India has seen little change in the rate of upward mobility since Independence. That is among the sobering conclusions of a study released last week by a group of researchers in the United States about upward mobility in India. Upward mobility defines the process of people moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

Indians born in the 1980s have only about as much chance of outstripping their parents in socioeconomic rank as those born in the 1950s, says the study by researchers Paul Novosad of Dartmouth College, Charlie Rafkin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Sam Asher of the World Bank. However, this does not hold for Muslims born in the 1970s and 1980s: for them upward mobility has actually dropped.

Dalits and Adivasis, in contrast, have seen some improvement. The upper castes and the Other Backward Classes – grouped together in the study – are in more or less the same situation as they were in the 1950s. Still, they are significantly ahead of all the other groups. Segmented geographically, South India offers better chances of upward mobility than the Hindi-speaking region.

Low upward mobility, of course, does not mean India has failed to improve, in absolute terms, the socioeconomic conditions of everyone, even Muslims.

For Muslims, upward mobility has fallen substantially

This chart measures where children would rank if their fathers were in the bottom half of the population educationally. Dalits born in the 1950s to fathers in the bottom half would fall in the 30th-34th percentile – that is, they would do better than 30%-34% of the population. Dalits born in the 1980s would be in the 38th percentile. This has reduced the upward mobility gap between Dalits on one hand and the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes on the other by half.

Upward mobility has also risen for Adivasis but not as substantially as for Dalits.

Muslims born in the 1950s and the 1960s had more upward mobility than those born thereafter. However, it falls considerably after that. As a consequence, in today’s India, Muslims are the least upwardly mobile group. This, however, only holds where Muslims are in a minority. Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has the fourth highest level of upward mobility of all states.

North India does badly in upward mobility

Upward mobility is high in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. States in the Hindi heartland and the North East have low upward mobility with Bihar’s case being particularly egregious. Gujarat, the study found, is “a state with very high economic growth but relatively low mobility”, backing up commentators who have pointed out that the economic performance of Gujarat has done relatively little for Gujaratis.

Liberalisation has not improved upward mobility

The liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s boosted economic growth but has done little to improve the upward mobility of Indians. People born in the 1980s would have been in primary school when liberatisation began and, thus, poised to take advantage of the opportunities it promised. But that generation has seen little change in upward mobility.

This does mean there has been no development

The charts above measure ranks and are thus zero-sum but, in absolute terms, every group has increased its educational outcomes substantially as the charts below show.

Just to be clear...

While Muslims are the least upwardly mobile group, they are not the worst in terms of living standards. As per data from the National Sample Survey, Muslims are above Dalits and Adivasis in metrics such as wages, consumption and income.

Moreover, since the upward mobility survey is based on data from the India Human Development Survey, 2011-’12, it does not reflect on the Narendra Modi government.