15 Apr 2016 19:58 IST

Babasaheb Ambedkar – the economist

Ambedkar was perhaps India’s first well-known economist, having studied at LSE and Columbia University

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary was celebrated with great pomp yesterday, with the Prime Minister visiting his birth-place Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, to pay homage to the great Dalit icon and crusader for social justice.

But such commemorations of great personalities always have a touch of the bizarre. On the one hand, we have the wholesale appropriation of Ambedkar’s legacy by the BJP and the RSS while on the other, we have the Chief Ministers of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh competing with each other to see who would erect bigger statue of Ambedkar.

But amidst all this political din, what is interesting is the attention Ambedkar’s views on economics has been garnering from the mainstream media in recent times. Though his role as a tireless campaigner for social justice and as the drafter of our Constitution is well documented, his views on economics were known only within a small circle.

Ambedkar was perhaps India’s first well-known economist, having read at both the London School of Economics and Columbia University. His PhD dissertation in Columbia — The Evolution in Provincial Finance in British India — was published as a book.

Though it is tempting to paint Ambedkar’s economic views with a Libertarian brush as a section of Dalit intellectuals have done, his views were a lot more complex than that.

‘Division of labourers’

Narendra Jadhav’s book, Ambedkar — An Economist Extraordinaire, makes an in depth study of his views on economics and is a very valuable resource to acquaint oneself with Ambedkar’s ideas on economic issues.

To me, the most interesting chapter in this book was the one titled, ‘Economics of Caste System and Untouchability’. The caste system in India has often been described as a system of division of labour and this view has a great deal of currency even today. But Ambedkar saw the caste system not as a division labour but a division of labourers. And this division, Ambedkar argued, was not based on natural ability or aptitudes but by birth, making India a deeply hierarchical and unequal society.

In Ambedkar’s view, the caste system has been a major impediment to growth and development in India. He argued that the often crippling conventions of the caste system hindered the mobility of labour and capital, thus impeding growth.

To quote Ambedkar, “Social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of the individual to the point of competency to choose and to make his own career. This principle is violated in the caste system insofar as it involves an attempt to appoint tasks to individuals in advance, selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents” ( page 175).

“…stratification of occupations which is a result of the caste system is positively pernicious. Industry is never static. It undergoes rapid and abrupt changes. With such changes an individual must be free to change his occupation…” ( page 175).

Merit-based society

To Ambedkar, the caste system acted as a barrier on individuals from realising their true potential; so for rapid economic growth and development, ‘annihilation of castes’ was absolutely necessary.

On untouchability, Ambedkar said that it wasn’t just a religious system but also an economic one. In fact, he argued that untouchability was worse than slavery, as in a slave society, the slave owner had some obligations towards his slaves, whereas untouchability was “a system on uncontrolled economic exploitation” ( page 177).

So Ambedkar genuinely believed that the caste system came in the way of creating a society based on merit. It is deeply ironical that decades later, merit was a key factor used by some sections of the Indian society to oppose reservations for Other Backward Classes as recommended by the Mandal Commission.

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