Book review- Dalit Advasis and Liberalization

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Dalit, Adivasis And Liberalization

The book under review is 'Homo Heirarchicus and Liberalisation' - a remarkable compendium of empirical research and painstaking analysis of India’s post-liberalised matrix of social stratification and political economy. It comes as a sequel to Barbara Harris White’s earlier work India Working, and “makes amends,” by the author’s own admission, of her previous thesis on Dalit corporatism. The present work investigates the impact of liberalisation on India’s Dalits and Adivasis in order to find out whether laissez-faire has socio-economically empowered these subaltern classes. The outcome of such explorations reveals that the ideology of the market “has done little to break down India’s caste based social order, and in some ways even reinforces it” (p 7), as it is manipulated by the upper class to serve their own interests. Drawing on data provided by governmental agencies, the book looks into questions of inclusive growth and citizenship vis-à-vis Dalits and Adivasis. It reiterates that even after six decades of independence, a quarter of India’s population is still victim to poverty and social discrimination on the basis of caste, which continues to constitute the structure of Indian society.

The recent controversy over Arundhati Roy’s book-length introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste brings to the fore the issue of caste and class in Indian society, and shows how annihilation of the caste system still looks improbable. Ambedkar’s forebodings about the impossibility of social revolution in India because of its rigid caste stratifications have proved to be absolutely true and appears more relevant today than ever. This book comes as a great eye-opener, and ably debunks the hegemonic narratives of India’s progress. It demonstrates how the paradigm of Homo Hierarchicus perfectly converges with the ethos of Homo Economicus or to rephrase it, how the market mandarins (read the upper castes), instead of abolishing caste hierarchy in the operation of the market in particular, and in Indian society in general, have actually bolstered it in multiple ways.

The claim of universal development as unleashed by global capital looks completely fallacious in the light of Harriss-White et al’s findings on caste and liberalisation in India. The market due to upper caste manipulation has not only failed to penetrate the stratified logic of Indian society, but has also worked in tandem with the caste system in direct and/or indirect ways. These findings have tremendous ramifications for future policy framing, and for further social research. The book is a product of Three Essays Collective and appears in the form of three essays on the theme of liberalisation and the Dalits and Adivasis. The essays are densely packed with rigorous data analysis or case studies that substantiate the thesis of capital’s failure to abolish caste.

Identity Economics

The first segment of the book “explores how and why caste prejudices reign in the modern market place and how and why it is so difficult to eradicate” (p 10). While the book dwells on the status of both Dalits and Adivasis vis-à-vis the policy of liberalisation, the first essay is dedicated to the Dalit question, while taking up the issues of institutional economics which demonstrates how institutions such as caste and ethnicity affect the economy, a phenomena the book names “identity economics.” In this regard the book refers to the findings of Sukhdeo Thorat and team, of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, which show that Dalits are being incorporated in the new liberalised economic ensemble on adverse terms — as agricultural labour, sanitation workers, carcass cleaners, etc. Consequently, Dalits continue to face oppression and discrimination in transactions of land, labour, capital, credit, inputs and so on, and are “conspicuous by their relative paucity in the corporate sector” (p 10).

The authors investigate caste conditions in the post-1990s liberalisation phase and find that though elements of the caste system were found to have been rearranged to suit market exchange, its discriminatory principles remained intact. In fact, caste networks have been found “to bind the state’s authority and to restrict the state’s developmental activity in ways that work to the competitive advantage of middle and UC [upper caste] men” (p 10).

The 2002 Bhopal Declaration of the Dalit movement asked for state support for Dalits to explore Dalit capital, but the state failed to deliver in effective ways to generate opportunities and a level playing field in the emerging market for Dalits. Empirical data available in 2006 shows that business activities were dominated by caste and caste-related occupations. Business activities done by 30% of Dalits were in occupations historically associated with Dalits (sanitary ware, clothes washing, leather, barbering, etc) and a further 40% of firms were in lines of accumulation “historically practiced by a wide range of castes (wood, grocery, mines…)… only eleven percent had broken into former taboo activity (education, food, rice trading…” (p 12).

In other words, Dalits in the market system are mainly working as wage labourers and obstacles to entry to other better professions are still maintained in various ways. The gruelling roadblocks also operate in credit distribution:"two third of the firms [set up by Dalits] had experienced rejection by formal banks and financial agencies. This financial exclusion is explained first by the fact that [D]alits live in easily identifiable ghettos. The revelation of an address reveals caste; and it is their caste rather than creditworthiness … that determine their prospects for loans (p 13)."

This is a bleak picture so far as the economic emancipation of Dalits is concerned, and in the absence of financial help, Dalits often resort to informal credit obtained through social networks that are premised on caste hierarchy. Dalits are often forced to go for “forced partnerships” with the upper castes (UC) and in such understandings, the UC partners "contribute more than simply their capital — they also invest in their relations within the state. Thus the [D]alit partner is reduced to being a manager or even to quasi wage labour. These arrangements confine [D]alits to the lower end of the increasingly unequal assets distributions — and may even force their exit (p 14)."

Dalits, therefore, continue to be excluded from social networks and Dalit businesses are hard to find and even if there are some enterprises, those are small and continue to face hostility in renting premises and in obtaining sites outside Dalit localities. Given that, the book endorses the need of the Bhopal Declaration and the claims of the Bahujan Samaj Party for greater state intervention in ensuring a level playing field for Dalits.

The state must regulate the market as a generalised market economy requires some form of state-regulative infrastructure such as rights to private property, elimination of extra-economic coercion, enforcement of terms and conditions for wage laws, financial and banking systems, etc, and in all these fields, according to the book, the Indian state has so far failed to prevent the reproduction of existing social hierarchies. Studies show that in almost all cases, the state in India represented by its governmental machinery, such as police, tax departments, electricity board, etc — institutions which Dalits have to encounter for their businesses — are not governed by “a Weberian or secular impersonal rationality” but are pro-casteist in various ways.

For Dalits, the state is a set of departments which are “individual domains of patronage and competitive rent seeking.” This socially stratified and departmentally segmented state is impossible without costly intermediation through kin and sub-castes (p 15). The state therefore discriminates against Dalit capitalists and includes them on adverse terms and the relations of exclusions are routinely, passively reproduced at all levels.

Has the caste system undergone any changes under the impact of the market economy? In answer to this, the book observes,

"there is no denying that caste has changed in its social and economic roles. Those aspects which have been in conflict with the capitalist mode of production have withered; and caste has been secularised in a corporatist way...Organised social identity is expressed through a range of collective actions without which competition in the market is impossible. It is the elaboration of three kinds of duality in India’s political culture. The first duality involves positive discrimination and the search for backward status in the eyes and categories of the state, versus a social advance that requires Sanskritisation. The second involves capital’s wooing the state for concessions versus its repelling the state’s attempts to regulate. The third dualism is embodied in the contradiction between capital and labour, a relation of conflict that is regulated politically by corporatist caste trade associations (pp 16-17)." But in spite of such changes and because of such dualities, Dalits in business still do not have enough economic identity to organise collectively. Dalit organisers are not funded well enough to “create, cultivate and sustain relations with officials.” Here, the book engages with social theorists like Andre Beteille who believe that caste has stopped “reproducing inequality at the middle and top levels of Indian society,” but the fact remains that “caste is being selectively reworked” and caste endogamy remains intact and sits in harmony with modern capitalism and endogamy ensures that the resources and “social networks of family business are not available to [D]alits. Dalits are also forced to be endogamous and [D]alit endogamy constricts [D]alits to a servile role vis-à-vis UCs” (p 17). The book rightly concludes,

"So, pace Beteille, social institutions may be destroyed at the apex of the civil service but not in the marketplace. For [D]alits, the way the relations between civil society, state and market operate means that even ‘the state’ we have described here is more progressive for [D]alits than is ‘the market’ (p 18)."

And further,

"The caste construction of India’s capitalism suppresses competition by protecting market shares, selectively creating adverse prices, and thus profits, for dalit transaction …. Which nonetheless maintain unequal status (p 18)."

Although officially the Indian state takes an anti-casteist stance, in practice it remains vulnerable to forces that deny equal citizenship. Caste still operates as a “civil social institution of capitalist accumulation.” It functions as ideology, as “institutional structure and as a set of political-economic relationships which blur the distinction between economy and society” (p 19). In short, "caste is an instrument of hegemony. The experience of successful dalit businesses reveals incontrovertibly that India`s liberalised economy is far from depoliticised; it is far from being disembedded in politics (p 19)."

Reformulation of Caste

The second chapter examines, through a case study, the roles and contributions of the lower castes in this social and political space. The authors surveyed social regulation of the economy through a case study of Arni, a south Indian town, a place known for its industrial and business activities. The survey investigates how social “institutions co-evolve in order to sustain the process of accumulation,” and this institutional matrix or the “social structure of accumulation” decides the dynamics of economy (p 22).

Through the use of micro-level studies of business associations, this chapter identifies the social structure of accumulation in this small town of south India. It investigates “within the set of institutions underpinning capitalist accumulation, what is the role played by caste? How has caste sustained or sabotaged the dynamic process of capital transformation?” (p 22). What are the roles played by Dalits and lower castes in this process? In this context the authors bring in the Gramscian paradigm of hegemony and civil society to understand the transformation of Indian society under liberalisation. According to the authors “two aspects of Indian development — rapid social and economic change and an increasing social complexity — reinforce the relevance of a Gramscian approach to civil society” (p 22).

If modernisation has reworked the Indian caste system, then the question remains, what kind of political society is emerging through the transformation of the caste system? The survey shows that instead of dissolving caste, liberalisation has revealed a deeply segmented social structure in which caste is connected to networks of other various civil institutions that govern social and economic life.

The interplay between caste and the economy in this town may be differentiated, but it is consistent with corporatism. Caste plays a triple role, firstly it provides “an ideological backcloth for the corporatist project and then secondly it generates and is consistent with the formalization of the institutional structure on the back of which corporatist organizations have evolved” (p 40). And, as the authors make evident in this essay, it was the very inevitability of the caste regulation of the economy that contested the claims made by Indian sociologist Panini that with modernisation caste had shown signs of erosion and brought about a confluence between economy, ideology, culture, and politics. The small town societal corporatist regime of accumulation, analysed here, “accords with Gramsci’s concept of civil society (p 40).

The capitalist class exerts its hegemony through a strong ideology based on transformations to caste. Due to the reinforcement of caste, patriarchy, and the rhetoric of town unity, economic interests and ideology overlap in the manner Gramsci thought to be the essence of civil society. The institutional framework of civil society is the outcome of its social contradictions and conflicts, and the ideological framework generates consent for the hegemonic project of the local capitalist class (p 41).

Cartography of Discrimination

The third chapter of the book grapples with the question of socio-economic discrimination and examines whether unevenness of economic opportunities would be annihilated through liberalisation. Significantly, the book investigates the trends and trajectories of inclusion of Dalits and Adivasis in the business economic machinery of India not as labour, but as farm owners. Half of the book after the end of this penultimate chapter contains more than hundred pages of colourful atlas that maps the uneven statistical patterns of incorporation of these subjugated sections of the population in business and developmental activities such as enterprise, education, consumption, demographic density, employment, etc, in different districts and states of India from 1990 to 2005. These cartographic profiles of social and economic discrimination provide a reality check for policy framing. Citing Gopal Guru, the renowned social scientist, the authors note that Dalit capital takes a clientist form and the spectacle of success of a few Dalits hides the plight of the majority. The UCs are still discriminatorily predisposed towards Dalits and the book mentions Bikhu Parekh’s observation that the victim-tormentor behaviour characterises the upper-caste-lower-caste relation in India till today.

The reaction of the Indian state has been ambivalent. Initially its policies of positive discrimination and affirmative action were really helpful for Dalits and Adivasis, but then the Indian state has proved to be “Janus faced.” It has failed to de-stigmatise Dalit identity and Adivasi otherness and this has been so because the state policy of social incorporation has accommodated Dalits only in sectors that cater to lowly works. Hence, the book rightly observes,

"the state is a set of departments and each walled-off department is experienced as individual domains of patronage and of competitive seeking in which dalits must engage in time consuming relationships of multiple clientage (p 46)."

According to the Chair of the Tamil Nadu Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/Scheduled Tribes (STs), “the caste system is an economic order” and the veracity of such an observation can be easily ascertained in the light of what the book finds through its case studies. Referring to Sukhdeo Thorat and his research, the book finds the regulative social structure of caste operating in two ways in India, namely, unfavourable exclusion and unfavourable inclusion. Under the former system, although officially the caste system does not have a palpable existence, but discriminations and persecution of Dalits and Adivasis continue. Citing econometric analysis, the authors conclude that:

"for SCs the poverty effects of this exclusion operates through social constraints on mobility and the diversification of opportunities in the labour market while the relative poverty of the STs is reproduced through locational remoteness and disadvantage as well (p 48)".

Unfavourable inclusion of Dalits and Adivasis is executed through caste-specific, covert discriminations, and behavioural variations on day-to-day activities as well as on business exchanges. “Despite the achievements of reservations, in the rural economy as well as in towns, India has an appalling record of recruitment to the organised sector and of under-representation in the informal economy” (p48).

In the concluding chapter, there are more than hundred pages of excellent cartographic analysis of data. The findings show that the proportion of SCs to total population is the greatest in the north and south-east, and lowest in the far west, some parts across the centre, in the north–east, and Kerala in the south of India. The growth rates of the SCs are the fastest where “they are least densely distributed” (p 50). As evident from the statistical atlas, SCs are consistently prevented from entering domains like transport, food, hospitality, finance, trade, and service sectors — the service sector, we all know, has been crucial in driving India’s growth story.

The study finds the growth rates of the STs are fastest in south and central India, although the authors maintain that in a crude form of generalisation it can safely be said that forestry still remains the dominant occupation among STs in the western part of India, where their numbers are the highest (20 million in Maharashtra alone). While some data do corroborate the fact that the share of general caste (GC) ownership of firms in urban areas has declined in the first decade of liberalisation, it hides another important fact "that GC ownership has become more concentrated in larger farms employing more than 6 workers. Thus while the proportion of GCs among business owners has declined, (seemingly making way for SC business owners). GC employers of labour are now more concentrated in the largest sizes of farms. The main inroad made by the SCs into the structure of India`s business economy is limited to small farms employing fewer than six workers (p 55)."

This is a clear indication of sectoral unevenness and discriminations against Dalits and Adivasis so far as India’s business economy is concerned. The atlas enables us “to comment on both the time trends and the spatiality of economic and social incorporation and exclusion, and on their implications for the uneven regional effort” that would be needed for the Government of India’s socially inclusive development (p 56). The authors admit at the end that though their “attempts to explain the spatial phenomena [they] have discovered have generated more questions than they have answered” (p 65).

The book ends by offering six areas of future research, firstly, investigations can be made on the processes and roadblocks that confront the subjugated sections in owning farms and other business enterprises in a upper-caste dominated sector. Further research may try to discover the knowhow to equip the Dalits and Adivasis to participate in the differentiated capitalist economy, more focus can be given on the role of education in this regard. Attention is drawn to examining the individual-level challenges confronted by the Dalit entrepreneur while defying the social hierarchy. Regional variations of incorporations of Dalits and gender discriminations within the caste system also call for serious analysis. As the Dalits and Adivasis are mostly involved in informal sectors which are beyond the reach of banks and state-sponsored developmental agencies, governmental plans for inclusive development must also keep that into consideration in future policy formulations. The final statement of the book is worth quoting:

"Given the absence of any beckoning alternative to India’s capitalist economy, a new movement of research on contemporary history of regional and local processes and regimes of economic discrimination against — and of the economic incorporation, accumulation trajectories and achievements of — people still labeled and identified as dalits and adivasis, Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes, is only to be welcomed (p 68)." Courtesy Economic And Political Weekly

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