Features

Left behind

India | Millions of lower-caste Indians remain untouched by a booming economy

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Call America Online's technical support, and a customer will likely get a phone agent with a name like Steve, or CJ, or Shane. They are all American-sounding names, but the agents are all Indian. One named "Jason" acknowledged his real name was Jitu. He was at a Mumbai (formerly Bombay) call center, working the graveyard shift at around 3 a.m. The alias was for customer satisfaction surveys: "Americans don't remember our names," he explained.

For all the hard hours, Jitu's is the kind of job that is swelling India's middle class and growing the country's $17.2 billion outsourcing industry. Such jobs may offer about $200 a month and plush office buildings with pingpong tables, gyms, free food, and rides to and from work. The jobs are helping to make India's economy one of the fastest-growing in the world, expected to expand about 7 percent this year. But while globalization brings the good life to millions of Indians, millions more-pinned down by the Hindu caste system-are simply watching it zip by.

Broadly, Hindus are divided into four castes: the Brahmins, or priestly class, at the top; Kshatriyas, or warriors, second; Vaishyas, or merchants and artisans, third; and Shudras, or unskilled laborers, at the bottom. The most despised, the "untouchables," were too lowly even to register in the hierarchy, the original outcasts. Layered in between the four classes are thousands of sub-castes.

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Although India officially abolished the caste system at independence in 1949 and legally provided equal access to state jobs, schooling, and political representation for lower castes, distinctions and discrimination linger strongly in the culture. Now they are hindering the poorest from tapping into the opportunities propelling higher-caste Indians into 21st-century prosperity.

Now known as "Dalits," untouchables number about 250 million and still suffer bone-crushing poverty, beatings, rapes, and other abuses. They perform menial labor in fields such as hide-tanning and human sanitation, both considered polluting work in Hinduism, which emphasizes ritual purity. Add to them another 500 million low-caste Indians in mildly better conditions, and most of the nation's 1 billion population is trailing behind the well-equipped middle and upper classes.

"The poor have become poorer and the Dalits have become more impoverished," said Joseph D'souza, president of an international advocacy group, the Dalit Freedom Network. "Definitely, we have now the two Indias-one shining, and one in darkness."

The darkness is thick for most Dalits: They subsist on $1 a day, and family needs drive parents to pull their children out of school to work. In elementary school, the dropout rate is about 60 percent; by 10th grade the rate climbs to 80 percent. India has some 25 million bonded child laborers, most of them low-caste. Under these circumstances, Mr. D'souza asks, "How do they become part of the globalized new economy?"

In addition to battling discrimination, English is also a roadblock for Dalits to the upper castes' high-paying jobs. Most Dalits attend schools that teach in their local language. That can take them up through an undergraduate education, but not beyond. And the best jobs-such as the ones at call centers that require fluent English-will never be open.

"Many postgraduates are unemployed because of the language problem," said Kancha Ilaiah, a political science professor at Osmania University in Hyderabad. The 53-year-old comes from a low shepherds' caste in Andhra Pradesh, and he sees a difference between his youth and today's: "Compared to my generation there is more and more frustration. India is likely to move in the direction of Paris now."

Mr. Ilaiah is blunt about the security threat a disaffected population can pose. On Oct. 6, he testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations, identifying Islam and Marxism as attractive alternatives for low-caste Hindus: "In the 1970s many low-caste people adopted a violent Maoist identity. Calling themselves Naxalites, these Dalits began to use the theory of counter-violence through the Maoist movement. The Maoist movement continues to use violent means such as car bombs and landmines to kill and intimidate." The struggle between Maoist guerrillas and Nepal's monarchy, for example, has plunged the Himalayan nation into chaos.

Also couched in the larger Dalit struggle is a particular activist concern for those who convert to Christianity. India has its own system of affirmative action: The government fills a certain percentage of its public-service jobs with Dalits. While Dalit converts to Sikhism and Buddhism are eligible for the quota and other protections, Christian converts are not. The reasoning, under a 1950 presidential order, is this: Since the Dalits joined a religion that does not practice caste, they are no longer subject to discrimination.

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