Has coronavirus brought caste discrimination back in India?
The govt has boosted spending to revive the economy and launched job schemes for those returning to villages. But the benefits aren’t always percolating down to the lowest castes.
Millions of migrant workers made arduous journeys to their villages after India imposed the world’s largest lockdown in March. Back in the rural hinterland, many say caste discrimination is reversing even the small economic and social gains they eked out in the cities.
In the village of Aston, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Raju Banskar, 33, says the double stigma of coming from a lower caste and having traveled from New Delhi where the coronavirus is spreading has made it impossible to find a job. In the city, construction work fueled by India’s decades long economic boom brought him 250 rupees to 300 rupees ($3-$4) a day, and few paid attention to his caste.
But building sites shut down when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the nationwide lockdown to contain the virus. Back home, Banskar says work created through government jobs programs are mostly allocated by the village headman to upper caste workers.
Nine migrants interviewed by Bloomberg News in several Indian states had stories that were similar to Banskar’s, showing how the pandemic is widening one of the nation’s sharpest inequities, the social hierarchy determined by India’s ancient caste system, which can often determine everything from social interactions to economic opportunities. The South Asian country marks the 30th anniversary of its economic liberalization next year, but the pandemic is now unraveling the tenuous benefits that globalization brought to workers like Banskar.
“I have no land, so had left my village some 12 years ago in search of work and to escape this system where I am considered untouchable,” Banskar said by phone. “I have come back to the same situation that I left, in fact it has only become worse.” People from lower castes were historically not allowed to touch those from higher castes, and Banskar says many of these practices remain in his village.
The headman of Banskar’s village couldn’t be reached for comment. Chandrasen Singh, additional chief executive officer of the Zila Panchayat, or the local government body, of Tikamgarh district which administers Banskar’s village said the region’s job program is very active and he hasn’t received complaints about caste discrimination. “All these allegations have no substance,” he said. Some people have refused work because wages under government’s job program are lower than what they were earning outside, and the work in village may not require a lot of labor, Singh said.
As India’s economy leapfrogged from just over 1% GDP growth in 1991 to the range of 10% in the fiscal year ending March 2007, millions like Banskar moved from villages to cities to work. Affirmative action policies such as the reservations of jobs, spots in schools and the legislature helped many overcome centuries of economic deprivation and social oppression.