The market reform era has led to significant changes in the economic and social life of dalits.

My last post was concluded by the argument that the notion of the market as a means to enhance freedom; as a mechanism for Dalits to redeem themselves is an important social and economic phenomena that has, leave alone not garnered political currency, but has also unfortunately, gained little intellectual traction. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book Burden of Democracy made clear that the self-determination of marginalised groups lies not through the state, but through the market. It is important to recognize that the entrepreneurial and commercial energy that economic growth generates is key not only to economic but social advancement as well.

Kapur et al in their paper Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era unpack this theory by drawing on a large household survey conducted by Dalits on all Dalit households in two districts of U.P – Azamgarh and Bulanshahar. They asked the respondents “about changes since 1990 in a variety of caste practices at the household and social level.” With this data in hand, Kapur et al document the changes experienced by Dalits in their economic and social status since the market reforms era.

Broadly, four observations were made on how the status of Dalits has changed since the economic reforms: in terms of wealth and assets; in terms of consumption patterns; in terms of social norms and conventions; and finally, in terms of shifts in the pattern of economic and agricultural occupations of dalits.

The unique nature of this paper lies in that fact that rather than focusing exclusively on the improvement of material wellbeing of dalits, the authors focus especially on the “cognitive and social aspects on inequality – self-respect, servility, full participation in social and political life”. To evaluate the overall wellbeing of the dalits in the economic, social, and political realm; it is very hard to separate out each element individually to figure out which element was the prime mover. However, the fact that the market opened up possibilities for social and economic advancement through the expansion of choices, there is something to say about the market not just as a technical state but as a larger institution for the expansion of freedoms of various kinds. Through market based reforms the expansion of the markets is no longer a function of the activities of the upper-castes. The market reform era has opened up many possibilities for the dalits not just in the economic, but also significantly in the social world.

The authors note that since 1990, there has been an increased ownership of assets whether it is bicycles, fans or T.V. Significantly, there was also an improvement in housing, with 64.4% and 94.6% respectively in Azamgarh and Bulanshahar in 2007 lived in pakka houses compared to 18.1% and 38.4% respectively in 1990. As the authors note: “As markets expand, consumer durables such as cell phones, scooters, TVs, etc, become the markers for social prestige.” Indeed, this is precisely what one observes in the cases of Azamgarh and Bulanshahar.

Food is a marker for status. That some foods with low social markers such as hardened molasses, jaggery rus, and roti – chutney were replaced since 1990 with foods such as packaged sugar and salt, tomato, vegetables of various kinds, and cardamom, all of which are high status markers suggest social and economic mobility.

Apart from changes in private consumption, have there been positive changes in the status of Dalits since 1990 in the patter or nature of consumption of ‘commodities’ which are more social in nature? In weddings for instance, the authors document that “practices that were rare –such as taking the groom to the bride’s village in a car or jeep rather than walking or in a cart – have become socially obligatory. Moreover, the foods served to the wedding party have been upgraded. Whereas formerly bheli was an acceptable sweet, these have now disappeared in favour of ladoos.”

Within the realm of private consumption and socially significant events such as weddings, the inter-personal relations between dalits and non-dalits also became more sociable: “As of 1990, it was almost unheard of for non-dalits to accept drinks or snacks if they visited dalit households ( 2% and 4%, respectively in Azamgarh and Bulanshahar).” By 2007, however, it was observed that 72.5% of non-dalits in Bulanshahar and 47.8% of non-dalits in Azamgarh would accept drinks or food on visits. This result is surprising because it reflects a change in the attitudes of non-dalits as well. Though this fact is acknowledged mildly in the paper, it isn’t fleshed out. This area therefore needs its due attention from researchers.

Further, “there is a significant shift of dalits into non-caste traditional occupations.” In 2007, it was observed by the authors that many more dalits were migrating to cities, or were working as masons, tailors, drivers or even business professions than was the case in 1990. Rural markets in India are notorious for how deeply interlinked labour, credit, and factor markets are to each other; and how it’s commanded by landlords or upper-castes. The very mobility of labour spatially and across sectors represents a loosening up of such tightened markets.

Also, quite importantly, the market for tractors and other modern agricultural technologies, which are more efficient than traditional agricultural practices like use of bullock for ploughing “has led to the near extinction of the halwaha relationship, which the great dalit leader Jagjivan Ram had much angst against. He famously said that the halwaha system was the remnant of slavery.

Such changes reflect the “very substantial shifts in dalits’ lives, consistent with a growing sense of empowerment and opportunity and declining ability of others to impose social inequalities.” In other words, the market reform era, saw not just the improvement of the material wellbeing of dalits in these two districts, but also significantly saw social and political advancement. This era saw the expansion of choices whether economic, political or social that the dalits could meaningfully exercise.

(This post was first published in Takshashila Institution’s blog)

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