The economic reforms begun in India in 1991 were couched in the language of ‘modernization’, yet they have done little to challenge the caste and gender discrimination faced by Dalit women (once referred to as "untouchables") — in some ways their situation is worse.
The Indian government claimed the economic reforms undertaken in India from 1991 would usher in a new era of market efficiency that would lead to a globally competitive economy with increased growth and employment. The reforms were implemented in a context that was highly influenced by patriarchy and caste-based exclusionary practices. The latter resulted in a close match between income inequalities and caste ordering. An important question was whether the reforms – couched in the language of ‘modernization’ - would improve the lot of Dalit women through providing them income and employment opportunities that would allow them to overcome traditional barriers. A study released in 2012, based on interviews in New Delhi and Hyderabad (two of the cities with highest growth rates), but drawing also on nationwide data, produced surprising results. It suggested that while there was little improvement in a few cases, caste and patriarchy continue to influence the work and lives of Dalit women. Further, these problems were made worse in some instances by deteriorating welfare benefits and economic insecurity as a result of fiscal cuts and increasing inequalities.
How did this come about? First, some background: through its hereditary and hierarchical principles, the Hindu caste system has historically enforced occupational and labor market discrimination on Dalits by forcing them to undertake menial, unclean and low-status occupations. The practice of ‘untouchability’ – the prohibition of social and relational interaction between Dalit and other communities – further limited their possibilities for upward mobility. In spite of legal measures that penalized such practices after independence, caste-based exclusion continued to prevail. Dalit women were subject not only to the patriarchal norms and practices prevailing in India, and within their own communities. They were also targets of physical violence and rape by members of the wider society as a means of humiliating the community.
The study looked at how Dalit women experienced economic liberalization in relation to employment in the public, private and NGO sectors, as well as in entrepreneurship.
The public sector had since the 1950s provided an important option for Dalit groups to gain secure employment and to improve their economic and social status. The ‘reservation’ policy allocated a quota of places to Dalits in government educational institutions and in public service employment (based on their proportion in the general population). This policy was supported by special vocational and skills training. These provisions gave confidence to Dalits that they could access government employment.
The study showed that by 2010 these opportunities were under threat or were no longer available. Under pressure to cut government expenditure in line with the liberalization policies, recruitment in the public sector became more irregular. Vacancies allocated for Dalits often were simply not being filled. Ostensibly, the reason was a lack of suitable candidates. Yet these positions were subsequently given to people on temporary contract, the latter often been filled through informal contacts. A majority of educated Dalit women pursuing public sector jobs were only able to access temporary, low paid, work which lacked social security and labour rights. Most of them were employed in typically female jobs, with 50% in New Delhi being employed as teachers in government schools, often below their own skill level.
In the private sector, liberalization did result in increased employment for educated Dalit women. These women, over 70% of whom were between 20-30 years, and 80% of whom were single, had accessed education through the reservation policies. They were improving their technical and computer skills to meet the needs of the business that had started, especially in the growing services sector, and working for sub-contractors of larger companies.
Unfortunately like in many such small subcontracting firms, the Dalit women earned a near-minimum wage, and often lacked security of employment and welfare. Trade unions did not generally exist in these companies. Some of the companies provided benefits. And some of the Dalit women employees did gain some respect from their families and communities, even if patriarchal norms continued their subordination to male authority within the household.
However, the government’s encouragement of privatisation was sometimes at the expense of the existing labour and welfare rights of the workers. For example, while the government of Andhra Pradesh encouraged private sector expansion in many areas of the economy, it let companies monitor themselves on various labour welfare measures, such as minimum wages and maternity benefits. While caste was not often discussed in the private sector, it did not mean that it did not exist. The Dalit women interviewed expressed their fear that their colleagues might get to know their caste leading to social ostracism and even untouchability at the workplace.
In contrast, the NGO sector – which expanded substantially with the government withdrawal from service delivery – proved to be in an important source of employment for urban Dalit women. These organizations also showed greater awareness of caste and gender discrimination. As a result Dalit women in NGOs were able to access new information, improve their education and social awareness, and use their skills in their jobs. Nevertheless, the traditional gender division of labor, with women assuming labor-intensive tasks, often under male authority and supervision, continued to prevail in paid employment as well as in the household. The result was the typical ‘double-burden’ that characterises women’s experiences in patriarchal societies.
Finally, as regards entrepreneurship, both the union and state governments had promoted independent business by the scheduled castes. For example, the Delhi Scheduled Caste Finance Development Corporation runs several schemes to develop scheduled caste entrepreneurship. But the reality was that the majority of the Dalit women who sought to start businesses faced problems due to poor educational levels, a lack of experience and problems in accessing credit or borrowing at affordable interest rates. Most of them were involved in what was really self-employment, and stretching to work longer hours to both manage their businesses and do their ‘normal’ chores in the households.
It was clear for the majority of Dalit women that self-employment was more a distress-driven phenomenon and a survival strategy due to inadequately paid jobs or unemployment. In was not surprising that they set up small-scale shops and undertook activities with low and uncertain incomes, involving a high degree of self-exploitation. Their caste identity sometimes created obstacles; for example, being limited to Dalit customers, or to operate in a primarily Dalit locality.
Overall, the study showed that in the wake of economic growth, global competition and increased privatization, Dalit women remained exposed to hierarchies based on class, caste and patriarchy – in the labor market and in society. The majority of those interviewed were accessing temporary, low paid, contractual jobs, without adequate welfare and security provisions. While some Dalit women have managed to challenge these perceptions and move into better jobs, the realization of their fundamental labor and gender rights remains a challenge in contemporary India. This is especially so in a context of widening inequalities in society, increasing insecurity in employment, and the persistence of patriarchy and caste based discrimination.