The latest Economist has a feature article on business and caste in India. With reservations explores why India's government is threatening to make companies hire more low-caste workers. Here is an excerpt:
India's Congress-led government has told companies to hire more dalits and members of tribal communities. Together these groups represent around a quarter of India's population and half of its poor. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has given warning that “strong measures” will be taken if companies do not comply. Many interpret that to mean the government will impose caste-based hiring quotas.
Quotas already apply in education and government, where since 1950 22.5% of university places and government jobs have been “reserved” for dalits and tribal people. In addition, since 1993, 27% of government jobs have been reserved for members of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—castes only slightly higher up the Hindu hierarchy.
This is not enough for supporters of reservations. Since the introduction of liberal reforms in the early 1990s, public-sector hiring has slowed and businesses have boomed. Extending reservations to companies, they argue, would therefore safeguard an existing policy of promoting the Hindu wretched. It would almost certainly require changes to the constitution. But low-caste politicians are delighted by the prospect, so it could happen.
The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a dalit leader called Mayawati, has said 30% of company jobs should be reserved for dalits, members of the OBCs and high-caste and Muslim poor. Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit journalist, applauds this and argues that it would be in the interest of companies. “It is in the culture of dalits that they are least likely to change their employment because they are so loyal to their masters,” he says. It would also help them become a “new caste [sic] of consumers”.
But is there a problem?
Businessmen are unconvinced. Government, in both its intrusiveness and its incompetence, is a hindrance to them. Caste-based hiring quotas would be just another burden. People given a right to a job tend not to work very hard. So, in an effort to avert Mr Singh's threat, many companies and organisations that represent them are launching their own affirmative-action schemes.
The Confederation of Indian Industry has introduced a package of dalit-friendly measures, including scholarships for bright low-caste students. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry plans to support entrepreneurs in India's poorest districts. Naukri.com, India's biggest online recruitment service, with over 10m subscribers, anticipates that companies will soon actively seek low-caste recruits. It has therefore started asking job-seekers to register their caste.
...There is no strong evidence that companies discriminate against low-caste job applicants. Upper-class Indians, who tend also to be high-caste Hindus, can be disparaging about their low-caste compatriots. “Once a thicky, always a thicky,” is how a rich businessman describes Ms Mayawati. Yet this at least partly reflects the fact that low-caste Hindus tend also to be low class; and in India, as in many countries, class prejudice is profound.
There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that few able low-caste graduates are emerging from India's universities. Since it began registering the caste of its subscribers—almost by definition computer-literate and English-speaking—Naukri.com has added 38,000 young dalit and tribal job-seekers to its books. That represents 1% of the total who have registered in that time.
For reservationists, this confirms the need for quotas. Others interpret the facts differently: reservations don't seem to work. And statistics support this view. Reservations notwithstanding, low-caste Indians are getting less poor at almost the same rate as the general population. Between 1983 and 2004, their spending power increased by 26.7%, compared with 27.7% for the average Indian, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation, a government body.
And of course, there is rent-seeking:
Since reservations for the OBCs were introduced in the early 1990s the rise of political parties dedicated to these groups has been inexorable. So has the proliferation of the OBCs, to around 3,000 castes. They include millions who are not poor at all.
“A massive deliberate confusion” is how Surjit Bhalla, an economist at Oxus Investments, a hedge fund, characterises reservations for the OBCs. When they were awarded reservations, the OBCs were estimated to make up 53% of India's total population. More recent counting suggests they are only about one-third of the population, although their 27% reservation remains unchanged. Moreover, by most measures, the average OBC member is no poorer than the average Indian. “How can you discriminate against the average?” asks Mr Bhalla, despairingly.
And despair he may. Practically no politician dares speak out against this caste-based racket for fear of being labelled an apologist for the caste system. Rather like guests at the Hotel California, those that join the list never leave—even one or two castes that were allegedly included by mistake.