Today, I read some really interesting findings on how economic liberalization has affected Dalits presented at a recent Dalit Studies conference . This is a particularly important question, because there is often a knee-jerk anti-market response among many Indian activists, without adequately acknowledging that the market economy may offer opportunities for those who were oppressed by the old order.
The findings were mixed. Chandra Bhan Prasad and Devesh Kapur presented the results of a survey of 19,000 Dalit households in two districts of Uttar Pradesh, which found significant improvements in their lives in the post-liberalization years, between 1990 and 2007: more households owned their own land, more households share-cropped, more migrated to cities, more entered caste-neutral occupations, more households moved away from farm-based work. They concluded that “caste is losing its rough edges even in a place like eastern UP.” However, on the opposite end of the jobs spectrum, Paul Attewell and Katherine Newman found systematic discrimination in hiring practices against Dalits and Muslims in the Indian corporate sector.
What are we to make of this paradox? Liberalization seems to have brought some economic opportunities at the lower ends of the spectrum, but discrimination against Dalits remains a problem even among the most educated.