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Intergenerational Implications of caste-based structural Inequality in India

Société | Les individus

Written for session 37 – Reconnecting generations together

India being the largest democracy in the world is ruled by the caste system, which is more than 3000 years old. Caste includes three elements: repulsion, hierarchy, and hereditary specialisation. According to  Sebastian Velassery, “a society is characterised by such a system if it is divided into a large number of hereditarily specialised groups, which are hierarchically superposed and mutually opposed. It does not tolerate the principle of rising in the status of groups’ mixture and of changing occupation”. The two most important characteristics of the Indian caste system have to do with endogamy and occupational restriction. Every member of a caste or sub-caste is required to marry within their own caste. Any violation of this results in excommunication from one’s family and caste. When it comes to occupation, every caste is associated with a particular one to which its members are required to follow       

The Linkages between a Caste and Caste-based Occupation: 

DR. B.R. Ambedkar, a renowned scholar and economist mentions that “in no civilised society, the division of labour is accompanied by this unnatural division of labourers into watertight compartments. Therefore, it is a hierarchy in which the division of labour is accompanied by this gradation of labourers. It does not provide any scope for the development of individual capacities; rather, it imposes the social status of parents on the children to go for hereditary occupation. Individual sentiment and preference have no place in it, and it is based on the dogma of predestination (Ambedkar, 1936, p. 47) 

In India, the most defile and filthiest caste-based occupations such as skinning of dead animals, manual scavenging i.e. cleaning of human excrement with bare hands, etc. are imposed on the lower castes within the caste system.  There have been fatalities and caste-based violence such as the Una flogging incident which impacts the socio-economic of youth born in these communities and are forced to do this inhuman work as its family occupation. 

Manual Scavenging is not a career chosen voluntarily by workers but is instead a deeply unhealthy, unsavoury, and undignified job forced upon these people because of the stigma attached to their caste. The nature of the work itself then reinforces that stigma” stated the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, following a visit to India.  

According to an article, “about 30% of earning inequality is still determined by caste, gender, and family backgrounds. According to Thomas Piketty, in India, only the top 10% hold 57% of national income, and the majority of them belong to the upper caste. 

The intersectional framework and its relevance with the caste system:

In the recent years, the intersectional framework coined by Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw has gained significant recognition as a powerful tool for understanding and addressing the complex issues of Caste and Gender in the context of India.  It gives an opportunity for a paradigm shift in laying down the issues and concerns of people whose identities are shaped due to their caste, class, gender, sexuality, and disability in the context of India. Hence, it is crucial for the State to review its laws and policies with an intersectional lens ensuring that they are inclusive, equitable, and responsive to the diverse needs and experiences of all individuals.

Affirmative action and its impact:

Affirmative action was introduced in India after it gained independence focusing on the socio-economic and political development of the historically marginalised communities such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the big question arises whether there is any monitoring mechanism developed by the State to show the number or percentage of the Scheduled Caste population who have liberated themselves from caste-based occupations. The historicity of the shift from these occupations to dignified jobs needs to be studied and that can bring out the impact of affirmative actions and Policies. The intergenerational dialogues to understand the historicity of the caste system and its manifestations to a large extent is not happening especially amongst those Scheduled Castes families who have moved to urban areas or big cities. Although the rural realities impose a nexus around Scheduled Caste families to remain bound to their caste based occupations. Many times, each generation amongst Scheduled Castes gets divided because they cannot associate with the larger reality. The fear of the older generation is also a major challenge which generates fear and anxiety amongst the younger generations based on their past experiences of untouchability and caste discrimination.  

During the Covid 19 pandemic majority of the migrant labourers who were affected were from marginalised communities. If there were effective policies for the economic development of the Scheduled castes, then why was the need for them to migrate from the source of location? 

Despite legal bans and regulations, manual scavenging continues to persist due to the close relationship between the caste system and this degrading work. Sanitation workers lack social security, health benefits, and proper education for their children, leading to further marginalisation. The outsourcing of cleaning work to private contractors and the lack of accountability contribute to unsafe working conditions for sanitation workers. In 2013, manual scavenging was banned in the National Capital Region (NCR), but as per official figures, there are still 58,098 manual scavengers in India.

Way Forward:

The new generation amongst the Scheduled Castes are the hope of a social and economic transformation of around 200 million of them in India. We do know that it’s a long journey for them as the state policies being developed in welfare mode are not able to liberate the Scheduled Castes from the intergenerational trauma and fear.

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