Last week, this column highlighted major economic improvements for dalits in Uttar Pradesh, based on a research paper by Devesh Kapur and others (Rethinking inequality : Dalits in UP in the market reform era). But the real dalit revolution has been in social status, far more than economic.
In material terms, inequality (technically measured by the Gini coefficient) in UP has always been low — less than in Kerala or the national average. UP\’s problem has always been social inequality, not consumption inequality. The good news is that social inequality is being transformed. The practice of seating dalits separately in upper caste weddings is down from 77.3% to 8.9% in eastern UP, and from 73.1% to 17.9% in western UP. The proportion of non-dalits accepting food and water at dalit households is up from 1.7% to 72.5% in the east and from 3.6% to 47.8% in the west.
Many dalits in eastern UP were locked into thehalwaha (bonded labour) system, which Jagjivan Ram once called \”a remnant of slavery\” . This has virtually disappeared : the proportion is down from 32.1% to 1.1%. The proportion of dalit households doing any farm labour has plummeted from 76% to 45.6% in the east, and from 46.1% to just 20.5% in the west. Encouragingly , the proportion depending on their own land is up from 16.6% to 28.4% in the east, and from 50.5% to 67.6% in the west. Tubewell ownership is up substantially , but remains modest.
Dalits are leasing land from upper castes. Those who were once labourers on upper caste land now insist on a share of the crop. The proportion in sharecropping is up from 16.7% to 31.4% in the east and from 4.9% to 11.4% in the west. In western UP, cases of dalits alone lifting dead animals are down from 72.6% to 5.3%. Once dalits ploughed the land of upper castes with bullocks. Today, they are getting their own land ploughed by upper caste tractor drivers. Economic reforms have created major new opportunities in urban areas, facilitating dalit migration to towns and back. This has broken their dependence on rural landlords and moneylenders. The resulting labour shortage has raised the bargaining power of dalits.
The proportion of dalit families working locally as masons, tailors or drivers — all non-traditional occupations — is up from 14% to 37% in the east and from 9.3% to 42.1% in the west. Even more revolutionary is the rise of dalit business families, from 4.2% to 11% in the east and from 6% to 36.7% in the west.
Political parties shout themselves hoarse over job reservations. Yet, the dalit family proportion in government jobs has actually fallen from 7.2% to 6.8% in the east, and risen marginally from 5% to 7.3% in the west. Clearly, job reservation has not been a key factor in UP\’s social revolution.
Once, dalit babies were not midwifed equally by dalits and non-dalits . The proportion equally delivered has shot up from 1.1% to 89.9% in the east. Earlier non-dalit and government midwives rarely came to dalit homes for deliveries, but the proportion is now up from 3.4% to 53.4% in the east, and from zero to 3.6% — still very low — in the west.
Dalit households where most or all kids go to school are up from 28.8% to 63.4% in the east and from 21.7% to 65.7% in the west. Girls\’ schooling is up from 10% to 58.7% in the east and from 6.8% to 56.9% in the west. As a form of social assertion, dalits are adopting elite consumption patterns. Their use of toothpaste , shampoo and bottled hair oil has soared. Earlier, only one-third of dalits in the east and virtually none in the west used cars or jeeps for wedding baraats, but today virtually all do. The proportion serving laddoos to baraatis is up from 33.6% in the east and 2.7% in the west, to almost 100% in both cases.
The data shows that despite major improvements , dalits are still far from achieving equality in status or income. Caste oppression and inequalities remain. Nevertheless, the changes constitute a social revolution, sparked by both economic reform and the rise of the BSP.
In the survey, dalits themselves emphasized that their social well-being had advanced even faster than their material wellbeing . Self-respect and dignity are vital for the downtrodden. Mayawati\’s statue-building spree is a form of status building.
Amartya Sen has talked of freedom as development . This means not just more consumption but more voice, access to accountability , access to influential networks and livelihood choice, access to good governance, and physical security. The traditional castebound village in UP denied all these to dalits. Those shackles are breaking apart.