India’s capital of New Delhi faced a crisis over the weekend following the alarming shortage of water after a week of violent protests. The northern state of Haryana has seen a breakdown in public order and instances of rioting spread to all of its major townships as the Jat caste has stepped up its demands for re-classification within the country’s contentious caste system.
New Delhi’s more than 20 million residents faced water rationing as businesses, schools and government offices were closed. Thousands of troops were deployed across Haryana to quell the violence though they struggled to retain control. Local media widely reported that the soldiers were given orders “shoot on sight” at any violent protesters after rioters set fire to homes, at least seven railway stations, freight trains and buses whilst also blocking highways.
“This is an emotional issue: reservation is an emotional issue. Therefore, many people are involved. Expectations of people from a particular community is that they should get reservation[sic]”- Haryana Home Secretary PK Das, referring to government-established quotas for certain “castes”.
All equal, some more than others?
The Jats are a caste of traditional farmers who make up the single largest community in the state of Haryana with nearly 8 million members. They are the dominant land-owning caste and since independence, they have been able to use this power to influence politics and elements of the local economy. Whilst agriculture continues to employ more than two thirds of Indian workers, castes such as the Jats have struggled after years of drought and economic stagnation. As power shifts across the country towards those who can harness India’s industry potential, those in agriculture are increasingly being left behind as opportunities shift and populations weigh on a subsistence farming culture that can no longer sustain them.
The violence in Haryana state is just the latest amongst castes that are seeking to be reclassified by the government. Somewhat ironically, the Jats are just the latest group wanting to be downgraded within India’s pervasive caste-system. This would move them from their status as an otherwise privileged and dominant class down to the disadvantaged bracket. The protests echoed similar demonstrations by the well-off Patidar and Patel castes in August, which had also called for greater opportunities in civil administration and universities.
The key driver behind these calls for change is the desire to be eligible for government “quotas” that favour disadvantaged groups so that those within them may have a better opportunity to have a good government or private sector jobs, positions in universities, and even better access to medicine and primary education.
A class act
After its independence, India adopted mandates within its new constitution for “positive discrimination” during the 1950s. This system was aimed at eliminating the country’s deeply ingrained caste-system by helping those who had been traditionally neglected. Historically, people had been separated into ‘castes’ through a convoluted system that took into account peoples religious denomination, birth, and in some cases, their occupation. It was believed that the playing field must first be levelled for those who had been disadvantaged so that eventually all quotas could be abolished in their entirety.
Half a century on, India still has thousands of castes, all categorized into four different groups. Three of these four – namely the Scheduled Castes (SC), the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) are the beneficiaries of the country’s affirmative action programs that are more commonly referred to as “quotas”.
The SC were historically amongst the most repressed communities and shunned by the upper class as “untouchables”. For centuries, they constituted the lowest segment of the country’s caste-based hierarchy whilst ST were tribal communities living in remote forests with little contact to the outside world. Between them, under the current system, quotas grant them a 15 percent and 7.5 percent share respectively of government jobs and places in higher education.
During the 1990s, the quota system was expanded following a government committee’s recommendations, allotting the OBC a further 27 percent share of quotas.
“If not for positive discrimination measures, these opportunities wouldn’t be available at all for quite a few people…despite the system’s drawbacks, the caste-based affirmative action policy has proven to be quite potent in the case of India’s severely marginalized communities. ” – Gauri Khandekar an India expert and deputy director of the Brussels-based think tank Global Relations Forum
The broken system
In recent years, analysts have been highly critical of the government, which has emphasised expanding the scope of the caste-system rather than improving the standard of the country’s abysmal public education system. Experts believe the quota system could only be scrapped if there were were an enormous expansion of the education system coupled with a massive increase in employment opportunities for the poor.
Critics of the policy believe that quotas reinforce and perpetuate the caste-based system rather than working towards their dissolution. Sumit Ganguly, a professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington observed that in today’s India, a far better and fairer system would involve reservations and quotas based upon income and resources, rather than caste. Opponents also claim that the quotas only benefit a minority of privileged people among the lower castes rather than those who lack the ability and resources to compete with the well-off sections of society.
By contrast, supporters believe that the quotas have had a positive effect on the country – reducing inequalities and expanding jobs and educational opportunities to those who had been oppressed and marginalized for centuries as was the original intent.
India’s caste woes are just one of many pressing issues that are gutting the economy’s vitality. Great structural reforms are needed if the country is going to address its substantial challenges such as pollution, gender equality, and an exploding population even as falling commodity prices and a neglected industrial sector hurt the economy.
In spite of more than 20 years of economic stagnation, India’s agricultural sector still employs the majority of the population. Now, the economy is straining as sluggish growth and increased competition from abroad hurt exports. As the population continues to grow, those on farms are feeling the strain the most, as lands that were traditionally passed down are continually sub-divided between sons to the point of them being no longer economically viable (the average size of a field has shrunken by 60% in the last four decades).
Alarmingly, between 2004 and 2009, only 25 million jobs were created in the non-agricultural sectors. This is despite an estimated 17 million jobs a year being required to maintain full-employment amongst young people as the country becomes increasingly urbanized. In what has become dubbed as jobless growth, young people are finding it increasingly hard to get work.
Soon, it seems the caste system will be the least of India’s worries.
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