Caste is an elephant in the living room of Indian social development professionals. While caste has always been pivotal to the country’s electoral politics, it remains marginal to mainstream development thinking.

Globally, too, it is absent from the social characteristics of concern, such as gender, race or age in the Sustainable Development Goals, their emphasis on equality of opportunity and reducing inequality of outcomes notwithstanding.

The increasing inability of the Indian agrarian sector to sustain the tillers and landless labourers has intensified the exodus of the poor from the rural parts of India to urban centres. According to a survey conducted by the People’s Research on India’s Consumer Economy published in 2021, there has been a rise in the share of poor in cities.

In 2016, 90% of the poorest 20% lived in rural India but that number had dropped to 70% in 2021. On the other hand, the share of the poorest 20% in urban areas has gone up from around 10% to 30% now.

Unplanned, and therefore unprepared, cities receive people with education and skill sets that are inadequate for their survival in the new setting. The informal sector balloons at the bottom of the skill pyramid and so does the insecurity associated with it. Unemployment, malnutrition and food insecurity, lack of education and health facilities and crime and substance abuse begin to colour the urban.

That’s when most civil society organisations enter the stage, earnestly seeking to engage with, what appears in the final analysis as, urgent, and symptomatic.

Today, climate change is being recognised as one of the main reasons why the agrarian sector has been in an unstoppable decay of late. Globally, until 2000, climate change was largely seen as an environmental issue. But soon poorer countries and development non-governmental organisations grew concerned about the varying impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable communities.

The Up in Smoke coalition, which came together in 2003, sought to bridge the divide between environment and development non-governmental organisations. Unfortunately, this shift did not resonate visibly in Indian development discourse.

The data on how differently climate change is affecting tillers, who are mostly caste Hindus, and the landless labourers, who are mostly Dalits, remains scanty. Owing to the precarity of Dalits – residing in low-lying areas, suffering from poor health conditions, underemployment, abysmal social security – it is not difficult to imagine that they are affected the first and the most.

The distress dimensions of migration are invariably emphasised by highlighting the worsening situation of dryland agriculture created by drought or flood and crop failure, poor prices of agrarian products and low wages.

The share of the urban poor has increased in the past few years. Credit: Arun Sankar / AFP

The Agricultural Census of 2015-’16 reported that Dalits own only about 9% of the total agricultural land and 71% Dalits are landless labourers. Having little land to fall back on, in any event of distress, the only option for them is to move to a big city and be willing to squat in squalor and occupy the lowest-paying jobs.

As per the 2011 Census – the most recent data on Dalits in urban and slum areas are over a decade old – 28% of India’s urban Dalit population lives in slums. Wards with high populations of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes often lack access to amenities such as piped water and toilets across cities.

The lack of access to basic amenities cannot be due to poverty because there is enough evidence around the globe to suggest that residential segregation itself is a cause of poverty, impairing chances of education and employment for marginalised groups.

As per the 2011-’12 National Sample Survey Office statistics, the share of wage labourers among scheduled castes was 63%. Among wage labourers, too, scheduled castes have a much greater share of casual wage workers at 47%, which signifies higher job insecurity and poor earnings. In contrast, migrants from the “general” category, because of their historical advantages, are able to find better safety nets and higher-paying jobs in urban areas.

A study conducted by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in 2012 pointed that about 66% of “upper caste” female migrant workers were engaged in white-collar services, as compared to other caste groups with other backward castes at 36%, scheduled castes at 19% and scheduled tribes at 18%.

While this is the situation on the demand side, on the supply side we could have a far more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon if the civil society organisations collected data on drop-outs from skilling, employability, and job placements programmes along caste lines as well. There is a need to understand the cultural make-up of the participants in these programmes, and of the drop-outs, to make a sense of their alienation from the solutions that we offer.

Caste out of development

The National Commission on Population predicts that by 2036, about 38.6% of Indians, or 600 million, will live in urban areas. The United Nations, too, highlights that India’s urban population size will nearly double, from 461 to 877 million, between 2018 and 2050. Yet, there seems to be little preparation even by the civil society organisations as to how the millions who will arrive in the city will have a life with dignity.

One reason could be that development ideas and leadership have been increasingly feeling the pressure to move away from systemic and structural issues. Civil society organisations have clearly moved away from creating and supporting social movements since the onset of the neo-liberal world order three decades ago. Directly or indirectly, both, sarkar and bazaar seem to have nudged, or limited, Indian civil society organisations to service provision or addressing social issues merely at its symptom level. This has further worsened since the outbreak of the pandemic.

The recent years have seen unprecedented erosion of the public sphere, where the space for questioning the government and its policies has critically shrunk. The fear of inviting negative attention from the government has forced civil society actors to stay away from issues that are rendered “political”. The “social”, like caste, is extremely political in a society where social inequality functions as the source of power.

Civil society players need to open their eyes to the elephant in the room. Caste continues to impact a number of development outcomes. For instance, in education, the focus is usually on enrolment and learning outcomes, overlooking the fact that gains may vary significantly along caste lines.

A United Nations Children’s Fund study from 2019 suggests that for those from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, the transition from primary to secondary, and from lower to upper secondary levels are the hardest as they are not only under-prepared to tackle the challenges at the next level of their education but low aspiration and self-esteem and the pressure to earn early also put great stress on them to drop out. Drop-out rates between upper primary and secondary school are the highest for those from the scheduled tribes, followed by those from Scheduled Castes. The data on de-notified tribes remains scanty.

In education, caste affects learning outcomes. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

Caste often creates an existential dilemma for the mainstream civil society which then prefers to overlook its exclusionary structure and practices. To overcome that, one of the steps could be to look at the social profile of the civil society organisations’ board members and their senior leadership team and ensure representation of the marginalised in the decision making bodies.

There is no caste-based analysis of the civil society leadership available in India. The general observation is that the social development leadership is overwhelmingly non-scheduled caste and non-scheduled tribe. The same can be extended to funding organisations and corporate social responsibilities of Indian comopanies.

There have been instances of funding organisations insist that a civil society organisation, with a stated mission to work for the welfare of the marginalised, must have representation from these sections on their boards. At the same time, these funding organisations themselves have refused to carry out similar measures while constituting their own boards and leadership.

Caste cannot be treated as an archaic Indian cultural phenomenon erased by migration to cities. Civil society groups have turned away from the role of mobilising people to challenge established power relationships, such as caste, that reproduces inequality.

One way to correct the script would be to improve national data. Bringing the overall caste data into the public domain could be a good start. There is an urgent need to look at the strategies, programmes and outcomes of civil society organisations with the lens of caste to “reach the furthest behind first”, and to do that, we must consider the continuation of caste system as a violation of human rights.

Arun Kumar is a researcher and social change professional based out of London. His Twitter handle is @ArunKumarMumbai. Diksha Shriyan is a researcher and social change professional in Mumbai. Her Twitter handle is @diksha_21.