Posted: Sat, Sep 4 2010. 1:00 AM IST Published on page 3

Reforms helped UP Dalits, says study

Pallavi Singh,

Economic liberalization since the 1990s has helped Dalits in Uttar
Pradesh (UP) overcome caste inequalities, according to a research
paper that argues against the view that reforms have exacerbated such

The study by Devesh Kapur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett and
Shyam Babu titled “Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in
the Market Reform Era”, and excerpted last week in the Economic and
Political Weekly, finds significant changes in patterns of
consumption, agriculture and occupation among Dalits since the 1990s,
reflective of a higher social status for the community.

The study, conducted in two blocks of UP—Bilaria Ganj in Azamgarh
district in eastern UP and Khurja in Bulandshahar district in western
UP—reflects two significant changes in economic activity: More and
more Dalits are working as sharecroppers on farm land rather than as
labourers, and fewer among them are handling animal corpses,
traditionally an occupation limited to the community.

“Dalits are now becoming sharecroppers because upper-caste landlords
won’t find labourers in the village. Earlier, all they would get to
till the land was a small share of the cereals,” said Prasad, a Dalit
writer and one of the co-authors of the report.

In three-quarters of the villages in the western block in 1990, only
Dalits disposed of dead animals belonging to non-Dalits. By 2007, the
study says, this was only true of 5% of villages. Around four-fifths
of the Dalit households in the two blocks surveyed had at least one
family member, and sometimes more, who was a migrant worker by 2007.
They would be working as tailors, masons and drivers or be running a
grocery or paan shop.

“Migration is key to this change. Economic growth has led to
opportunities in the urban informal sector, driving enhanced
migration, which has meant more money flow into rural Dalit
households,” said Prasad.

The percentage of houses with at least one sharecropper stood at 31%
in Bilaria Ganj and 11.4% in Khurja in 2007.

Among other things, important shifts in consumption and social
behaviour have also been noticed. Almost none of the respondents in
the study recalls using shampoos, toothpastes and oils in 1990, while
today, over half the people in both blocks surveyed report someone in
the household using each of the two.

“There was a time when Dalits only ate cereals and couldn’t afford
rice and pulses. They were seated separately in weddings and even
upper-caste men wouldn’t accept food in their homes. Caste for Dalits
has traditionally limited their choices in food, social and
occupational activities,” said Prasad.

The study also documents changes in ownership of basic goods such as
cellphones and television sets among Dalits as a means to assert their
social aspirations. “The market provides a space to Dalits to assert
themselves. For them, this rise in social status is more important
than the money they might be making,” said Prasad.

However, not everything has changed, said Surinder Jodhka, professor
of sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at
Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “This is something that has
happened but where do they go from here? Is everything open for them?
I would say: yes and no.”

In his paper titled “Dalits in Business: Self-employed Schedule Castes
in Northwest India”, Jodhka found that most Dalit entrepreneurs
ventured into basic businesses such as small shop-keeping, contracts
and dealerships, and skilled services, but hardly 1-2% entered more
capital-intensive enterprises such as hotels, factories and
educational institutions due to discrimination.


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