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Prakash Jha’s movie, Aarakshan, has brought the issue of reservation back into prime time talk shows. Livemint tells us that one shouldn’t expect much of the movie:

In a powerful opening scene, Deepak Kumar​ (Saif Ali Khan​) is seen being humiliated by a prejudiced interview panel and denied a job based on his lineage. In the next scene, he is describing the event to his mentor Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan​), principal of the college where he was a topper. This leads to another scene with Anand’s daughter Poorbi (Deepika Padukone​), who is Deepak’s girlfriend. They break into a song. You know then that the first scene was most likely an aberration rather than a sign of things to come. Writers Jha and Anjum Rajabali lose a grip on their material early on.

Behind Bollywood B-movies, there is a real story. Has reservation done any good to the people it targets? Interestingly, Foreign Policy magazine has an article on this issue:

Indians still overwhelmingly choose to marry within caste. Teachers given performance incentives based on student test scores spend less time trying to teach low caste students. Even low-caste teachers in India mark student tests lower when they know the students are low-caste, and Dalit students themselves perform worse on tests when reminded of their status beforehand. After they leave school, low-caste graduates with the same qualifications earn less money. And Dalits are disproportionately poor and in bad health.

The good news is that even cultures with 1,000-year roots can alter dramatically under the right circumstances. Research by development economists Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett, Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Shyam Babu suggests that discrimination against the low caste, while still potent, is considerably on the wane. A survey designed and led by members of the Dalit community in two areas of Uttar Pradesh found that attitudes and behaviors related to the low status of Dalits had been widely tempered or abandoned over the last 20 years. Dalit respondents report that since 1990, they are far more likely to sit next to high-caste guests at weddings rather than being seated separately, they are no longer expected to handle the dead animals of other castes, and non-Dalit midwives will attend births in Dalit households. They have moved in large numbers into nontraditional professions like tailoring and driving, and almost none still work as indentured servants for high-caste patrons, as was once common.

The changes are huge. In Bulandshahr district, less than 4 percent of Dalits said that non-Dalits would eat in their households in 1990, but nearly half said that they would today. In 1990, 73 percent of respondents suggested that only Dalits handled dead animals; that fraction in 2007 was one in 20. The proportion of the surveyed Dalit population that said most or all girls in the household went to school in 1990 was 7 percent. In 2007 it had climbed to 57 percent.

Economically, while Dalits are still worse off than other castes, they are considerably less so than they were in 1990. The proportion with a television in Bulandshahr climbed from seven in 1,000 to nearly one-half, and bicycle ownership leaped from around one-third to over four-fifths. Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that the transformation is far too dramatic to be accounted for by income changes alone — the shift is a cultural one, too. “This is not to suggest,” they caution, “that caste has disappeared as a social construct. It is very much alive.” Nonetheless, Dalits today are experiencing not just far greater prosperity, but also greater social acceptance.

The article is replete with links which bolster parts of the arguments and unbelievable facts (including the research on the time spent by teachers on correcting dalit and non-dalit student work). It is amazing to see that so much effort has been spent by sociologists and economists on studying this field. Unfortunately, the Indian media is long on opinion but woefully short on facts.

As a welcome change, here is an intriguing little snippet from BS:

Unfortunately, there exists no data on Dalit entrepreneurship. Surveys done by the government capture the assets owned by Dalit households, and there is some vague information on the number of self-employed Dalits. But there is absolutely nothing on entrepreneurs and businessmen. Now, the Centre for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) in the University of Pennsylvania has initiated a survey to count the Dalits who have a business of Rs 1 crore or more. So far, 500 or so have been profiled in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, the National Capital Region of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The survey next moves to the southern states. The number may look good but please remember there are 166 million Dalits in the country.

There is a little more on this topic, including pointers to more information, in Washington Post:

Ashok Khade heads a flourishing $32 million construction business in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. He employs 4,500 people, is building a dockyard for his company, drives a gray BMW and wants to buy a helicopter next year.

A first-generation entrepreneur, 56-year-old Khade’s success is remarkable because he is a member of India’s Dalit caste. … But more than six decades of education programs and affirmative-action policies, coupled with India’s recent economic expansion, have begun to break the occupational ceiling that the ancient caste system imposed on Dalits. There is now a robust Dalit middle class of doctors, engineers, lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians, and a growing number of business owners such as Khade.

There is a wealth of material on how reservations have helped those to whom this positive action was targeted. In that sense, at least, the policy has begun to succeed. How it should mutate in the future is, of course, a part of the political dialogue engulfing the country.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

August 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm

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