India to crack down on discrimination in private sector?

Indian women, from the "Dalit" or "Untouchable" caste listen to a speaker during a Dalit Dignity Rally against Congress-led UPA government near Parliament House in New Delhi in 2007.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: In the Indian economy, what a person can do, what they can become, is not entirely in their own hands. The caste system there still plays a huge part in where you can go to school, who you can marry and what job you're likely to get. The Indian government's latest try at elevating Dalits -- or those from lower castes -- isn't going over so well with private companies.

Raymond Thibodeaux reports new from New Delhi.


Raymond Thibodeaux: India has long set aside a quarter of government jobs for the country's most oppressed castes. Now the government is mulling quotas for the private sector. It asked India's biggest 1,000 companies to disclose the caste of their employees. Fewer than 60 companies complied with the request.

Chandrabhan Prasad is an activist and author from the Dalit community -- India's largest, most-oppressed caste.

Chandrabhan Prasad: Those companies that are not prepared to disclose, that means they don't have as many lower-caste Dalits in their companies. If they did have more, what would they have to fear?

Prasad says it's too bad the government has been forced to get involved in this issue.

Prasad: The private sector should have come into the picture and said, "Now we are reforming the economy. We have a liberal economic setup. We should have a liberal social setup as well."

Prasad says even many big American companies operating in India have been slow to hire from among the lower castes. He says it's because many U.S. companies outsourcing to India are unaware of the caste system's complicated legacy of discrimination.

Narendra Jadhav: The caste system has survived for 2,000 years. It is a brilliantly conceived and brilliantly administered scam. It was all done to maintain the hegemony of a very small strata of society.

That's Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit and a senior member of the government's Planning Commission for Economic Development. He says there's been some progress in moving India's lower castes into better-paying jobs -- certainly, in the public sector, and to some extent in the private. But he says this isn't because of any concerted effort on the part of the bosses. The disadvantaged castes are making their own opportunities.

Jadhav: But India is moving to becoming an economic superpower. They have opportunities to educate. They have opportunities to make something out of their lives. This process has begun. It is still a long way to go.

Jadhav predicts there's always be caste distinctions in India, but he agrees with many business leaders who say that in the new, more urbanized India, discrimination based solely on caste is declining, but perhaps too slowly. Some big Indian corporations such as Tata and Infosys are starting to take notice. They have taken the lead in affirmative action-hiring and training programs.

Jamshed Irani: Tata in particular believes that these discriminations should be erased.

Jamshed Irani is director of Tata Sons.

Irani: The Tata Group is leading this movement, as it believes that it is the right thing to do for Indian industry.

Irani says private industry would be better off voluntarily hiring lower-caste employees. Analysts say if it doesn't take affirmative action more seriously, India's government is likely to force it to.

In New Delhi, I'm Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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