How the Caste System Affects People in IndiaIndia has its own form of racism. We refer to it as “Casteism.” India’s caste system was formed based on socio-economic factors or ideological factors. In 1500 BC, Aryans arrived in India and disregarded local groups. They formed three groups, namely warriors, priests and farmers. Warriors and priests fought for the leadership role. Out of which priests emerged victorious to supreme their power over India. In the end, farmers, craftsmen, warriors and locals were led by Brahamans or priests. Like many societies, a son will inherit his father’s job in India. This inheritance continued for a long time and it ended up as a community, jaati or a caste in the Indian system. Brahamans encouraged socialism only within their respective groups that created inequality in this diversified country. A caste looking down on the other is a common occurrence and it is publicly accepted. People who clean drainage are aligned to the “Scheduled Caste” and they are termed as “untouchables.” Those who live in forests as tribes are aligned to “Scheduled Tribes.”

The caste system is a significant social system in India. One’s caste affects their options regarding marriage, employment, education, economies, mobility, housing and politics, among others.

How the Caste System Affects Citizens

  • Marriages: Most Indian marriages are arranged by parents. Several factors were considered by them for finding the ideal spouse. Out of which, one’s caste is a significant factor. People do not want their son or their daughter to marry a person from another caste. Just like the word “untouchables” suggests, a Brahmin would never marry a person from an SC or ST caste.
  • Education: Public universities have caste-based reservations for students coming from underprivileged backgrounds. A person from this background can secure a seat in a top tier college with par or below par academic scores based on reservation. However, impoverished Brahmans are disadvantaged with this reservation system. For example, a Brahman has to score 100% on certain exams to get into a top tier university. While the lower caste applicant can even bypass the exam for getting a seat in the university.
  • Jobs: A significant amount of public sector jobs are allocated based on caste reservation. Impoverished communities from Brahman backgrounds get affected significantly because of this reservation.

It is just as Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar said, “Caste will stand in your way for political and economical reforms within India.” According to him, eradicating such a strong foundation is extremely difficult yet doable. However, the path to reform has many roadblocks in it.

How Can the Government Solve this Caste Issue?

The government has come to the conclusion that segregating people across castes and aligning them to a particular caste by offering special quotas will solve the caste problem. In fact, the Indian government provides incentives to people of lower caste to make them feel better about their poor inheritance. However, the caste system still lurks in the minds of Indian citizens.
According to Ambedkar, the annihilation of the caste system can be done by supporting these actions:

  1. Intercaste Marriage: Cross caste marriage can possibly eradicate the upper and lower caste mentality. Around 5% of marriages in India are between different castes. Around a quarter of the population on matrimonial sites are open to intercaste marriages at the moment.
  2. Intercaste Dining: Addressing caste-related issues at large public events can contribute to diversity and inclusion efforts. Several dining events were organized by local state governments to incorporate people from all around the country.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political agenda includes caste elimination from the country. India has improved to some extent in this 21st century on several fronts. However, there is still lots of room to grow. The Indian government has an effective plan of bringing people together from all walks of life. Yet, certain inherent ideological contradictions will stand in the way while solving this issue. Regardless, that should not deter our hope in escaping the shackles of casteism.

– Narasinga Moorthy
Photo: Flickr

Indian MealIndia runs one of the largest and oldest government-provided elementary school meal programs in the world. It provides the main meal of the day for about 120 million of the country’s most impoverished children.

In the past ten years, the country’s economy has improved, creating a new middle class and a league of millionaires. Yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, India continues to have more than 195 million chronically malnourished people—the world’s highest amount.

The tribal state of Madhya Pradesh is no stranger to high malnutrition rates. Local food activists and public health policy specialists proposed adding eggs to meal programs in order to supply children with more adequate nutrition.

In late May 2015, however, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivrai Chouhan, publically announced that eggs were not allowed to be served in Indian meal programs in some tribal states. Instead, he suggested that bananas and milk be served.

Chouhan is an upper-class Hindu and a strict vegetarian. He says, “the body is meant to consume vegetarian food, which has everything the human body requires.”

In a country of 77 million, over 50 percent of children in India are underweight, undernourished and are in desperate need of better nutrition. A meal plan offering bananas and milk is not enough to offset the calories and nutrients lost due to living in poverty.

Health experts and activists are calling this a class issue, one where politics and religion are being fought over at the detriment of starving children. Dipa Sinha is an economist at the Center for Equity Studies in New Dehli. He explains that vegetarianism “is a very upper caste Hindu sentiment” linked to privilege and wealth.

Many lower caste Hindus, like those in tribal states, do not eat vegetarian diets and would eat eggs if they could only afford to. Christians and Muslims living in India also rely on meat. Dalit officials, a part of a lower caste, claim that the ban on eggs is upper caste Hindus trying to push Hindu principles unto lower caste Hindus and minorities.

This would not be the first time. In the past, Jains, a politically powerful group of vegetarian Hindus, successfully blocked eggs from meal programs in states such as Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This is despite the fact that caste discrimination has been illegal for centuries.

Jean Dreze, a development economist, says that banning eggs from these programs is a “missed opportunity” to provide much-needed nutrition and encourage attendance. It has been shown that when eggs are served in schools in impoverished states, attendance increases as kids scramble for the rare source of protein.

“They are easy to procure locally, and storage and transportation aren’t a problem,” explains food rights activist Sachin Jain. “No…vegetarian food item is that good a source of protein.” A popular alternative, milk, comes with complications. Many times supplies dilute it and it is easy to contaminate. Plus, rural communities in India lack proper refrigeration, storage, and transportation methods for milk.

Jain explains, “I am a vegetarian. I have never touched an egg. But I have other sources of fat and protein…Tribals, Dalits, and other poor people don’t have these options. They can’t afford these things.” Eggs then become the perfect solution.

Lillian Sickler

Sources: NPR, CBS News, WSJ
Photo: Pexels

On October 1, the European Union (EU) passed a resolution ending caste-based discrimination. Calling for action at multiple levels, the resolution demanded that the governments of the affected countries work to end discrimination towards people in lower castes, as well as limit the dangerous workloads often given to lower-caste employees.

Castes differentiate members of the population into different social groups, so that those in lower castes are often looked upon as “unclean,” and forced to work in unpleasant and dangerous conditions that activists say resemble slavery.

The EU’s statement helps to define caste systems as an issue that affects not only South Asian countries, but the international community as well.  The initiative has the European community, as well as South Asian human rights activists, hoping that talks on the issue of caste will proceed between the EU and caste-based nations such as Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

According to the International Labor Organization, most of the people put under situations of forced labor in South Asia belong to lower castes. This kind of treacherous work occurs in many different sectors including agriculture, mining and retail production. The companies who subject their employees to this kind of work often supply products to multinational corporations, making caste discrimination an international problem.

Some South Asian nations have taken steps to solve the human rights issues inherent in current caste systems. For example, India has affirmative action initiatives to support Dalits, Indian citizens who belong to the lowest castes and who are subject to bonded labor.

Unfortunately, caste systems are still prevalent throughout Asia. Experts estimate that about 260 million people are affected worldwide.

Despite the EU’s recent attempt to tackle the issue, many government officials do not think the organization is doing enough, citing the high numbers of people still affected by caste discrimination as an indication of the EU’s failure. These officials stress the importance of specifically briefing the European Parliament on caste-based discrimination, so that the EU can take appropriate steps. Such measures would also aid the effectiveness of parliament members visiting South Asian countries on business, economic and development trips.

– Elisha-Kim Desmangles
Feature Writer

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Live Science