Viewing Caste Inequality Upside Down
Three south Indian states, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana have adopted a set of measures that are extraordinary by any yardstick. These provide preferential schemes for Brahmins, the jati (caste) unambiguously at the top of the caste hierarchy.
These measures are perverse for four reasons. One, they invert the logic and purpose of preferential policies by suggesting that the most revered and socially dominant group needs protection, instead of the most vulnerable, as has hitherto been the case in independent India. Second, by conferring extra advantages to a group already at the top of an entrenched social hierarchy, these measures violate the constitutional vision that sought to create a society in which caste-based disadvantages would be minimised, to be eventually eliminated. Three, by earmarking certain types of training exclusively for Brahmins (e.g., Vedic education, without going into the merit of this training), it reinforces the injustice of the caste system due to which the accident of birth becomes the arbiter of future life chances. Fourth, the three state governments have been issuing caste certificates to individual Brahmins who wish to avail of these policies. Thus, these measures paradoxically count (i.e., identify) a non-SC-ST caste group, at a time when there is a fierce opposition to counting caste through a national census. Such a census would throw light on the actual material status of individual castes, but it is vociferously opposed because of the belief that it would harden caste distinctions instead of obliterating them.
Identifying Brahmins violates the status quo just as much as a caste census would, since currently the only context under which caste appears in the official or public domain is that of reservation or preferential policies, i.e., groups such as SCs are identified as beneficiaries of schemes. For all other purposes, individual caste affiliation is not officially or legally recognised or counted, notwithstanding the ubiquitous presence of caste in the public sphere, via the marriage market or in electoral strategies and outcomes.
Has caste inequality been inverted upside down?
In our recent paper, we examine data from India Human Development Survey 2011-12 for united Andhra Pradesh at the time of survey (which later split into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), and Karnataka. We compare Brahmins with non-Brahmin upper caste Hindus, OBCs, SC-STs and upper caste Muslims in their respective states. Our results reveal that Brahmins in these three states are the top of a) various human capital measures; b) various standard of living indicators; and c) have better political and social networks, compared to all other social groups. Since these schemes focus on the EWS within the Brahmin communities, we also compare the poor within each of these communities (by using the more sensible official poverty line cut-off, which identifies the poor more accurately). Even within the poor, the caste hierarchy is clear and present, with the human capital and material outcomes of poor Brahmins being substantially better than those of poor from other social groups. Lest it be argued that these states are exceptional, we also show that the pattern of Brahmin outcomes exceeding those of other social groups by a large margin is not unique to these states. Our results show that this is a pan-Indian reality.
1. Human Capital
Figure 1 shows five indicators of human capital: (i) years of schooling; (ii) individuals with 12 or more years of schooling; (iii) literacy; (iv) fluency in English; (v) having some English ability for the five groups in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Figure 2 shows these same indicators for the entire country.
Source: Authors’ calculations for Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Source: Authors’ calculations for All India
We can see a clear ordering with Brahmins having the best human capital outcomes on all seven indicators, followed by the non-Brahmin UC-Hindus, OBCs, SC-ST and UC-Muslims. For instance, they have on average 9.5 years of schooling, 41 percent have finished 12 or more years of schooling and 87 percent are literate. The corresponding figures for SC-ST are 4.70 years, 13 percent, and 53 percent, respectively. Thus, compared to the SC-ST they have more than double the years of schooling, are three times more likely to have finished 12 years or more of schooling, and are 64 percent more likely to be literate. Even when comparing with the non-Brahmin UC Hindus, Brahmins have two more years of schooling, are 1.78 times more likely to have finished 12 years or more of schooling and are 18 percent more likely to be literate.
The human capital indicators show that Brahmins also report superior English abilities, a skill rewarded highly on the labour market; 22 and 63 percent report being fluent or having some English ability, the corresponding figures for non-Brahmin UC-Hindus, and SC-ST are 9 and 33 and 4 and 21 percent, respectively.
These differences in human capital are already visible among children aged 8-11 years old whose ability to read, as well as numerical skills were tested. The last two bars of Figure 1 consider the following two indicators for the children aged 8-11: (vi) if the child can read a paragraph or sentence; and (vii) if the child can divide or subtract. It shows that 64 percent of Brahmin kids aged 8-11 can read a paragraph or story and divide and subtract, respectively. The corresponding figures for non-Brahmin UC-Hindus is 53 and 64 percent, respectively, and for the SC-ST, 40 and 44 percent, respectively.
2. Standard of Living
Figure 3 compares the same five social groups in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka on six indicators of living standards. Five indicators, namely: (i) per capita household income measured in 10,000s of Rs. (In 2011-12 prices); (ii) per capita household consumption expenditure measured in 10,000s of Rs. (In 2011-12 prices); (iii) non-poor households; (iv) households with access to some toilet facility; (v) households who own or cultivate land. These are calculated at the household level accounting for age, gender, and state of residence of the household head. The last indicator (vi) holding a professional job considers the entire sample of individuals aged 18 or more and who report having an occupation. Figure 4 shows the comparison of the five social groups for these indicators for the entire country.
Source: Authors’ calculations for Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Source: Authors’ calculations for All India
We again observe that Brahmins have the best outcomes followed by the non-Brahmin Hindu UCs and the OBCs. The SC-ST and UC-Muslims are largely indistinguishable though the UC-Muslim households do better in terms of access to toilets and owning or cultivating land.
In terms of income per capita, the figures are Rs. 58,200, 24,700, 22,600, 19,400 and 21,200 for Brahmins, non-Brahmin UC Hindus, OBCs, SC-ST and Upper Caste Muslims, respectively. In other words, the per capita income of Brahmins is 2.35 to 3 times greater than the non-Brahmin UC Hindus and SC-ST, respectively.
30 percent of Brahmins hold a professional job, whereas the corresponding figures are 12, 8, 6 and 3 for non-Brahmin UC Hindus, OBCs, SC-ST and Upper Caste Muslims, respectively. Only 4 percent of Brahmin households are classified as poor, whereas the corresponding proportions are 8 and 10 percent for non-Brahmin UC Hindus and the OBCs, respectively, and 16 and 19 percent for the SC-ST and UC Muslims, respectively. In other words, the rate of poverty is 4 to 5 times higher among the SC-ST and UC Muslims compared to the Brahmins.
Finally, there are large differences in access to basic infrastructure, whereas 85 percent of Brahmin households have access to some form of toilet, the commensurate figures are 63, 58, 39 and 57 for non- Brahmin UC Hindus, OBCs, SC-ST and Upper Caste Muslims, respectively.
These figures indicate that contemporary caste inequality in a large range of socio-economic indicators has Brahmins at the top, both in the selected states, as well as in the entire country.
Are Poor Brahmins worse-off than the poor from other groups?
The eligibility criteria of these schemes are often as low as just belonging to the Brahmin community though certain income thresholds have been fixed depending on the scheme. Thus, one might wonder that though the share of poor among the Brahmins is 4 to 5 times lower than the SC-ST and the UC-Muslims, could it be the case that the poor among the Brahmins are especially disadvantaged?
When we limit the comparison to the poor from all five social groups in the states of Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, the results reflect the trends seen for the entire population. Poor Brahmins are again at the top followed by the non-Brahmin UC Hindus, OBCs, SC-ST and Upper Caste Muslims. For instance, Brahmins are 10, 14 and 21 percentage points more likely than non-Brahmin UC Hindus, SC-ST and UC Muslims to finish 12 or more years of schooling or have household per capita income that is greater by Rs 8,200 and Rs 5,400 as compared to the non-Brahmin UC Hindus and the SC-ST, respectively.
Figures 5 and 6 show stark patterns and even among the poor, these are in favor of the Brahmins followed by the non-Brahmin UC Hindus and the OBCs, whereas the SC-ST and Muslims are largely indistinguishable at the bottom of the pyramid. For instance, poor Brahmins have on an average 6.83 years of schooling, 17 percent have completed 12 or more years of schooling and 77 percent are literate.
Source: Authors’ calculations
Source: Authors’ calculations
When we compare these numbers to the numbers in Figure 2, we find that the educational attainment of poor Brahmins is greater than the attainment of all OBCs, SC-ST and UC-Muslims (poor and non-poor combined). Similarly, poor Brahmins are more likely to have access to a household toilet or hold a professional job as compared to the sample of both poor and non-poor SC-ST and UC-Muslims.
The evidence presented above shows that the Brahmins do significantly better than the four other social groups in terms of both the human capital they possess, as well as the material outcomes in terms of income, consumption, occupation, poverty, access to sanitation and land. Moreover, this is true not only for the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka but for the country as whole. Thus, the Brahmins cannot be considered a disadvantaged group in terms of any capabilities or on the material basis of life.
The reservation policy was designed to account for social disadvantages faced by groups and to counter discrimination stemming from the caste system and the associated rituals of untouchability. Our estimates show that 55 percent of Brahmins self-report that they adhere to the practice of some form of untouchability. Moreover, 22 percent of SC-ST households respond that some household members experienced untouchability in the last five years. Additional results in our paper show that Brahmin households are also likely to possess superior political and social networks both within and outside their caste/community. For instance, they are more likely to have acquaintance with doctors, teachers, elected politicians, officers, inspectors, other government employees and health workers both within and outside their community/caste. Thus, Brahmins not only self-profess following practices that discriminate against individuals from other social groups but are also seen to be better connected both socially and politically. In sum, the evidence suggests that there are neither social nor economic criteria that justify targeting benefits to Brahmins based on their group identity.
The thrust of all the Brahmin-specific welfare support schemes is financial assistance in a variety of ways to sections within the Brahmin community. Most schemes are laudable in their objective, but there is absolutely no justification to excluding non-Brahmins from their purview. Making special and exclusive schemes for Brahmins goes against the promise of equality in the constitution, which aims to create a society where the accident of birth would not determine future life chances of any individual. We have noted that affirmative action and preferential policies targeted towards SC-STs are subject to vicious opposition for many reasons, including the belief that these entrench caste consciousness, rather than weaken it. It is remarkable that none of the usual anti-reservation hysteria, decrying the death of merit or pandering to vote-banks or the politics of appeasement, has accompanied the announcement of these schemes. Even the mainstream media is strangely silent; there have been only 2-3 articles on these highly significant policy measures that have been around for at least five years.
Groups at the bottom of the social hierarchy are typically negatively stereotyped everywhere in the world. Debates on Black-White disparities in the US hinge on whether the disparities are caused by structural or systemic racism or by cultural or even genetic deficiencies within Black communities. India has witnessed similar debates, where SCs (Dalits) are mocked as undue beneficiaries of reservations, ridiculed as “sarkari damaad” (sons-in- law of the state, i.e., living off largesse without doing any work), and suffer the stigma of incompetence in addition to the ignominy of their “untouchable” status.
However, the stereotypes for Brahmins are the exact opposite, i.e., are extremely positive. Indeed, the Telangana Brahmin Samkshema Parishad’s description of Brahmins makes no bones about their belief and explicitly states that the community is superior, a description that can be read as a belief in innate or genetic superiority. Their homepage states “BRAHMIN stands for Broad and Brilliant in Thinking, Righteous and Religious in Livelihood, Adroit and Adventurous in Personality, Honesty and Humanity in Quality, Modesty and Morality in Character, Innovation and Industry in Performance and Nobility and Novelty in Approach (sic).
This description is dangerously close to the White Supremacy argument, which consists of “beliefs and ideas purporting natural superiority of the lighter-skinned, or “white,” human races over other racial groups”.
Is poverty a problem among Brahmins? Indeed, it is, but poverty does not afflict Brahmins exclusively. There are poor Brahmins, just as there are poor within every community. Our argument is that all poor individuals should be able to avail of universal programs that India has plenty of, such as rural employment guarantee or the public distribution system providing subsidized food grains. Are these universal programs sufficient in their reach and depth? The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the serious shortcomings of these programs and proved that these are woefully inadequate. Therefore, it is clear that India needs to strengthen its welfare support system, which will benefit the poor among all communities, including Brahmins. There is absolutely no justification for schemes exclusively targeted towards the Brahmins. As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues, these schemes are a “grotesque perversion of constitutional values.”
The measures implemented by the three states are the exact opposite of what needs to be done to weaken the stranglehold of caste. These are possibly motivated by political, electoral, or ideological considerations, and unlike preferential schemes for SC-STs that provide a modicum of social justice (albeit nowhere sufficient enough), these are quintessential appeasement policies that have no place in a modernizing India that aspires to be a global superpower or a “Vishwaguru” (teacher to the world).
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