Please refer to the notes on the left column - We hope to convert this to Indians Together site. Mike _________________________________________________________________
Thursday, March 8, 2018
India’s excluded stay poor
No human should feel excluded, it is the most humiliating experience, it is taking advantage of the weak. The only reason Trump earned support from the 'excluded ones' was because he included them, even though he did not care for them. Mike Ghouse
Dalits and Adivasis are contributing to India’s economic boom, even though growth has worked against them. The Adivasi (meaning indigenous) are ‘tribal’ peoples, and number more than 100 million out of 1.2 billion Indians, 8.6% of the population. The 200 million Dalits (meaning oppressed, formerly ‘untouchables’) are 16.6% , and say they feel ‘broken’ by the harsh caste system.
These historically disadvantaged groups are designated as Scheduled Tribes and Castes, which allows them to benefit from quotas, reflecting their demographic weight, of public sector jobs and seats on the boards of educational institutions and in elected assemblies (1). This positive discrimination policy, written into the 1950 constitution, has given them some social mobility, though not in the private sector where higher castes dominate senior positions.
Dalits and Adivasis are still over-represented among India’s poor. The country’s record growth since economic liberalisation (6% from the mid-1980s, 8% since the mid-2000s) has not benefitted them: poverty among them has fallen by less than 1% since 2000, and 82% still live below the global poverty threshold of $2 a day. An index based on factors including income and access to electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation and education shows that 81.4% of Adivasis and 65.8 % of Dalits are classed as poor, compared with 33.3% of higher castes, and 55.4% across the population (12.6% in China) (2).
The forms of oppression combine to keep Adivasis and Dalits down, even if they have academic qualifications: 47.8% of those with secondary education or higher are still poor
The reasons lie in the deep-rooted discrimination in Indian society, and oppression that links caste, class, gender, ethnicity and regional origin. The rise of capitalism and modernisation strengthened rather than weakened inherited identities. Neoliberal reforms introduced in the 1980s, and expanded after the 1991 financial crisis, were intended to promote growth by opening up the economy to trade and attracting foreign capital. Indian and foreign investors took advantage of cheap and socially divided labour. More than 90% of Indian workers today are employed in the informal sector and have no social welfare; it is hard for them to organise to demand pay rises, or cooperate with those working in the formal sector, who are relatively better off.
Who gets the worst jobs?
Ethnicity, caste and gender still play a major role in employment. Dalits get the most strenuous jobs, or those considered most degrading, while the most precarious go to seasonal migrants from India’s poorest areas, where Adivasis have had their land appropriated by the government. Class differences among Dalits and Adivasis are increasingly marked. Elites (as yet very small) are emerging within these groups, notably because of the quota policy: only 18% of Dalits and Adivasis have a medium or high income (3), compared with 55% of other castes.
In Tamil Nadu, Dalit men from villages in the Cuddalore industrial corridor (4) have escaped subservience to big landowners from dominant castes to whom they were sometimes tied for life by debt. But their wives still work on the land, paid daily, and the men are not truly free: insufficiently qualified for the public sector, they work in low-level jobs in highly polluting factories where they handle dangerous substances. The Pioneer Jellice factory in Cuddalore (workforce 500) provides no protective equipment for workers using chemicals to clean beef bones to make gelatine. When these workers, 70% Dalit, went on strike in 2008, demanding better conditions, the management hired non-unionised Adivasi migrants in their place.
There’s a similar management strategy on tea plantations in Kerala, where Adivasi pickers from the poor eastern state of Jharkhand, considered more tractable and paid piecework, have gradually replaced Dalits, who had permanent jobs and were more combative. This super-exploitation shows how Indian capitalism uses social, ethnic and regional divides for profit.
In September 2016, 8,000 Dalits, mostly women working on tea plantations, went on a month-long strike over the severe deterioration of employment conditions. The sector was in crisis. Men who had worked in tea factories lost their jobs and moved to the big cities of neighbouring Tamil Nadu to find jobs in textiles, where they continue to face discrimination. Some decided to hide their identity by changing their family name, often an indicator of caste.
Property rights challenged
In regions where the Adivasi are a majority, their worsening poverty is largely due to ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Entrepreneurs and farmers from the dominant castes are appropriating for their own profit natural resources on which the Adivasi depend. This is especially true in the tribal territory of Bhadrachalam, in northwest Telangana state (5). Areas with a majority Adivasi population, theoretically protected by the constitution and classed as ‘scheduled areas’, are subject to legislation that bans other groups from buying land. In reality, Avidasi property rights are constantly challenged, by newly arrived farmers who occupy land illegally and grow cash crops such as tobacco and cotton, and also by the government, which acquires land for development and sells it to investors or uses it for major infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams.
In Bhadrachalam, in a protected zone in the fertile Godavari valley, there is a huge paper mill belonging to the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) conglomerate, one of South Asia’s biggest manufacturers of paper and packaging. Contrary to Indian government claims, made to justify industrialising tribal territories, fewer than 5% of the factory’s 1,575 permanent employees and only 8% of its 4,000 occasional workers, paid by the day, are Adivasi. Many Dalits work there because they don’t have property rights in tribal territories, while the Adivasi continue subsistence farming, to maintain their cultural and economic independence, on what land they still control.
As the Adivasi are deprived of land and water resources, especially through the pollution of the Godavari river by factory effluent, they join the proletariat. ITC, after having exhausted the bamboo from local forests, is investing in eucalyptus plantations. These have a disastrous impact on the environment, impoverishing the soil and exhausting the groundwater, and occupy land that belongs to Adivasis, who are evicted and reduced to selling their labour or migrating to the cities.
Similar processes are occurring in many Indian states. The share of agriculture in India’s GDP declined from 29% in 1990 to 17% in 2016, and rural areas are no longer the main source of capital accumulation for the dominant rural castes, which are diversifying through investment in trade and industry. This economic transformation has been accompanied by a change in methods of subordination and strategies for control, though the power relationships are largely unaffected. Where they have been affected, it has been by worker struggles.
Pressure on multinationals
The Adivasi’s fight against land grabbing is supported by Maoist guerrillas (6). They have already forced some multinationals to back down: South Korea’s Posco (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company), which had Indian government approval to build a facility on 800 hectares; Vedanta, a mining company based in London, which operated highly polluting bauxite mines; and the Indian steel giant Tata (7). But government repression has been harsh. In 2006 police in Kalinganagar, in Odisha (formerly Orissa), opened fire on a crowd demonstrating against the building of a new Tata steelworks, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens.
The Dalit movement has enabled its members to free themselves politically from the domination of higher castes by forming their own parties and organisations, though the Brahmins and other dominant castes still control India’s production infrastructure and state apparatus. Indian communist parties, led by members of higher castes, are reluctant to address the problem and prefer to see it as a class issue, in accordance with Marxist orthodoxy.
The Dalit movement has enabled its members to free themselves politically from the domination of higher castes by forming their own parties and organisations
But studies show that class exploitation is linked to caste oppression, with new methods of subjugation built onto and modifying old ones. Different forms of oppression combine to keep Adivasis and Dalits down, even if they have academic qualifications: 47.8% of those with secondary education or higher are still poor, and caste discrimination persists in universities, as shown by the 2016 suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit doctorate student at the University of Hyderabad.
The historical opposition between dominant castes and marginalised groups has grown stronger since the latter entered the market economy on unfavourable terms. Internal divisions, based on ethnic, regional and caste identities, have worsened, undermining their unity in the struggle for social justice. Overcoming these divides is a priority.
Dalel Benbabaali is an anthropologist and a co-author of Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First-Century India, Pluto, London, 2017.
(2) See Dalel Benbabaali, Alpa Shah, Jens Lerche, Richard Axelby, Brendan Donegan, Jayaseelan Raj and Vikramaditya Thakur, Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First-Century India, Pluto, London, 2017.