Are you among those who think record GDP growth has done nothing for dalits ? Think again. A seminal paper, “Rethinking Inequality : Dalits in UP in the Market Reform Era” by Devesh Kapur, CB Prasad, Lant Pritchett and D Shyam Babu, reveals a veritable dalit revolution after 1990 in Uttar Pradesh, long viewed as a sink of caste oppression.
The media remains full of stories of caste oppression, inequalities and lousy economic and social indicators. Without doubt, dalits remain close to the bottom of the income ladder. Nevertheless, the new study reveals huge improvements in economic and social terms, based on questions to capture realities that dalits themselves view as important . The survey covered all dalit households in two blocks in UP, one in the relatively prosperous west (Khurja) and one in the backward east (Bilariaganj), between 1990 and 2008.
The dalit proportion with pucca houses rose from 18.1% to 64.4% in the east and from 38.4% to 94.6% in the west. TV ownership improved from virtually zero to 22.2% and 45% respectively. Cellphone ownership increased from almost nothing to 36.3% and 32.5% respectively.
Fan ownership, curbed by electricity shortages, rose to 36.7% and 61.4% respectively . Bicycle ownership has become ubiquitous, up from 46.6% to 84.1% in the east and from 37.7 to 83.7% in the west.
A motorcycle symbolizes high rural status . Dalit ownership of two-wheelers improved from almost zero to 7.6% and 12.3% respectively. NSS consumption surveys consider purchases only in a short pre-survey period, and so miss durables acquired over the years.
In times of distress, dalits historically mortgaged jewellery to upper caste lenders. The proportion that does so has dropped from 75.8% to 29.3% in the east and from 64.6% to 21.2% in the west.
Dalits have switched from inferior foods (broken rice, jaggery ras) to superior foods (whole rice, pulses, tomatoes). The proportion eating roti-chutney for lunch, socially viewed as low-class food, has fallen from 82% to just 2% and 9% in the two zones. The proportion of kids eating the previous night’s leftovers plummeted from 95.9% to just 16.2% in the east. The proportion eating broken rice fell from 54% to 2.6% in the east, and from 22.7% to 1.1% in the west.
Per capita availability of dal in India has been falling. So it’s heartening that dalits consuming dal are up from 31% to 90% in the east, and from 60.1% to 96.9% in the west. This may be one cause for rising dal prices.
Consumption of jaggery ras, usually drunk by the poorest, has collapsed. Meanwhile dalit consumption of packaged salt, elaichi and tomatoes has shot up.
Critics say the poor have been bypassed by economic reforms. But in this dalit survey , 61% in the east and 38% in the west said their food and clothing situation was “much better.” Only 2% said their condition was stagnant or worse.
Traditionally, dalits were mainly agricultural labourers. In the reform era, they have diversified into non-traditional work. Migration and remittances have become engines of empowerment.
The dalit proportion benefiting from migrant relatives is up from 14% to 50.5% in the east, and from 6.1% to 28.6% in the west. More revolutionary, the proportion running their own business is up from 4.2% to 11% in the east and from 6% to 36.7% in the west. The proportion in agricultural labour has plummeted from 76% to 45.6% in the east and from 46.1 to just 20.5% in the west.
What has driven these changes? The dalits themselves say the changes began 10-15 years ago, in the reform era. UP has lagged well behind the fast-reforming states. Yet in the five years 2003-04 to 2008-09 , its average GDP growth has accelerated to 6.29%. This is well behind the national average, yet not far from the 7% generally viewed as the “miracle-economy” threshold. Per capita income is growing almost 10 times faster than in the Nehru-Indira era, and dalits are sharing the new prosperity.
The authors see the last two decades as an economic reform era. But this period has also seen the meteoric rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which could be an even stronger driver of dalit economic improvement.
Mayawati has been chief minister four times, and has obliged all bureaucrats and other lobbies to ensure that dalits get their fair share of benefits. This is reflected not just in higher dalit ownership of TVs or cellphones , but in transformed social relations. Dalits can now look upper castes in the eye, and nothing will be the same again. Spelling out the social changes in UP merits an entire column. That will be next week’s topic.