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The Economic Approach to Stop the Perpetuation of Caste Divisions

Not legislation, but market forces of supply and demand led to the disappearance of caste from city life.

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The Economic Approach to Stop the Perpetuation of Caste Divisions

Caste has unfortunately been a regular feature of public discourse since well before independence. Not a week passes during which we don’t hear about some caste related incident. The recent thrashing of four Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una, Gujarat, is just the latest example.

The so-called intellectuals in academia, namely sociologists and political scientists, would like us to believe that this is a political or cultural problem. This doesn’t cut much ice. Caste divisions and the resulting violence are, fundamentally, an economic problem.

One of the first things to be outlawed when India became a republic was untouchability. Yet, here we are, 66 years later, and caste is still prevalent in most of rural India. Despite legislation, untouchability is practised in villages. But surprisingly, casteism is absent in the cities. Children are blissfully unaware of what caste is. Most children, and even many adults in Mumbai or Delhi do not know their own caste, let alone that of other people.

Why Is It That Caste Divisions Withered Away in Urban India but Still Going Strong in Villages?


It is because people have greater economic freedom in cities as compared to villages. There are more job opportunities available, and there is fierce competition among employers to hire the most talented workers and maximise profit.

It is very costly to discriminate. If a business owner in Mumbai decides that he does not want to hire certain people because of their caste, his rival will hire them at a lower price and make a profit while the prejudiced business owner will make a loss.

Therefore, it is not legislation, but the market forces of supply and demand, coupled with the often vilified profit motive which led to an almost complete disappearance of caste from city life.

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Snapshot
  • Caste divisions and consequent violence are fundamentally economic problems.

  • Casteim is practiced in rural areas because India’s villages have little or no economic avenues.

  • Not legislation, but the market forces of supply and demand have led to near complete disappearance of caste from city life.

  • Lack of job options, economic disadvantage of Dalits and lack of decent schooling push Dalits to take to menial jobs.

  • Jobs give people a chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty and live a life of dignity.

Denial of Opportunity


In the National Policy for Farmers, the government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to regulate land use in villages. In particular, agricultural land cannot be used for non-agricultural purposes without government permission, which is almost impossible to get unless one is politically well connected. This prevents investing in the rural economy and creating jobs.

The typical village economy is therefore stagnated and largely agrarian. The lack of job options, combined with the economic disadvantage of Dalits, namely no land holdings and a lack of decent schooling, forces them into jobs that are looked down upon, such as being a safai karamchari or skinning cows. This in turn perpetuates the economic divide and the caste divisions that come with it.

The Solution

The government must deregulate land use in rural areas and let the market decide what the best use of land is. New industrial and commercial projects in villages will give the disadvantaged groups (Dalit or otherwise) the kind of job opportunities that are available in cities.

Will the jobs be very good and high paying? Not likely. But they will give people a chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, to live a life of dignity and to be treated as equal human beings instead of having to suffer the kind of sub-human treatment that is meted out to them today.

(The writer is an economist and the views expressed in this piece are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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