The Casteist Underbelly of the Indian Private Sector

While the private sector is comfortable paying for the education of SCs and STs, it is reluctant to employ them.

In 2006, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) set up a committee for ‘affirmative action for SC/ST’ communities – in order to improve the representation of these marginalised sections in the private sector. Subsequently, the heads of industry chambers – FICCI, CII and ASSOCHAM – took measures to address the issue.

For over a decade, the matter stayed cold. However, in September 2018, amid nationwide protests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi a meeting to take stock of developments in this area.

The industry associations provide data regarding affirmative action taken by their member companies on a quarterly basis. This is submitted to the department of industrial policy and promotion. The data, accessed through an RTI filed by this reporter, reveals a grim state of affairs.

Out of the 17,788 member companies, just about 19% have adopted the ‘voluntary code of conduct for affirmative action’, highlighting the reluctance of the private sector to even the playing field with regard to caste. On the other hand, data shows that the provision of vocational training and scholarships to SC and ST communities is way ahead of employment.

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Scholarships provided by ASSOCHAM are at par with FICCI, standing at 3,500 and 3,118, respectively. CII’s numbers are higher, with 1,59,748 candidates. Vocational training provided by FICCI and CII have benefitted 2,77,421 and 3,20,188 candidates respectively, which is far more than ASSOCHAM’s 36,148. The number of candidates in entrepreneurship development programmes provided by FICCI is 12,261, as compared to CII and ASSOCHAM’s 156 and 390, respectively.

However, employment opportunities provided by CII and FICCI to SC and ST communities stand at around one lakh, whereas data for ASSOCHAM wasn’t available in this regard. This reflects that while the private sector is comfortable paying for the education of SCs and STs, it is reluctant to employ them.

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit ideologue, says, “Indian society is not used to seeing Dalits as victors.” He feels that Dalits are welcome as long as they do not harbour big aspirations and that a certain Dalit-phobia is at play – aggravated by the rise of Hindutva politics after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Prasad’s observations are evident in the findings of the ‘State of Working India’ report published by the centre for sustainable employment, Azim Premji University. The report claims that SC/ST communities are “over-represented” in low-paying jobs and are “under-represented” in high-paying ones.

Amit Basole, the lead author of the report, says that reservations in the public sector have improved the representation of SC/ST communities in well-paying jobs. “It is possible that we will see the same effect in the private sector in the future. Of course, it should be emphasised that the Indian economy is not creating enough well-paying and decent work in general. Without seriously addressing this issue, reservations alone will not solve the problem.”

He adds that low levels of formal education due to exclusion and poverty, lack of social capital and discrimination by employers are three big reasons for over-representation in low-paying jobs.

Also read: The 10% Reservation Is a Cynical Fraud on the Constitution

However, Khalid Khan, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in New Delhi, questions the inherent discriminatory nature of hiring in the corporate sector.“Private sector relies on networks, referencing and e-service, where candidates belonging to better-off groups have an advantage over marginalised groups like SCs, STs and Muslims. Hence, unequal treatment is inevitable.”

In his study, ‘The Legacy of Social Exclusion’, economist Sukhadeo Thorat reveals how average college-educated lower caste and Muslim job applicants are far less successful than equally-qualified applicants with higher caste names – when applying by mail for employment in the private sector.

Despite the evident caste leanings of Indian corporations, Chandra Bhan Prasad believes there is hope yet. He says that the corporate sector is already playing a key role in ending “caste feudalism” in India.

“Whenever an industry rises, and employs, say, a thousand workers, it cripples several dozen landlords. Workers trying to flee from their landlords now find a shelter in factory sheds. I am sure Dalits will outplay all other caste groups at floor-level jobs. That in itself is a big revolution,” he says.

Sarah Khan studies journalism at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.