great deal of inefficiency is bound to result in failure of social and economic mechanisms. This is because the workers are being forced to pick up an occupation based on their caste which they don’t really wish to pursue, leading to an improper resource and labour allocation. 

Hence, as an economic system, caste is a harmful and an inefficient institution as it involves the subordination of man’s natural power and gives greater importance to the social rules in place.

Occupational mobility helps positively change the ‘real-labour income’, hence improving the overall socio- economic profile of the concerned person and his family. It may also help in the upliftment of the scheduled caste, most of whom are still engaged in low- ranking fixed occupations, seldom engaged in an occupation as low as manual scavenging, helping them to improve their social and economic status. 

According to Giddens, occupation is one of the major deciding factors in a person’s social standing and material comfort. In India, as already observed, there exists a close link between castes and occupations, especially in the rural areas with the most- low paying as well as degrading works being done by the Dalits and other members of the scheduled castes. The Scheduled Castes (SCs) (along with the Scheduled Tribes), for this very reason, have the highest incidence of poverty in India. Given the continued importance of caste in the Indian society, it is true that the lower castes continue to be discriminated against in the labour market. A vast majority of them are still being restricted to unskilled, low- paying occupations. 

Despite these obstacles, several pieces of evidence from surveys conducted across India reveal figures that indicate a convergence between the lower castes and the upper castes in terms of occupation over the past few decades. 

Several ethnographic studies have witnessed occupational mobility in several villages across several castes over time. For example, in a field study based in Behror village in Rajasthan, Mendelsohn found that with an increasing political mobilization amongst the Chamars, which are restricted to leather work and its trading, in addition to agriculture, by the varna system and is probably one of the largest caste in Scheduled Castes in northern India, were found not to be willing to perform any agricultural labour and were found to be moving out of the villages to find job in sectors which interested them and were financially and socially more uplifting. Hence, he noted that while the old caste system did seem to exist, its intensity and control over occupational mobility had certainly reduced.

Possible reasons for such a phenomenon to happen could be the role of radical affirmative action policies by the government such as reservations for the SC/STs in state and central legislatures, Panchayati raj system, government services and several government- run educational institutions. Also, the effects of increased aggregate economic growth rate in addition to the modernization of the agriculture brought about by the green revolution, fuelled by an impressive growth of the services and manufacturing sectors might have given space to the people belonging to lower castes to exercise their mobility across occupations, breaking the shackles created by caste system. 

In addition to this, several political parties such as ‘Bahujan Samaj Party’ have also come to the forefront by showcasing their strong pro- SC orientation, thereby increasing the overall assertiveness of the SCs in the local, state and national political arena. Also, as pointed out by M.N. Srinivas, a process of ‘Sanskritization’ in the Indian villages, where in the low caste takes over the beliefs, ideology, customs, rituals, etc. of a high caste, which has helped them lead a better life. 

Another possible reason could be the vast economic reforms that have taken place over the past few decades in India. It has unleashed a strong competition in the previously protected economy which, according to Becker, aids in reducing discrimination by making it expensive for the economic enterprises to pursue any such discriminatory practices in the labour market, thereby increasing the intergenerational mobility rates of SC/STs.

However, despite the facts mentioned above, it is an undeniable reality that poverty rates among the SCs and the STs are significantly higher than the other ‘forward caste’ families. A lot of incidents of discrimination based on caste at workplace can be observed till today, which has led to several groups of SCs and STs in various government organizations to demand for a new affirmative action policy that would give them some preferences based on caste for the intra-departmental promotions. 

They allege that preference for promotions are still being given to the upper caste and that they are being left out. In the interim, policies aiming to foster growth would prove to be more effective if they take into account the underlying caste dynamics and networks, giving positive shape to better chances of educational, occupational and other choices for the SC/STs to make in the Indian society.

(Views are personal)

(Shashwat is a student of M.A. in Development Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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