The Big Story: Caste away

There are few systems of social apartheid as degrading as caste. In fact, 70 years after India got independence, one in four Indians admit that they practice untouchability.

India has taken steps to combat caste discrimination. It has given Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backwards Classes reservations in public sector jobs and government-run education institutions. Yet, in 2017, this is not enough.

The last major change to India’s structure of reservations was carried out in 1990, when the Union government under Prime Minister VP Singh decided to widen the reservation ambit from only Dalits and Adivasis and reserve 27% jobs/seats for a range of backward castes.

A year later, however, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s government initiated economic reforms. India’s economy, till now centered around the public sector, saw the rapid growth of private enterprise. In 2006, for example, public sector jobs were twice that in the private sector. By 2012, that ratio has shrunk to 1.5 – and its still dropping.

India’s system of caste reservations in public sector jobs, therefore, is getting outdated fast. To deal with the changed scenario, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has demanded a 50% reservation quota in private sector jobs on the basis of caste.

This is not the first time private sector reservations are being discussed. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance had the measure as part of its Common Minimum Programme. Yet, the issue went nowhere, with powerful industry interests putting a lid on the debate.

This is not ideal. India’s private sector forms a crucial part of society and often benefits from public largess in the form of land, soft loans and subsidies. Given the pervasive role of caste in society, it is their responsibility to also put their shoulder to the wheel as well. Seventy years after independence, India’s development standards are abysmal with lower castes lagging behind significantly. India must, therefore have an urgent debate around how the private sector can help combat caste.

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