Scheduled Castes among worst sufferers of India’s job problem
Social discrimination and socioeconomic realities add to disadvantages faced by Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the labour market.
Although we do not have employment trends from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) after 2011-12, anecdotal evidence suggests that India’s job challenge might have worsened in this period. The slow pace of job creation inflicts greater suffering on the workforce in an economy. This suffering however is not the same for all workers. Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are at the bottom of the social ladder in India, are among the worst sufferers. Entrenched social discrimination and existing socio-economic realities add to the disadvantages faced by SCs in the labour market.
SCs have the lowest land — the most important productive asset — ownership in India. This makes them more dependent on wage labour.
Statistics prove this point.
According to the 2011-12 NSSO statistics, the share of wage labourers among SCs was 63%. This is significantly higher than the values for other social groups. These figures were 44% for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), 42% for upper castes and 46% for the rest. Even among wage labourers, SCs have a much greater share of casual wage workers, which signifies higher job insecurity and poor earnings. The share of casual wage labour was 47 percent for SCs compared with one third for OBC/higher caste /rest, and all India average. In fact, of the total casual labourers in the country, about 32 percent are SC, which is double their population share of 16 percent.
The disadvantage faced by SCs extends beyond their disproportionate dependence on wage work. Because, SCs face caste-based discrimination in hiring, they also have a greater unemployment rate than the rest of the population. According to the latest NSSO statistics, the unemployment rate among SCs was 1.7 percentage points higher than the all-India average. SCs have had the highest unemployment rate in India since the 1990s
Higher unemployment among SCs can be seen for young workers and workers with similar levels of education. This underlines the fact that it is a systemic problem.
Why is unemployment rate higher among SCs when compared with OBCs and higher castes? Economic research points towards the discrimination of SC workers in hiring in the private sector. Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar has argued in Annihilation of caste(1936) that the restriction on SCs to take the occupation of high castes will reduce their chances of employment. The SCs who are denied access to occupation of higher castes suffer from the (non -voluntary) unemployment due to restriction in hiring. The high caste on the other hand would avoid working in occupation other than that their own, and would face unemployment voluntarily. However, the magnitude of non -voluntary unemployment for SCs is likely to be much greater than voluntary unemployment of higher castes. The data on employment brings out this feature of Indian labour market.
The 2011-12 NSSO survey shows that SCs are employed for lesser number of days compared with upper castes. A joint paper published this year in the Journal for Social Inclusion Studies has decomposed the difference in employment rate between SCs and upper castes, attributable to differences in human capital endowment (such as education and skill) and those attributable to discrimination in the labour market for the year 2011-12. While endowment differences accounted for around one-third of the employment rate, two-thirds of it were due to discrimination against SCs in the hiring process.
A primary survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies gives us some insights into the nature of caste-based discrimination in employment. The survey was carried out among 1992 households in 80 villages across the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in 2013. A study of 441 farm wage labourers, indicates that about 41 per cent were denied work by the high castes due to caste prejudice. Of these, about 76 percent in grain harvesting, 20 percent in vegetable cultivation and 12 percent in drying of grains and chilly and 11 percent in domestic work were denied jobs, due to ‘polluting status’ of the untouchables.
About 71 percent of SC farm wage worker reported a loss of an average of 43 work days due to discrimination in hiring. Similar discrimination is faced by the SC non-farm wage labourers. Of the total 389 non-farm wage worker, about 52 per cent reported denial of work due to caste background. The caste restrictions are mostly in domestic work such as cooking at high caste homes, serving food in restaurants, work in construction of temples and cultural and religious ceremonies. The average annual loss of employment in number of days in the survey year was about 28 .
The regular SC salaried workers in the rural private sector also face discrimination in hiring. Of the 314 regular salaried workers, about 18 percent SCs reported discrimination in selection. About 22 percent reported high caste employers giving preference to persons of their own caste in employment and about 23 percent said high caste persons being selected with less qualification. The studies on the urban labour market also observed discrimination in hiring.
A study by Thorat and Attewell in 2010 observed that for equally qualified SC and upper caste (about 4800 each) applicants, SCs had 67 percent less chance of receiving calls for an interview. What is more disturbing is that the high percentage of less qualified high castes (undergraduate) received calls compared with the more qualified SCs (post-graduates). There are other studies by economists such as Ashwani Deshpande that observed discrimination being faced by SCs in hiring in urban areas.
The discrimination against SCs in hiring results in high unemployment, low income and high poverty. For instance, in 2011-12 , about one third of the SCs were poor compared with 20 percent OBCs and 9 percent upper castes.
The discrimination in employment not only results in high poverty among SCs, but it also hampers economic growth in private economy. Standard economic theory tells us that for optimum growth, the perfect mobility of labour and capital is necessary. Discrimination on the basis of castes, leads to an imperfect and segmented labour market. This reduces overall productivity. This calls for affirmative action policies for securing non-discriminatory access to SCs in hiring. Affirmative action for SC labour would assume the form of reservation in jobs or similar policies. An affirmative action policy is also necessary to remove restrictions on labour and capital mobility to promote competition and optimum economic growth.
(The author is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University)
This is the final part in a five-part series on India’s employment challenge. The fourth part examined why clubbing employment and work in India is misleading.