We need a better understanding of intra-caste inequalities
From the Marathas in Maharashtra to the Patidars and Jats in Gujarat and Haryana, caste-based agitations by what have been dominant caste groups have emerged as stark fault lines in India’s politics. Most of these agitations demand reservations, which don’t seem to make much sense in reality given that a Supreme Court order prohibits more than 50% reservations, and growth in public sector jobs — which is where reservations are valid — have been decelerating with a shrinking of the government’s role in the economy.
Such general arguments, however, are of little use in assuaging the concerns of protestors. What makes matters even more difficult is the fact that the Indian state has very little information about the current socio-economic status of various sub-castes in India. While surveys from sources such as National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) give statistics on consumption, employment and asset levels of broad caste groups — Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and others — there is no information at the intra-caste or jati level about these things. In fact, there is no official data on even the share of each of these jatis in the population. While the Socio Economic Census of 2011 promised to do this, its findings have still not been made public.
A recent World Bank research paper, which is based on a field survey of 9000 poor households in Bihar shows that intra-caste divisions can play a bigger role in creation of inequality than inter-caste factors. The survey, which was conducted in seven districts of Bihar in 2011, was originally intended to provide baseline estimates of poverty for an impact evaluation of a state-wise anti-poverty programme. Because of this mandate, the sample is biased towards poorer households. This caveat notwithstanding, its findings about monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE), land-ownership and educational attainments levels are extremely interesting. While average figures for the broad caste groups confirm to the received wisdom, with upper castes being most well off and STs being the worst off, intra-caste or jati based trends do not always conform to this broad hierarchy. What is even more interesting is that deviations on this count are more common in MPCE distribution than land and educational attainment. This is important because anti-poverty programmes are more likely to increase incomes rather than endowments (such as land ownership) among the poor.
The paper applies statistical techniques to arrive at the conclusion that contribution of intra-caste or jati based inequality to total inequality is more than four times the contribution of inter-caste inequality to overall inequality.
To be sure, it will be erroneous to generalise the empirical findings of the paper, given its limited coverage both in terms of geography and class. At the same time, these statistics also underline the need for better understanding of intra-caste dynamics in the policy battle against inequality and poverty in our country. The first prerequisite of making such policies better informed is to initiate a process of collecting the required information at the jati level across the country.
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