In many villages of Karnataka’s Ranebennur taluk, members of the Madiga community are not allowed to get their hair cut at the local barber’s shop, to worship at temples or to drink tea from cups reserved for caste Hindus. For Madiga is a name for more than 50 Dalit sub-castes in Karnataka who have been treated as untouchable for centuries. A recent survey by the Swabhimani Dalit Shakti, or the Self-Respect Dalit Movement, entitled A Study on Social Justice System in Ranebennur Taluk, describes how the area remains in the vicious grip of caste. It also shows how economic backwardness flows from age-old social discriminations. Ranebennur taluk is not an exception in India.

The study finds that Madigas are coerced into caste-based labour; clearing carcasses or cleaning the homes of caste Hindus, often for free. Nearly 66% live below the poverty line, 42% do not own any land and only 0.58% own land measuring above five acres. Access to government schemes, piped water and roads is also dismal. Only 0.26% of Rannebenur’s Madiga population are pursuing post graduate degrees and hardly anyone is a graduate.

This is not the first study which finds that poverty is determined by caste. In a paper published in 2007, Sukhadeo Thorat outlined a system where discrimination and exclusion worked to keep Scheduled Castes poor. They were barred from certain jobs or from acquiring assets such as land. They also had to negotiate differences between the prices charged or received and market prices – lower wages for labour, higher rents to pay, higher fees for services such as water and electricity.

Among other consequences, these discriminations meant they were heavily dependent on manual wage labour, the study found. In 2001, 61.4% of Scheduled Caste households in rural areas and 26% in urban areas depended on wage labour. For other households, the figures were 25.5% and 7.45% respectively.

Compare these conditions to the criteria proposed by the government for the 10% quota in jobs and seats for economically weaker sections: it would be open to families with an annual income below Rs 8 lakh, owning agricultural land that measured less than five acres in rural areas or houses smaller than 1,000 square feet, located in 109 yard plots in notified municipality areas and 209 yards in non-notified municipality areas. Going by these criteria, almost all of Ranebennur’s Madiga population would be eligible for the quota. But it is only reserved for those not already covered by quotas for socially backward groups: upper castes, in other words.

Recently, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh defended the upper caste quota, arguing that it was in tune with BR Ambedkar’s vision of an egalitarian society. Yet it is blind to the most glaring inequality in India: sections of the upper castes may indeed be poor but for centuries poverty has been fate for almost all socially backward groups in India.