India's Dalits seek economic equality

In this neighborhood of Mumbai, India, poor families live crammed into into tiny one-room apartments. Students who can't concentrate on their work in these crowded homes go to this quiet road behind a hospital where they study under the green glow of street lights, or around small campfires.


Kai Ryssdal: India's month-long national election begins tomorrow. And all eyes will be on a politician named Mayawati. She's making moves to become the country's next prime minister. Which is a big deal because she's a Dalit. That's what people in the lowest Hindu social castes call themselves; they used to be called "untouchables." Mayawati's rise is a hopeful sign for Dalits. But as Marketplace's Rico Gagliano reports, most people of that social level still find themselves struggling for economic equality.

AMOL KAMBLE: Hello, this is Amol Kamble, from India.

RICO GAGLIANO: Racially, Amol Kamble is no different than any Indian. But socially, his Hindu surname pegs him as a Dalit. I first meet him in Mumbai one night in a jail.

Well, it was a jail, back in colonial days. Now it's one of many crowded apartment buildings in this chawl -- a neighborhood just a cut above a slum. Amol's whole family -- six people -- live in one 18-by-20-foot room. They share one bathroom with everyone else on their floor. A few years ago, when Amol attended public college, he found the building just too loud for studying. So he went to a better place. We head there by taxi.

GAGLIANO: So where are we going now?

KAMBLE: Study Street. What we call Study Street.

GAGLIANO: Study Street? So everybody in this neighborhood would go to study in this place?

KAMBLE: Yeah, under the streetlight.

GAGLIANO: Under the streetlight?


Amol points out the window, and there they are: Dozens of people on the sidewalk, reading textbooks under streetlights. Some have built little campfires.

This Dalit student says he wishes the local government would install some seats. And leave the streetlights on later, so he could study longer.

Still, many of these people consider themselves lucky. In some rural areas, Dalit people are considered "impure" -- so low on the social ladder they're not even supposed to touch the Indian flag. Here in progressive Mumbai, if they get a degree, they could get a decent job. But some say a degree alone won't get Amol out of this chawl. Because even in cities, the remains of the caste system linger.

CHANDRABHAN PRASAD: I feel it is more a psychological problem than social.

Chandrabhan Prasad is a columnist for India's newspaper "The Pioneer." He's also a Dalit. He says, legally, caste discrimination is banned, but that many in the upper castes still can't bring themselves to give Dalit workers promotions, or sometimes hire them at all. He tells me about a 2007 study from a Dalit group and Princeton sociologists. They sent identical fake resumes, under different fake surnames, to Indian companies.

PRASAD: And often the resume with the same qualification, with the Dalit-sounding surname, it was rejected.

In some industries, like tech, that's changing. But the one employer Dalits know won't balk at their resumes is the government. For decades, it's had an affirmative-action program. Some state and federal jobs get set aside for lower castes. They call this "reservation." Amol Kamble's dad worked a reservation job. That's how he could afford to send Amol to school. Prasad says the program has helped.

PRASAD: Federal or state jobs have created a Dalit middle class. But that is not enough.

It's not enough because, thanks to privatization, the government is shrinking, and with it the number of reservation jobs. Prasad says what's needed now is reservation at private companies. The government says it sympathizes, that there's a committee considering the idea and that they're funding training programs to help Dalits crack the private sector.

Sanjay Kumar is with the Ministry of Justice and Empowerment.

SANJAY KUMAR: Infosys, in partnership with the government, trained 86 students. And I'm glad to tell you that 74 of them have found as good jobs as anyone else in very reputed software companies.

Since this interview, around 500 more graduated that program. But there are an estimated 160 million Dalits in India. Meanwhile, a federal bill mandating private reservations is hung up in Parliament. So one Dalit has started his own affirmative-action plan.

MICHAEL THEVAR: Hi, this is Michael Thevar. We are at the Philadelphia International Airport. We are waiting for some Dalit friends of ours coming from India.

Michael Thevar is a Dalit himself. After years of work, and with the help of a non-Dalit Christian surname -- his father converted -- he came to the U.S. on an exchange program for social workers. Now he owns two health-care staffing companies here. And every year since 2001 he's flown in Dalits from India and given them full-time jobs.

THEVAR: They are masters-level, social-work professionals and masters-level clinicians. And they are from the slums, rural and tribal areas of India.

Thevar says this is the only program of its kind. Most Indians in America are from middle or upper castes; Dalits are rarely able to migrate here. So when the new workers arrive, they're dazed at their luck. This is the first time social worker Neetu Bhole has ever flown in a plane.

NEETU BHOLE: It was . . . I can say it was amazing. It was like my own dream which is coming true. Even I was not able to believe that, yeah, it's . . . everything is happening.

Amol Kamble, from Study Street, was supposed to be one of Neetu's co-workers. Thevar recruited him more than a year ago. But there's a lottery for America's 85,000 skilled-worker visas, and Amol lost. He's still back in the chawl.

I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano co-hosts and co-produces Marketplace’s “Small Talk” segment.
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I feel that we should all be treated fair when it comes to getting our education. if you are willing to learn and educate yourself nothing else should matter. There shouldn't be an issue of race religion or origin.

India"s Dalit as it is put is a form of racism in and about there own people. What sadden's me is this country or that country what have you, people are people and should be treated as such, we are all trying to make or have a better life and a way of living. Blue collar, white collar or no collar opportunitities should be handed give to all that strive to achieve that goal and your hard work will be paid in the long run.
Your geographic status should never have to come in to play to if you get the job,folks just want to know that all your hard work and pride put in it will reflect and your family and loved ones will be extremely proud that all the sacarifice have earned you a spot to prove oneself.
Opportunities are rare and should taken advantage of so, rather than complain of the misfortune of your situation do something about it as Mr. Sanjai has done or write to your government or find an organization that is looking for someone in your area to fight that same fight, start a group of your own this a large amount of signatures one man can make a difference.
Each Country has it's prolbem and we need to deal with this unfairness with conviction and willingness to over come the injustice happening near your door, make no mistake it's out there some choose to turn that cheek ignoring the ploblem that cheek get's thinner each day.

I think he wanted us to have an idea on the difference between our educational systems

After carefully reading and listening to this story, I realize how hard it is for some. Yet, despite the Dalits' disadvantages, they put forth more effort to obtaining a career than most people I know. I have to say that there are no excuses for not gaining a college education.

While reading this remarkable story of triumph,it gave me hope and determination to complete my education in a less severe enviroment.

adrian gayle; in my reflecting on the problems in india.I have read facts that have reminded me of some similar situations.discrimination of' african-americans',has also seen its unique segregation plots enriched instead of declining.the indian dalits to me are resilient. . lower caste hindus know that fellow countrymen who have more,are not willing to relinquish their racial seperation by via 'SOCIALISM'.

this caste menace has been there from centuries and would remain there for almost 500 years more if Indians dont change their mentality even after being educated. it has crossed even religion lines too.
I am a dalit too and live in the capital delhi. And i have faced discrimination right from my child hood not only from hindus but also from muslims as i live in muslim dominated area neighbourhood.
Its pity but the truth
Educated indians first have to shed their castes and accept the reality in order to bring some change.
here we find castes in even english newspapers read by 2% of highly educated indians
forget about hindi ones
even one matrimonial sites there are caste columns before the profession column.
being in delhi city if i can face such discrimination I cant imagine about my relatives living in rural areas of the country.
Also no. of pop of villages is over 85 % here.

this link show horrible videos of indian caste system

and it is pity that indian media [like India TV] telecaste youtube videos like monkey fighting with a snake almost everyday but despite having their own reporting mechanism, they havent even by mistake telecast hard reality of india which would displease the most of the hindus who are influential and are their major consumers of their services because SC/STs remain in villages where there are no TV sets, even no electricity at all.

I would like to contact the producers /authors of this piece to find out the location of Study Street. I am going to visit Mumbai, and thought that I could take with me some hand-wound LED torches. This seems like a very low-tech way of making a big difference to the lives of these Dalits. Does anyone have any information on how I could locate 'Study Street'? Thanks in advance.

This refers to comments by Shubhanan B and Leena Patel which represent purely brahmanical mind set of prejudice and fake superiority. Their views not only show their dominating (ill)attitude but are very inhuman in nature. Think of a community who have tasted fruits of undefined reservations for centuries and now they are crying about merit. Which is of course not anybody's prerogative. Are these mindsets clear about the various scams/frauds done by so-called upper caste people? Are they aware that mostly upper-caste Gujaratis kill their girl child before here birth? Have these people witnessed how much dowry is offered for marriage? As far as capable medicos are concerned can these people furnish the data as how many people died or mistreated after taking medical treatment from reservation group? Wake up my friends ! gone are the days when one group was considered most efficient and others slaves. Give everybody an equal chance to prove his/her merit. Do you think anybody in India done far more service than Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar? If still in confusion read his books like - 'Annihilation of caste' and his speech while dedicating Constitution to the nation. I can provide you if you don't have it.

Great work! Kai Ryssdal please write more about Dalits. Its time to open eyes wide shut and face stark reality that behind the Shining India lays millions of languishing dalits.

The usual hue and cry by the upper castes about no caste discrimination and unjust reservation is least surprising especially when any foreign media takes due notice of dalits plight. However, it is pertinent to reply comments that try to distort fact from fiction primarily when it comes to caste discrimination and reservation policy.

Majority of upper caste people deliberately ignore the prevailing caste discrimination by giving reference to vague socio-economic development of educated dalits. One needs to enlighten them about how many dalit entrepreneurs they have known? How many dalit sports person are encouraged? Why does the Supreme Court of India fail to appoint dalit judges on its bench? Why does the media fail to report atrocities committed against dalits? Well the answer to these questions and many others related to the dalit discrimination whether practiced explicitly or implicitly pre dominantly lies in the castiest mindset of the Hindus. No matter which part of the world the Hindus live the caste gutter that flows from their mentality pollutes the basic democratic values of equality, liberty and fraternity.

About Reservations, it has not brought any sea change among the dalits soc-economic lifestyle however it succeed in creating the ripples that in itself has shaken if not destroyed the Brahminical hierarchy. Maintaining the present reservation and furthering it in private sector would certainly benefit the dalits and the country as whole.
(Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen backing Reservation policy stated, “"You have to see what best you can do to meet the demands for justice and efficiency in the delivery of public services," he said, adding that affirmative action was prevalent in many societies. Harvard had a policy of giving extra credits to those from a disadvantaged school, other criteria being equal. Merit should not be discerned from the performance in an institution, but from a person's efficiency over a period of time. Dealing with it figuratively, the eminent economist quoted Mark Twain to contend that a navigator's efficiency should not be judged from the 'next bend in the river' but from his knowledge of the 'whole shape of the river'. Sen advocated an approach to problems based on 'nyaya', rather than 'neethi', distinguishing the two terms for justice by describing the latter as a mere set of rules and the former as the fair outcome and realization of the benefits of law.)

Importantly, I would urge that a study research should be conducted to find out how many of those meritorious students belonging to upper caste stayed back to serve their country after the Government spending on their higher education. It would not come as a surprise that most of those students left abroad for personal aggrandizement. Particularly, speaking about merit one need to retrospect the progress made by India which has predominately been governed by the Upper caste Hindus. Statistically speaking India’s performance on Human Development Index, Human Poverty Index; General Empowerment Measure; Gender Development Index; General National Product; Education Index and several other indicators like Adult Literacy and Life Expectancy etc., is dismally low. Check 2007/2008 Human Development Report:

Development of India lies in giving millions of dalits equal opportunity to participate and not in marginalizing them from social, economic and political stream.

Today the people whom Mr. Michael Thevar gave an opportunity to work in US, never ever thought about being in US, who rather have taken generations to come over to US, now have become financially sound and are planning to settle here to give equal opportunity in casteless environment to their children. I wish them success and hope they will support their dalit bothers and sisters way back at home India. The steps taken by Mr. Michael Thevar towards affirmative action by employing people from marginalized communities is commendable. I believe his efforts need to be recognized and appreciated by the Government of India and every such organization that believes in equality.

About Mayavatiji, it has become the trend to criticize her governance simply because she belongs to lower caste. What she has achieved by bringing together the upper caste and lower caste votes perhaps any other politician can ever achieve which in fact needs to be appreciated. People overlook such social engineering strategy and criticize Mayavatiji’s governance however; these same people keep silent on politics of terror as seen in Gujarat and other parts of country just because the perpetrator propagates their vested religious interest.

Finally, you can find thousands of upper caste Hindu youths to join political propaganda, address issues (“pink chaddi”) and such others but you cannot get one single youth to take up the cause of atrocities committed against dalits. These upper caste youths can light candle on death of a upper caste girl at a night bar and raise a hue and cry to bring the perpetrators to justice but fail to raise voice on dalit girl paraded naked and raped in broad day light. Democracy and democratic life, justice and conscience, which are sustained by a belief in democratic principle, are foreign to the Hindu mind.

Rahul Gade. LL.M.,
New York,USA


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