Vantage point

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Free Markets and Dalits

Kuffir asked in his post "Do free markets mean free individuals?"

I posted two comments which I am reproducing below -

in plain words, would the markets render caste irrelevant?

No. And I don't think any right-thinking free-market supporter will claim that markets can make caste irrelevant.

And a question which seeks to link the two reminds me of a joke. A patient with a broken hand is being wheeled in for surgery. He asks he doctor "Will I be able to play the piano properly if the operation is successful?". The doctor says, "Of course you will.". The patient is overjoyed and says "That's great. I couldn't play piano for nuts before my hand broke."

Free markets are a solution to our economic problems, not social. There are several ways in which a less-socialist policy will give the oppressed castes greater opportunities and greater access to resources. But they can not, by themselves make caste irrelevant. That needs a change in the social mindset. But yes, if there is a change in the social mindset, then free markets can be enablers of further change.

Take the blacks in America. While they still have a lot of problems, I hope you will agree that their situation and standing in society is far better than, say, the 50s. Taking the specific example of Michael Richards, he was banned from the LA comedy club because of his racist outburst. The club banned use of the n-word. Voluntarily. I am sure that the market played a huge role in the proactive steps taken by the comedy club. If their image suffered, they would lose business since people who care about the issue of racism would not visit the club.

But this effect of the market was possible only because the civil rights movement has caused a social change in America big enough to make people feel outraged by someone using a racial insult.

Now here's what I am interested in knowing. Forget, for a while, the macro-concept of laissez-faire free markets. It is not a realistic idea in India for a few decades at least. I am thinking about some of the specific policy changes being proposed by free marketers - labour reforms, a change in the law which gives government a monopoly over buying agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, simplifying the entry of private players into primary education, dismantling the monopoly of APMCs everywhere, reforms which will stop harassment of street vendors by the police, denationalisation of the power sector.....

Which of these policy changes do you think will worsen the caste problem? In general, can you think of an economic reform which will actually make the life of an SC/ST/OBC worse than it already is? Do you not see some, if not all of the above policy measures actually helping everyone, including the oppressed castes?

And here is my criticism of the left-liberal commentators in India who write about caste. Their focus is too scattered, and a lot of the points they raise seem to have their origin more in a guilty-conscience and an intention-driven thinking, rather than a closer examination of the root of the problem.

One of my pet peeves is the logic of "representation". I have read people argue - reservations are not about oppression or skewed resource access. reservations are about representation.

Focusing on representation is what has made the caste problem stagnate. Because everyone, from thinkers to politicians, is just working to make sure that they can say "the proportion of the oppressed castes in colleges and offices is the same as their proportion in the population".

They ignore that a place in colleges and offices comes much later in life. What is more important is representation in more basic things which enable a person to get on equal footing.

What is the proportion of dalit and obc houses in rural India that have electricity, running water, as compared to the national average? What is the proportion of dalit children who complete primary education?

How about talking about representation in those things? Why is that never talked about or promised? It seems to me that the facts - "Only 31% dalit households have electricity as compared to 61% non-dalit households" or "Only 16% dalit children are enrolled in primary school as compared to 84% non-dalit children" are much more damning, worrying, unjust, and problem-causing than the fact that dalits are under-represented in industry.

But those issues are not raised or talked about. Instead there is reams and reams of polemic on more peripheral and secondary outcomes like dalit percentage in the IT industry and post-grad courses.