Caste and Poverty

Poverty is a state of living in which an individual does not have sufficient financial resources to maintain a minimum standard of living. A poor person is one who lacks essential assets to meet their basic human needs such as clean water, sufficient food, education, proper sanitation, et cetera. A threshold has been set which acts as a divider between people who are considered poor and the ones who are not, this threshold is known as the poverty line. In India, poverty can not be understood in isolation, it must be seen from a socio-cultural lens. Caste, which has been the basis of Indian society, plays an integral role in the distribution and perpetuation of poverty.

The caste hierarchy divides society, as well as its resources. Over the years, the upper three varnas have successfully monopolised the community resources, marginalising the fourth Varna and the Dalits. The exclusion of education is probably the most devastating disability that is attached to the Dalit identity, one which leaves no room for socio-economic upliftment. A paper by the World Inequality Database claimed that Indian upper-caste households earn 47% more than the average national income. Furthermore, inequality within castes makes it difficult for the benefits of reservation to filter uniformly. 

Post-independence India viewed the future optimistically, armed with political will and constitutional provisions aimed at eradicating caste-based inequalities. Now that we are in the seventh decade of independence, the prospect of an equal and caste-less society seems bleak. Discrimination against Bahujans persists, evolving into covert forms in some aspects while remaining blatantly overt in others. The gradual decline in rights as we go down the caste hierarchy leaves very little at the bottom, where Dalits reside. 

Historically, the growth of a feudal society in medieval times is often associated with the emergence of the land-poor, which is a term used to refer to peasants that are landless and rely on zamindars. While the upper castes consolidated their wealth by acquiring land and attaining education, lower castes and Dalits remained landless. With the advent of colonialism in India, upper castes monopolised modern education, and as a result, all the jobs in a colonial economy. Dalits were forced to rely on wage labour in the absence of capital assets and were thus pushed to minimum wage jobs that did not guarantee permanent employment. 

Endogamy, which refers to the practice of intra-caste marriages, further solidifies caste and income distinctions. With arranged marriages as the norm, a deeply segmented society continues to pass on its tainted legacy to newer generations. Upper castes employ gatekeepers to maintain an exclusive club of elites that retaliate against any attempt of Dalits to elevate themselves to a better socio-economic position. Due to the work of oppressive forces that are keen on maintaining a regressive social order over centuries, the class has become synonymous with caste, which is an observation by the Mandal Commission. A vitriolic discourse aimed at dismantling the reservation system, a system that ensures representation at multiple levels of education and employment, is pedalled by privileged upper castes to reverse the gains of Dalits. It must be combated with a sustainable movement that emerges from upper castes whose primary aim is to share the platform and privilege in order to build an equal society.

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