31 Jan 2018 16:45 IST

Equating caste with disadvantage, a legacy of colonial rule: Economist

There is an urgent need for election campaign funding reforms, says Rohini Somanathan


The recent demands for reservations by powerful caste groups such as the Gujjars, Jats, Patidars and Marathas is an outcome of the particular design of redistributive policy in India,” says Rohini Somanathan, Professor at Delhi School of Economics.

At a recent interaction with BusinessLine during her visit to the Madras Institute of Development Studies, she says equating caste with disadvantage is a legacy of colonial rule. At Independence, we did not have any reasonable data on household deprivation, while census volumes were filled with details on the position of various castes in the social hierarchy of each State.

These data made their way into the schedules of the Indian constitution and formed the basis of India’s affirmative action policies.

Castes that protested inclusion in the category of depressed classes in the early part of the 20th century could benefit from this label when it facilitated access to elite positions in universities and government.

“The Patidar movement has been interesting because it brought about a change in rhetoric. In contrast to the Gujjars and Jats, the Patidars have explicitly suggested scrapping the whole system as an alternative to extending reservations to them. They claim not absolute disadvantage, but argue that existing quotas do not do them justice. This is the first time in recent years that this argument has entered the discourse on disadvantage,” says Somanathan.

“Historically we can see why reservations were put in place as untouchability was clearly not morally acceptable in a democracy. But reservations later morphed into a formulaic way dispensing social justice. That lead to tensions and contradictions. So I see these current movements, not as predictable, but in some ways understandable,” she says.


Somanathan says despite years of reservation, India has still not got rid of ‘stigmatisation’.

India and the US took different routes to address the issue of caste and race inequities and discrimination, but neither of them have managed to eliminate stereotypes surrounding race and caste.

In many ways these have become worse, with mass incarceration among black men in the United States and atrocities against Dalits in India.

“This points towards the difficulties in bringing about true social justice in divided societies.” Somanathan called for nuanced ways of dealing with this crucial issue.

Can this ‘demand for injustice’ be seen as a failure of our economic and social policies?

It is partly a failure of our economic and social policies, says Somanathan, but “also in any society, there will always be more desirable positions than less desirable ones”.

On why parties that come to power on anti-castiest, egalitarian agenda end up resembling the parties they replaced, Somanathan says the big question here is why does the conduct of politics need so much money?

“So there is a dire need for campaign funding reforms. We should make it possible for people to enter the political arena with lot less money and the source of funding has to be made more transparent.”

Somanathan also argues the ‘first-past-the-post’ system makes it very hard for independent candidates to make a mark.

Budget expectations

“I hope farm subsidies come down the existing subsidies have skewed the cropping pattern,” she says.

“I hope there is higher allocation for health and a cut in administrative expenditure. I hope there is some focus on some of the serious urban problems we are facing such as those of air quality and waste management.”


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