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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.