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Economic and Caste Criteria in Definition of Backwardness

Saturday 16 October 1999, by KUMAR*Sanjay, SRINIVASAN*K.

I Introduction

A UNIQUE feature of the Indian society is the caste system. The stratification of the Indian population into sub-groups defined by caste, which is determined by birth, has been in existence for thousands of years. It is now considered one of the major social hurdles in the development of the nation. The social distance between the caste groups varies from state to state, but generally there is a well established hierarchy of castes that can be considered under four broad headings, namely, brahmins, kshatriyas, vaisyas and shudras, and such a stratification can be traced back to the Vedas. It appears that the major stratification in terms of castes (?varna’) was originally based on occupational division without a vertical social hierarchy. However, over the centuries the ?varna’ system seems to have expanded and became rigid with many subcastes (?jatis’) springing up within each major category. There are innumerable subcastes among brahmins, kshatriyas, vaisyas and shudras, and the differentiation between the subcastes within a major caste category has also widened over the years. Most of the marriages even today take place within a subcaste and intercaste marriages are socially not yet accepted.

Social reformers rose in revolt against the rigidities and injustices springing from the caste system. A particularly evil practice is that of treating many caste groups as ?untouchables’ or social outcastes. During the past few centuries, many social reformers have agitated, written and canvassed against the evils of the caste system. Prominent among such social reformers are Sant Ramdas in Uttar Pradesh, Guru Nanak in Punjab, Raja Ram Mohan Roy in West Bengal, Basavappa in Karnataka, Narayana Guru in Kerala and Periyar in Tamil Nadu. One of the most recent crusaders of social reforms in the country was Mahatma Gandhi, who fought for the emancipation of the downtrodden castes as a part of the independence movement. Gandhi called the poorest and lowest among the caste hierarchy, who are considered untouchables by the rest, ?Harijans’ or children of ?Hari’ (God). Another historic figure championing the cause of downtrodden caste groups was B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India.

With the attainment of independence in 1947 and the strong views of Mahatma Gandhi prevailing within the Congress Party, the Constitution of India in 1950, adopted special provisions for the uplift of the weakest in the caste hierarchy. Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution included a list of scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) for whom special benefits were to be given to uplift them from their continued backwardness in society because of the caste structure. Those castes which were considered to be at the bottom end of the social order in the country were identified state by state for special benefits through reservations in educational institutions, employment, subsidised food, political representation in legislatures and the parliament. The special privileges were intended to help the backward castes/tribes to join the mainstream of national development. The lists of SCs and STs originally promulgated as part of the Constitution of India, have been modified, amended and supplemented from time to time, and a more recent updated series has been published in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment Act) 1976.

The Mandal Commission, which went into the question of reservations had also included many other castes, that were not covered in the list of SCs and STs, in the category of other backward castes (OBCs) and recommended special privileges to them in order to lift them from their socio-economic backwardness. The OBCs were identified by the central government as common list and by each state as a special state list.

II Data and Method of Analysis

In this context, it is necessary to examine how far some of the castes, which have been receiving these special privileges over the past 50 years, have improved their conditions, and to study whether the differentials in economic conditions between the caste groups have narrowed down. The data collected in the 1931 Census were the last comprehensive body of information on the economic conditions of different castes in the country. Though information on caste was collected in the 1951 Census, it was not analysed for various reasons and the information on caste was not collected in the subsequent censuses. The classification of OBCs by the Mandal Commission in 1980 was based on the economic conditions of households in the 1931 Census. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has provided an opportunity to study the relationship between caste and economic condition. NFHS was conducted with the primary objective of providing reliable and comparable estimates of fertility, infant mortality, contraceptive use, reproductive health, family size desires, etc, for the states of India. In addition to questions on these topics, information was also collected on caste of the head of the household and economic conditions of the household, such as type of house, source of lighting, availability of protected water, toilet facility, modern objects owned, viz, watch, radio, bicycle and literacy levels of the members of the household. Thus this data set presents a unique opportunity to study the differentials in socio-economic indicators by caste.

For the present analysis, data from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, have been used; the number of households covered in the survey from the above states was 10,110; 4,748 and 4,287 respectively. The survey work in UP was carried out between October 1992 and February 1993, in Bihar during March-June 1993 and in Tamil Nadu between April and July 1992. The survey provided a unique opportunity to analyse the economic conditions and other demographic characteristics of the households by caste.

From the data compiled in the NFHS, we identified a group of castes in each of the three states which are considered to belong to (i) scheduled castes, (ii) other backward castes, and (iii) other castes. These are based on the list of SC/ST or OBC published either by the state or by the centre. Those castes, in each of the broad categories, which have at least 50 households in the sample were included in the analysis. The data for selected castes were analysed to estimate their literacy rates and economic conditions of the households. The following six factors were used to study the household-level economic conditions:

(1) Whether there is an adult literate person in the household: code 0 if none, 1 otherwise;

(2) Whether the house in which they are residing, is kutcha: code 0 if yes, 1 otherwise;

(3) Whether the house is electrified: code 0 if not electrified, 1 otherwise;

(4) Whether there is a toilet facility, owned or shared, for the household: code 0 if no such facility, 1 otherwise;

(5) Whether the household possesses irrigated land: code 0 if no, 1 otherwise; and

(6) Whether any household member possesses any of the following objects - a watch, a radio, or a bicycle: code 0 if none, 1 otherwise.

For each household in the selected caste group, data on six items were compiled from the NFHS from the households selected. A household economic score was computed on the basis of these six items in two steps: by scoring as 0 and 1 against each item and summing them up. Obviously, households with a score of zero are very poor and have practically no material possessions. For the purpose of this analysis, we considered the households with a score of 0 and 1 as ’most poor’, 2 and 3 as ’poor’ and 4, 5, 6 as ’not poor’. The economic conditions of households in the categories of SC, OBC and other castes were studied as defined above. The analysis was carried out separately for households from the rural areas and combined with urban households. The findings are presented below.

III Level of Poverty

Tables 1A, 1B, 1C present the percentage of households without a single literate adult member, resident in kutcha houses, without electricity, with no toilet facility, without irrigated land, and with no modern objects owned, studied separately by each variable. The findings for the three states can be summarised as follows.

Uttar Pradesh: For the state as a whole, 76 per cent of the households have no toilet facility, 66 per cent have no electricity in the households, 52 per cent are living in kutcha houses, 44 per cent have no irrigated land, 29 per cent with no adult literate member and 27 per cent have no modern objects, such as watch, bicycle or radio. These are miserable conditions indeed but they are far worse for the SC, slightly better for the OBC and relatively better for the forward castes. For example, in rural areas, among chamars (SCs), 99 per cent of the households have no toilet facility, compared to 90 per cent among brahmins; 89 per cent of chamar households have no electricity compared to 64 per cent among brahmins; 73 per cent live in kutcha houses compared to 47 per cent among brahmins. In other words, the conditions of chamars who have been recipients of many privileges such as free education, housing loans, priority in employment, etc, for over 50 years now do not seem to have improved by these privileges. The differentials between the chamars and the brahmins are still quite wide. Among kumhar castes, which is considered an OBC, the conditions of households are similar to chamars, 43 per cent were without any literate adult member, 70 per cent live in kutcha houses, 86 per cent were without electricity, 95 per cent were without toilet facility, 32 per cent without irrigated land, 29 per cent had no modern objects. Here also special privileges for the OBCs do not appear to have had any impact on their lifestyles so far, though they have had special benefits during the past 20 years.

Table 2A presents the distribution of households classified as ’most poor’, ’poor’ and ’not poor’ in terms of the scoring procedure defined earlier. According to the scoring criteria, about 18 per cent of the households can be categorised as most poor (with a score of 0 or 1 in the 0-6 scale) and as expected, the percentage is higher in the rural areas, 21 per cent. In the rural areas, the percentage in ’most poor’ category is 42 among pasis who are SCs, 22 among kumhars who belong to OBCs and 7 among brahmins (Figure 1). The disparity remains very high between the SCs, OBCs and the forward castes both in the rural areas as well as rural-urban combined population.

However, an interesting finding from these two tables is the existence of strong differentials among castes within the SC category. For example, the percentage of ’most poor’ in the rural areas is 42.1 among pasis, 33.2 among chamars, 32.6 among dhobis, who all belong to SC category. Similarly, among OBCs, there is a variation in the proportion of ’most poor’ from 33.3 to 17.1 among three caste groups considered. Thus, it appears that there are not only wide variations between the major caste groups but also between castes within the SCs, OBCs and even forward castes. Grouping of SCs into one category for the purposes of providing special benefits does not appear to be a reasonable and logical procedure when there are strong intercaste variations in economic conditions emerging within SCs, OBCs and forward castes.

Bihar: Bihar appears to be the poorest of the three states considered. In the whole state, 80 per cent of the households have no electricity, 79 per cent have no toilet facility, 67 per cent live in kutcha houses, 66 per cent have no irrigated land and 44 per cent have no modern objects, such as watch, bicycle or radio, 37 per cent of the households do not have a single adult literate member. The conditions in Bihar appear to be far worse than in Uttar Pradesh.

Differentials among the SCs, OBCs and the forward castes are quite striking as in the case of UP. For instance, in the rural areas, 99 per cent of the chamar households have no toilet facility compared to 73 per cent of rajputs and 75 per cent of brahmins. The differentials are more striking in terms of literacy: while 53 per cent of the chamar households in the rural areas have no adult literate member in the family, it was 40 per cent for yadavs, who belong to OBCs and 9 per cent among brahmins. Similar differentials exist with regard to each of the six items.

Table 2B provides the level of poverty in Bihar measured as ’most poor’, ’poor’ and ’not poor’ categories for different castes as defined earlier. In the state as a whole, 39.5 per cent of the households belong to ’most poor’ category, and as expected their percentage was higher in the rural areas at 47.1 per cent. The castes belonging to the SC category have significantly higher proportion in the ’most poor’ category compared to the castes in OBC category, which, in turn, is higher than the proportions for the forward caste category. For example, the percentage in the ’most poor’ category in the rural areas was 67.2 per cent among chamars (SC), 50 among kumhars (OBC) and 7.1 among kayasthas who belong to forward caste category (Figure 2).

As was observed in the case of UP, even within the category of SCs, there is a substantial degree of variation in the proportion considered ’most poor’ among different castes. For example, while this percentage is 67.2 among chamars, it is 50 among dhobis. The distribution of the three categories, ’most poor’, ’poor’ and ’not poor’, varied among the castes within each category of SC, OBC and others. Among OBCs, the percentage in the ’most poor’ category was 50 among kumhars compared to 37.5 among teli. Even in the forward category in the rural areas, the percentage of ’most poor’ was 15.1 among rajputs compared to 7.1 among kayasthas.

Tamil Nadu: In the state as a whole, 82 per cent of the households have no irrigated land, 71 per cent have no toilet facility, 36 per cent have no electricity, 37 per cent live in kutcha houses, 34 per cent have no modern objects (watch, bicycle or radio) and 21 per cent of households have no adult literate member. As expected, conditions are worse in the rural areas. Tamil Nadu has a long history of social welfare and development programmes aimed at abolition of differentials by castes. Such programmes go back to 1920s, more than two decades before independence. However, data from Tables 1C, 2C reveal that there still exist sizeable economic differentials between castes. This is a major surprising finding from the study. For example, in rural areas, among parahias, 97 per cent of the households have no toilet facility compared to 25 per cent among brahmins; 58 per cent live in kutcha houses compared to 10 per cent among brahmins; 62 per cent of the households have no modern objects (watch, bicycle or radio) compared to 5 per cent among brahmins, and 42 per cent of the households have no single adult literate member compared to only 5 per cent among brahmins. These large differentials in economic conditions between the parahias and the brahmins, in spite of more than 75 years of efforts of different political parties and bureaucracy to bridge this gap, are surprising and disappointing. The policies aimed at narrowing intercaste differentials in the state do not seem to have yielded the desired results.

Table 2C provides the level of poverty in Tamil Nadu among different caste groups. There are strong differentials in the proportion considered ’most poor’ between the SCs, OBCs and the forward castes. Surprisingly, the differentials appear to be larger in Tamil Nadu than in UP and Bihar which did not have similar long-standing programmes to reduce economic differentials among caste groups. For example, in the rural areas, 47.4 per cent of the pariahs are in the ’most poor’ category compared to 0 per cent among brahmins and 4.2 per cent among pillais, both of which belong to forward caste category. An interesting finding is that even among the various castes within the SC category, there are very wide differentials. For example, while 47.5 per cent of pallas in rural areas (SC category) are found to be ’most poor’, only 24.3 per cent of kallans (also SC category) are in the most poor category (Figure 3). Similarly, there are significant differentials among the different castes within OBCs and within the forward castes category.

IV Caste and Poverty

There still exist sizeable differentials in the economic conditions of households categorised in terms of their social backwardness as SCs and OBCs and forward castes. These differentials are observed in all the three states considered in the study - UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

Among these three states, Tamil Nadu has a long history of Dravidian movements to abolish the caste differentials encouraging intercaste marriage, anti-brahminism and providing assistance to SCs and OBCs. However, the assistance has not narrowed the differentials in the economic conditions between the caste groups in the state.

There exist wide differentials in the proportions of ’most poor’ and ’poor’ households between different castes within each category, SC, OBC and forward castes considered separately.

The time has come to reconsider the continuation of the special privileges in terms of, admission to schools, employment, targeted food subsidy, etc, on the basis of caste criterion alone. It seems more appropriate to target these benefits and incentives on the basis of criteria of poverty. For example, the households which are considered ’most poor’ in our classification system, with score of 0 or 1 in a 0-6 scale taking into account conditions of literacy, type of house, source of energy used in the house, toilet facility, possession of land, and modern objects deserve to be given special attention in order to pull them out of abject poverty. This seems to be a valid and useful approach to share the benefits of development directly with the poor. Combining up of caste considerations with economic criteria for targeting the poor, does not seem to have worked during the past five decades in terms of tangible improvements in the economic conditions of the various caste groups.

In the present context of liberalisation of the economy and provision of social welfare benefits to the poor under the common minimum programme, it is necessary to identify the most poor groups in the country especially in the rural areas and offer special benefits to them to bring them out of their state of abject poverty. This should be done irrespective of caste considerations such as SC, OBC and forward caste. Reports from earlier studies have revealed that the benefits given to a particular caste group may be totally absorbed by a ’creamy layer’ and may not filter down to all the needy people within the caste.

Admittedly, the data used in this study were not compiled for the type of analysis presented above, but our findings highlight the point that economic criteria should form the basis of any welfare programmes including poverty alleviation programmes. The benefits of such programmes may not reach very needy people if they are targeted on the basis of caste considerations.

The generalisation is based on a limited number of households and selected castes in the sample. We have used the data to study mainly the differentials between different subcastes in the major caste category and between major castes groups. There is a need for conducting special studies on the interrelationship between caste and economic status.


Tables and Figures are available in print copy.

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