Price of political failure

Price of political failure

Dominant castes demand quotas

Dominant peasant castes are not giving up the battle for quotas. The Marathas are once again up in arms demanding reservation in educational institutions and government jobs; in Gujarat, the Patidar agitation is being revived; the Jats of Haryana and Rajasthan and Kapus in Andhra and Telangana have not given up their demands, either.

The agitations have got a lot of attention, but consider a connected event earlier this year: In Gujarat, Patidar businessmen organised a three-day summit “to provide a networking platform to Patidar entrepreneurs and jobs for youths.” Its mission was to provide one lakh jobs to Patidar youth. The event was attended and blessed by the chief minister as well as leaders of the Congress party. Civil society intellectuals endorsed the caste-based jobs drive of the Patidars and called upon other communities to follow the Patidar model. But most lower castes neither have rich entrepreneurs nor social capital to follow the path of the dominant castes.

The political system provides platforms for nurturing this kind of caste solidarity. In a system geared around social contacts, the poor strata of the dominant castes are in an advantageous position to derive a host of benefits because a significant number of the governing elites come from these castes. Moreover, the colonial and post-colonial States have facilitated the dominant castes in accumulating financial as well as socio-cultural capital.

To strengthen caste bonds, these caste associations undertake welfare programmes like education, health, credit for caste members. In education, these associations and the caste elite run schools and colleges, hostels, coaching classes, disburse education material, scholarships, etc.

The castes with a sizeable number of successful entrepreneurs have developed a system of providing credit to fellow caste brethren to help launch an enterprise. They also give preference to fellow caste members in jobs in their firms. More importantly, the State has now encouraged and legitimised the practice.

Notwithstanding this wealth of social and material capital, caste pride and unity, the educated youth of these dominant castes are now demanding reservation. This is an argument very different to the initial one that opposed reservations to OBC/SC/ST on grounds of merit.

All castes are stratified with varying degrees of rich, middle and poor families. The dominant peasant castes also have a relatively small strata of the lower middle class and poor. Under the development paradigm, these peasant castes improved their economic position with State-assisted community development programmes and the Green Revolution. However, the terms of trade have been in favour of industry over agriculture. It is more so with the neo-liberal economy.

A small section of the rich and middle peasants have invested their agriculture surplus in business and industry. Unlike in Gujarat, a few OBCs in Maharashtra have improved their economic condition and are competing with the Marathas in agriculture.

Over the years, the proportion of cultivators has been on a declining scale. According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey of 2013-14, nearly 65% of small and marginal farmers and 50% of the middle peasants wish to quit farming and settle in cities. Such distress conditions reflect in increasing cases of farmers’ suicide.

Lack of jobs

Like everyone, Marathas and Patidars see formal education as the only asset for a better life for their children so that they get ‘decent’, secure, white-collar jobs. The upper caste students constitute more than 50% in higher education. However, Marathas are still lagging behind brahmins; and OBCs are catching up with them in higher education. This hurts their ego and leads to fears that the OBCs would bypass them.

Most of them enroll in government or run-of-the-mill private colleges pursuing studies in general streams like arts and commerce. These institutes are ill-equipped, under-staffed, use dated syllabi and pedagogy. As a result, in the job market, many find that the skills acquired are inadequate. Those Patidar youths who had gone abroad on the basis of the ‘educational qualifications and work experience’ required for their entry into Britain, for example, were devalued after entering that country, and have often had to start from scratch. Such experiences add to their frustration. 

Of those with an education, a minuscule number join the family/relative’s enterprise. Most of them do not have adequate acumen, skill, experience and capital to launch an enterprise. Moreover, 10% of small industries are sick. Over 80% of the urban self-employed earn less than Rs 20,000 per month. In such a situation, they perceive that the best option for them is to have a salaried and regular job.

The growth in jobs is largely (84%) in the informal sector, without social security. Regular employment, both in the formal and informal sectors, has declined. Moreover, the available jobs do not provide social security.

Even in the formal sector, employment is often casual or contractual. Only a negligible number get a so-called ‘permanent’ position which offers them regular increments in salary, leave benefits, old age pensions, etc.

The rest of the workers get employment as self-employed, casual workers or on an ad hoc basis. Insecurity haunts most young employees, irrespective of the sector. Such jobs do not satisfy their rising wants, lifestyle and notion of social status. In such a situation, an agitated youth perceives that a government job is the only type of employment that provides security and a dignified status. The young people from dominant upper castes believe that they are more meritorious than lower caste members.

The angry youth of the dominant castes are victims of their caste pride and superiority complex, unable to accept that the lower castes have moved ahead and have improved lifestyles. At the same time, like everyone, they are frustrated with an economy which boosts aspirations and needs but is incapable of providing decent employment. This pushes them to hang on to primordial identities and networks. The political system, unable to meet its responsibility, encourages and legitimises this primordial identity formation in the name of culture. 

(The writer is a renowned social scientist and former national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research)

(The Billion Press)