Caste Based Economic Exclusion: The Perpetuating Inequality

Ajay, Assistant Professor, Law Centre-1, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi 

Economic exclusion is one facet of the broader category of social exclusion and can be defined as the arbitrary restriction on certain groups of the society to use the resources of the community which are necessary for the economic development of the group. Economic discrimination can be meted out by denying a particular group or individual to avail the economic resources of the society on the ground of caste, ethnicity, religion etc. The economic discrimination has serious results for the excluded groups and brings deprivation or low income to the discriminated group. Indian society is characterized by pervasive and persistent inter group inequality in economic life. The pattern of inter-group inequality is closely matches the economic scheme of the caste system ((Kathrine S. Newman, Sukhdeo Thorat, “Caste and Economic Discrimination: Causes, Consequences and Remedies”, 42(41) Economic and Political Weekly 4121(2007).)). The caste system in India being a socio-economic organization inheres in itself the economic exclusion and discrimination to the lower castes thereby restricting them to avail the benefit of the economic resources of the society for their economic upliftment.

The caste system is based on certain customary rules and norms which regulate all aspects of the life of the people- social, economic, and political while living in the society. The organizational scheme of the caste system is based on the division of people into castes in which the civil, cultural, religious and economic rights of each individual caste are pre-determined or ascribed by birth and made hereditary ((Sukhdeo Thorat, “Ambedkar’s Interpretation of the Caste System, Its Economic Consequences and Suggested Remedies” S.M. Michael (ed.), Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values 287 (2nd edn. 2007).)). The caste system, as an economic organization, regulates the economic life of the people by providing fixed hereditary occupations to each caste without any occupational mobility, unequal and hierarchical nature of social and economic rights and the regulatory mechanism in form of strong penalties e.g. social boycott, excommunication etc. for the enforcement of the socio-economic organization of the caste system.

The necessary outcome of such an arrangement of fixed occupation and unequal and hierarchical socio-economic rights for each caste is the forced exclusion ((Amartya Sen, “Social Exclusion: Concept, Application and Scrutiny”, Working Paper (2000) as cited in supra note 1-Amartya Sen uses the term Forced Exclusion to define exclusion of one caste from economic rights of another caste.))of one caste from the occupation and rights of the other caste ((Sukhdeo Thorat, Dalits in India: Search for a Common Destiny 139 (2009).)). One caste cannot have the occupation and rights of another caste and such exclusion is maintained by the enforcement mechanism i.e. social ostracism and socio-economic penalties. Traditionally, the caste system deprived the lower castes especially the untouchables from having any rights over the community resources. They were excluded from all type of economic activities except manual labour and services to the upper castes. They were not allowed to own property and engage themselves in trade. On the other hand, the caste system established a monopoly of the upper caste over the economic resources of the community which as an indispensable outcome resulted into the development of the upper caste while degradation of the discriminated groups. For the lower castes, particularly the untouchables, exclusion lead to deprivation and poverty insofar as they were denied of all sources of livelihood, except manual labour which consists of assigned occupations considered to be polluting and inferior and service to the castes above them. Therefore, the economic discrimination was an obvious and necessary outcome of the caste system ((Supra note 2 at 289)).

The assignment of occupations to each caste under the caste system is hereditary and not based on individual capabilities and inclinations. There is no space for the individual choices and capacities. According to Dr. Ambedkar the caste system is based on division of labourers and such division of labourers is not spontaneous and not based on natural inclinations but based only on a person’s birth in a particular caste. He said ((Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, Annihiliation of Caste available at:

Social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of an individual to the point of competency to choose and to make his own career. This principle is violated in the Caste System in so far as it involves an attempt to appoint tasks to individuals in advance, selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents.

Another dimension of the fixed hereditary occupation under the caste system pointed out by Dr. Ambedkar is that the person engaged in the occupations considered degrading by the upper castes is provoked to ill-will and aversion and tries to escape such occupation because of the attached stigma to the occupation. He said ((Ibid.)):

There are many occupations in India which on account of the fact that they are regarded as degraded by the Hindus provoke those who are engaged in them to aversion. There is a constant desire to evade and escape from such occupations which arises solely because of the blighting effect which they produce upon those who follow them owing to the slight and stigma cast upon them by the Hindu religion. What efficiency can there be in a system under which neither men’s hearts nor their minds are in their work? As an economic organization Caste is therefore a harmful institution, inasmuch as, it involves the subordination of man’s natural powers and inclinations to the exigencies of social rules.

Such aversion and ill-will definitely affects the efficiency and productivity of labour adversely and may induce a person to remain unemployed. The natural outcome of which is the economic backwardness. The caste system while fixing occupations and restricting occupational mobility is responsible for the much of the unemployment in the country ((Ibid.)).

Thus, an overall analysis of the caste system as an economic organization endorsed to the fact that the fixed nature of rights and occupations among castes invariably results in the economic degradation of the castes which are at the lower ladder of the society. The untouchable caste groups are the worse affected by the caste system’s criteria of assigning occupations and rights because the hereditary occupations assigned to the untouchables led to wide-raging forms of social and economic disadvantages due to the untouchability stigma attached to the occupations. Even the fixed rights of the caste groups especially the untouchables restrict their reach to the resources of the community and thus resultant deprivation and poverty. The maintenance of the economic sphere in the society as provided by the caste system automatically leads to economic discrimination against the lower castes and thus creating inter-caste inequalities. Here it is important to note that economic exclusion or discrimination is independent of income, productivity or merit of individuals in the group. In the case of caste-based exclusion, the basis of exclusion is group identity i.e. membership of a particular caste and not the economic characteristics of a group. The focus of exclusion is the social (caste) group, not the individual ((Sukhdeo Thorat, “On Economic Exclusion and Inclusive Policy”, available at: The economic facet of the caste system also brings “voluntary unemployment” among higher castes as well as “involuntary unemployment” among the lower castes.  Caste as an economic organization also leads to the inter-caste conflict and violence against the lower caste by the upper castes because violence is internal to the maintenance of the economic organization of the caste system and is a traditional enforcement mechanism to maintain the caste system.

Operational Area of Economic Discrimination

The economic discrimination may operate in a vast area of situations like market discrimination which may operate through restrictions or discriminatory access to various markets such as agricultural land, labour, credit, consumer or other inputs and services necessary in starting any occupation ((Sukhdeo Thorat, “Affirmative Action in the Private Sector: Why and How” available at: It may operate in the labour market through discriminative hiring of labour and discriminative wage payments i.e. on a rate less than market rate or rates paid to the non-dalit workers, in the capital market through restriction on access to capital and discriminative interest rate on capital, in the agricultural market through denial of sale and purchase or leasing of land, in input market through the denial in sale and purchase of factor inputs and in the consumer market through sale and purchase of commodities and consumer goods ((Sukhdeo Thorat, “Human Poverty and Socially Disadvantaged Groups in India”, UNDP Discussion Paper Series-18, Human Development Resource Centre (Jan. 2007) available at: .)).

Economic discrimination may also operate in non-market transactions like rent on residential houses, charges or fees for use of services like housing, water and electricity ((See supra note 4.)). Further, the restriction on dalits to change their occupations and thus hindering them to avail the other more suitable and income generating jobs which are available to others reflects caste-based economic discrimination. The economic discrimination may also operate in distribution of services and amenities provided by the government like discrimination in distribution of disaster relief funds on the basis of caste e.g. compensation to the victims of disasters.

Economic Discrimination and Dalits

Dalits constitute approximately 17 percent (around 167 million) of the total population of India ((Census of India, 2001. See supra note 11.)). Nearly 80 percent scheduled castes line in rural area and only 20.18 percent scheduled castes live in urban area. According to the Census of India, 2001, 72.93 percent scheduled castes workers were engaged in the agriculture sector in rural area. In 2000, the scheduled castes were having less access to agricultural land as compared to non-SC/ST. The percentage of landless households among the SCs in rural areas was about 10 percent as compared with 6 percent for non-SC/ST households. Nearly 75 percent scheduled castes were landless or near landless as compared to 54 percent for the non-SC/ST. Only 26.78 % scheduled castes fall in the cultivator group according to the census of India, 2001 whereas the percentage was much higher in the non-SC/ST at 47 percent. According to National Sample Survey (2000) 61.4 percent of the scheduled castes household in rural and 64 percent in the urban area were wage labourers as against 31.2 percent and 53.8 percent respectively among the non-SC/ST households showing huge disparity in rural area. This data indicates that a large proportion of dalits is engaged in private sector ((Supra note 11.  For further reference see supra note 4 at 242-265)).

Dalits blighted with cased based discrimination and untouchability face the economic discrimination in the private sector in different market and also in the non-market transactions in varied proportions. As a large proportion of dalits is engaged in the private sector, they are all the more vulnerable to caste based economic discrimination without any formal protection against such discrimination. Their vulnerability is more in the sense that the stigma of untouchability adds an additional dimension to the economic discrimination as they are also prohibited from social intercourse and participation in various economic activities due to the stigma of pollution ((Supra note 10)). The data available on economic discrimination though limited but approve the economic discrimination faced by dalits in the private sector.

Discrimination in Market Transactions

The economic discrimination in the market situations may take varied forms and affect the discriminated groups adversely thereby bringing deprivation and poverty. In market based economic discrimination there may be restriction on entry of the discriminated groups on the basis of caste to the markets and through selective inclusion and unequal treatment ((Supra note 1 at 4122)). The market discrimination may be in the form of what Amratya Sen calls ‘unfavourable exclusion and ‘unfavourable inclusion. Unfavourable exclusion may result where a group or individual is intentionally kept out e.g. discrimination meted out by dalits in hiring of labour or jobs where they are kept out of the labour market or jobs on the basis of caste. The unfavourable inclusion results when a group or individual is forcibly included on highly or deeply unfavourable terms e.g. discrimination in sale or purchase of goods on a rate lower than the market price or the price paid to the non-dalits for the same. Unfavourable inclusion is quite close to the market discrimination ((See Sukhdeo Thorat, “Dalit Exclusion: The Empirical Evidence”, available at: http://infochang /index2.php? option=com_coentent&do_pdf=1&id=7475. Also see supra note 10)).

Discrimination in Labour Market

The economic discrimination in the labour market operates through the discrimination on ground of caste in hiring of labour or discrimination in wage payments, condition of works etc. As already stated untouchability aggravates the situation and enhances the gravity of discrimination against dalits e.g. non-hiring of scheduled castes on the ground of untouchability. A comprehensive study conducted by Action Aid India in 555 villages across 11 Indian States (2000) endorsed the view that discrimination in labour market exists and operates through exclusion in hiring and unfair or low wages ((Ibid)). The study found out that in 36% of the villages, the scheduled castes faced exclusion in getting hired in agricultural employment. In about 25% of the villages the scheduled castes faced discrimination in wage payments and received daily wages at a rate less than the market rate. In 37% villages, untouchability was practiced while making wage payments. In 1/3rd of the villages, the scheduled castes workers faced discrimination in hiring for house construction due to the attached stigma of pollution to them ((Supra note 4 at 140)).

Discrimination in Consumer Market

Discrimination in consumer market operates through discrimination in sale or purchase of consumer goods like milk, grain, bakery products, vegetables etc. Goods are purchased from dalits on lower than the market rate and in case of selling consumer goods to dalits, high prices are charged from them.

Pointing towards the pattern of discrimination in the village economy which changes along caste lines, Kancha Ilaiah stated ((Kancha Ilaiah, Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Phillosophy, Culture and   Political Economy 30 (2nd edn. reprint 2009).)):

Even the prices of commodities or grains or pulses change based on the caste of the customer. For example, for the same grain a Maadigaa ((A lower caste in Andhra Pradesh))gets paid less than a Reddy ((An upper caste in Andhra Pradesh))gets. While buying from the Baniya, the lower the caste of the customer, the higher would be the price, and while selling it would be the opposite.

The Action Aid study (555 villages in 11 states) showed discrimination in consumer market and observed that in 35% villages (165 villages out of 466 villages surveyed), the scheduled castes were prevented from selling goods to village market. In 47% villages (162 villages out of 347 villages surveyed), the scheduled castes were not allowed to sell milk to cooperatives. In 28% villages (100 villages out of 360 villages surveyed), the scheduled castes were not allowed to buy milk from cooperatives. The surveyed data also revealed some isolated evidence of exclusion and discrimination in the sale and purchase of consumer goods like bakery products and vegetables ((Supra note 4 at 143)).

Discrimination in Agricultural Land Market

The caste based economic discrimination also results in factor market for example agriculture land and irrigation. Dalits face restrictions or discrimination in access to irrigation facilities and to access to agricultural land. The Action Aid study pointed out that the scheduled castes faced restriction in access to irrigation facilities. In 32.6% villages (152 villages out of 466 villages surveyed), the scheduled castes were denied access to irrigation facilities. In the case of agricultural land the study found, from selective evidence from some states, the hostile and aggressive attitude of the higher castes towards the SCs who tried to own and cultivate land for agricultural purposes ((Id. at 142.)).

Land has always remained a source of constant conflict and atrocities on dalits. Atrocities are committed on scheduled caste to cripple them economically. To perpetuate the economic discrimination, any form of resistance against the discrimination is meted out with violence which is traditionally used as a mechanism to suppress the scheduled castes. The resistance of the scheduled castes to land appropriation by the upper castes is a common phenomenon. The Khairlanji killings is a suitable example where the resistance by the dalit family to land appropriation by the upper caste was resulted in rape and killing of four members of the dalit family by the upper caste people ((See Manoranjan Mohanty, “Kilvenmani, Karamchedu to Khairlanji: Why Atrocities on Dalits Persist” available at:

Occupational Discrimination

The occupational discrimination operates in restriction on discriminated groups to change their traditional occupations. Dalits are restricted from changing their traditionally fixed occupations of which the manual scavenging is a good example. They are hindered to avail other more suitable and income generating jobs which are available to others reflects caste-based economic discrimination. A section of Indians continue to be forced to work and live in stinking sub-human conditions ((See Water Aid Report, Burden of Inheritance: Can We Stop Manual Scavenging? Yes, But First We Need to Accept that it Exist 5 (2009) available at: /plugin_documents/burden_of_inheritance.pdf.)). In many cases they are forced to do manual scavenging irrespective of their wishes. The social structure forced nearly all o this work on dalit women and girls ((Institute of Social Development, Impact of Scheme of Training and Rehabilitation on Socio Economic Improvement of Manual Scavengers in Rajasthan: Draft Report Sponsored by Planning Commission, (2006-2007) available at: /sereport/ser/ser _istr .pdf)). The stigma of untouchability operates in the arena which restricts their employment in other alternative income generating occupations. The stigma of untouchability attached to the scavenger castes turns them back to the degrading occupation because their chances of getting alternative jobs are hampered by the pollution attached to them and in rare chances their alternative self employment ventures become successful.

The scavengers face discrimination in salary and paid meagre salary for the inhuman work. They are paid in cash or kind in private homes which is very low and thus affects the position of dalit scavengers economically. In Jhunjunu district of Rajasthan, women scavengers are given stale bread and a few coins in return ((Supra note 23 at 7.)). They are even employed by the municipalities and the fear of being fired by municipality officials keeps manual scavengers away from demanding higher wages ((Human Rights Watch, India’s Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s Untouchables, 85 (2007).)). Therefore, the occupational discrimination contributes to economic discrimination and affects dalits economically thereby bringing deprivation and poverty.

IV. Consequences of Economic Discrimination

The over-all socio-economic exclusion leads to the under development of the scheduled castes and results in high level of deprivation and poverty. Discrimination is not only an equity issue but it also involves economic costs to the society ((See Dalit Solidarity Network UK, Caste Discrimination and the Private Sector: Employment Principles for the Foreign Investors in South Asia (2005) available at: it brings adverse impact on the economic development. The economic discrimination in various markets adversely affects not only dalits as it brings deprivation to them but it also affects the economic growth ((Supra note 10)). The caste based economic discrimination perpetuates the inter-group income inequalities because of the discrimination in wage payments and as a necessary outcome adds to the deprivation and poverty of the discriminated social groups.

In case of market especially in the labour market, economic discrimination affects the productivity of labour as well as the profits of the firm thereby affecting the economic growth as a whole. The discrimination in wage payments i.e. payment of wages to workers from low castes at a rate lower than the market rate or at a rate lower than what is given to other workers of the higher castes affects the work commitment of the discriminated workers as a result affects the productivity of labour which leads to the lowering of profits of the industry engaged in such discrimination ((See supra note 10)). The discriminated in conditions of work on the basis of caste also brings aversion in the mind of the discriminated workers. As Dr. Ambedkar rightly pointed out that the assignment of the so called polluted occupations brings aversion and ill will in the oppressed people towards their work, the same thing happens in case of market discrimination where the lower caste worker face discrimination in matters of wage payments and conditions of work which generates dissatisfaction towards the work and the less human capital is invested leading to less productivity and lowering of profits.

Economic discrimination involves the denial of access to employment, income disparity among groups which furthers the inequalities in the society. The income inequality among social groups when stretched from generation to generation then it may generate inter-group tension in the society. Dalits find themselves helpless in the private sector due to lack of any kind of protection against the caste based economic discrimination which adversely affects their living standard as well as generates poverty which in turn makes them more and more dependent on the upper castes especially in the rural area where eighty percent of dalits reside. Due to the dependence on the upper castes, they become all the more vulnerable to other forms of discrimination and atrocities. The untouchability exacerbates their economic deprivation as it hinders their engagement in the other alternative income generating vocations. The occupational immobility automatically generates deprivation e.g. the engagement in inhuman occupations without any possibility of changing such occupation might generate a feeling of dislike and hatred towards the work. So where a manual scavenger is not doing his work properly that may be due to the reason of the aversion that has arisen because of the engagement in the so called polluted work and lack of possibility of change.

So where a large portion of the scheduled castes is engaged in the private sector, the caste based economic discrimination haunts the economic development of the scheduled castes. It have graver implications not only for the scheduled castes but also for the society as the economic development is affected adversely by the economic discrimination because the society is deprived of the adequate human capital investment in the market transactions. It affects the efficiency of the labour and might lead to aversion towards the work thus affecting the productivity of labour. The large portion engaged in private sector whether it is labour market or any other market, the economic discrimination affects the ability of the human capital to be invested and thus hinders the economic growth as it depends on the investment of human capital in the various markets thus contributing to the economic growth.

V. Reservation vis-à-vis Economic Empowerment of Dalits: Success or Failure!

Reservation as a constituent part of broder affirmative action policy of the Indian state was introduced to achieve the constitutional ends of liberty, justice, equality and fraternity. The reservation policy is introduced to remedy the past injustices meted out by the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes which hindered their socio-economic mobility. It aims at the socio-economic inclusion of the scheduled castes in the mainstream by providing reservation of seats in public sector jobs, educational institutions, political institutions like lower house of parliament and legislative assemblies of states, municipalities and panchayats etc. Specifically, job reservations and quota in government service and public sector undertakings are intended not just to provide a few jobs to some individuals, but to create a just society by providing helping hand to the disadvantaged groups and to uplift, empower as well as provide them with opportunities for both social and economic mobility ((P.G. Jogdand, “Reservation Policy and Empowerment of Dalits”, S.M. Michael, (ed.), Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values 315 (2nd edn. 2007).)).

The Constitution of India provides 22.5 percent reservation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes out of which 15 percent reservation is for the scheduled castes in jobs, employment and political institutions. Though reservations has helped dalits in getting jobs, admission in educational institutions thus raising the literacy rate and seats in the political institutions thus awakening them politically yet they are limited in their reach and has not proved a sufficient remedy for tackling caste discrimination. The reservations have benefited a small portion of dalits who got employment in public sector and admissions in educational institutions ((See Smita Narula, “Equal by Law Unequal by Caste: The ‘Untouchable’ Condition in Critical Race Perspective” 26 Wiscounsin International Law Journal 311 (2008).)). However, a large portion of dalits is still out of the reach of the benefits of the reservations and is blighted with the caste based discrimination in socio-economic sphere. A large portion of dalits is illiterate and poor and engaged in the private sector which is out of the reach of reservations and thus lacks any form of protection against the caste based discrimination ((See supra note 14)). The high illiteracy and dropout rates among dalits hinder them to get the public sector employment and education. In 1996, 1.1 million dalits out of the then total population of 138 million were employed in the public sector that fall under the sphere of reservation which is only a paltry 0.8 percent ((Anand Teltumbde, “Globalisation and the Dalits” available at: http://www.ambedkar. org/research/GLOBALISATIONANDTHEDALITS.pdf.)). This shows that the reach of reservations is very limited and only a small portion of dalits to which the reservation policy were able to reach have benefited from the reservation policy. The reservation policy has not been implemented successfully. The improper implementation of the reservation policy is affecting the aim sought to be achieved by the policy. The seats reserved for the scheduled castes in the public sector employment left vacant due to which dalits do not get the benefit of the reservation in employment thereby undermining the aim of uplifting the dalits economically. NHRC in its report observed that in the country’s 256 universities and nearly 11000 colleges funded by the university grants commission, dalits and tribals comprises only 2 percent of the teaching positions and about 75,000 teaching positions reserved for these communities remain vacant ((See National Human Rights Commission, Report on Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes 139 (2004).)).

The large private sector where majority of dalits are engaged and face caste based discrimination still remains out of the purview of the any kind of protection. The fact of engagement of the majority of scheduled castes in the private sector endorse to the view that only a small portion of dalits is employed in the public sector jobs. The already limited reach of reservations is increasingly undermined by economic liberalization and its attendant outsourcing of public sector jobs to the private sector where reservations, for the time being at least, cannot reach. The sphere of the public sector is shrinking due to the economic reforms adopted by India where the public sector undertakings are being privatized and the state intervention is becoming minimal.

The employment of the scheduled castes in the class I and class 2 government jobs is minimal. In 2003, the percentage share of SC to the total number employed in Class I, Class II, Class III and Class IV jobs was 11.9 per cent, 14.3 per cent, 16.3 per cent and 17.9 per cent, respectively. The data indicates that the scheduled castes were underrepresented in the Class I and Class II jobs while their share exceeded the stipulated quota of 15 percent in Class III and Class IV jobs. While compared to the total number employed in all the job categories in 2003 and compare it with the percentage share of the total SC population in India which is 16.2 percent of the total population what comes out is that out of 100 Scheduled castes, only a meagre 6.7 percent were employed in Class I and Class II jobs and 93.3 per cent were employed in Class III and Class IV jobs ((Supra note 4 at 75)).

So it will not be wrong to say that though reservations have brought hope among the scheduled castes about their socio-economic mobility but in reality the benefit of reservations is restricted to few portions of dalits whereas a large portion still remains out of the reach of the reservation benefits. The fact that majority of dalits are engaged in the private sector employment and activities, thus discard the question of benefit of reservation in employment to this portion of dalits. Further the liberalization, privatization and globalization trend has also reduced the sphere of the benefit of reservation in employment due to the conversion of public sector the private sector thus undermining the reservation policy. The poverty, illiteracy and unawareness among dalits also hinder their reach to the benefit of reservation policy. Thus as a measure for the economic empowerment of dalits, reservation in jobs has not done much good and still a large portion of dalits are without the benefits of reservation. The reservation policy has not become successful due to the lack of proper implementation of the reservation policy and its unequal reach to the scheduled castes. The shrinking public sector has also restricted the benefits of reservation as far as the economic matters are concerned.

Discrimination in Disaster Relief

Dalits also face discrimination in other spheres like discrimination in distribution of relief at the time of disasters and natural calamities like flood, earthquake etc. The caste also plays its role in humanitarian activities like disaster relief. The disasters affect all victims without any discrimination as to race, ethnicity, caste but the humanitarian relief differs along caste lines and even the government relief to be given to the victims of disasters is provided to the victims according to the status of the victim in the social hierarchy.

Discrimination in Bihar Flood Relief

Due to the change in the course of the river Kosi because of breach in the embankment, the 18 districts in Bihar were affected by the flood in 2008. As many as 2528 villages drawn from 114 blocks of 18 districts of Bihar were affected by the floods, affecting 47 lakhs people and resulting in deaths of 235 persons. The districts of Saupal, Araria, Madhepura, Saharsa and Purnea were the worst affected districts. The caste discrimination was observed in the distribution of flood relief. The Dalit Watch which monitored the relief camps in Bihar observed that in the relief sites located in the four worst affected districts of Saupal, Madhepura, Saharsa and Araria, [where a considerable portion of dalit communities concentrated -highest concentration of dalit communities in Saupal (41%) and Araria and Madhepura together (39%)], members of dalit communities were not allowed to enter and settle in relief camps and dalit families marooned due to the floods were not allowed to avail of boats to escape there villages ((Dalit Watch, For a Morsel of Life: A Dalit Watch Report on the Flood Relief camps in Bihar 10-11 (Sep. 2008) available at: The caste discrimination was meted out by dalits by supply of inferior materials, late supply of food, serving at separate locations and use of improper language during distribution of food ((Id. at 15)).

Discrimination in Post-Tsunami Relief Administration

Let another Tsunami come-may be then we will help you.”- A government official to affected dalit community in Kancheepuram, Tamilnadu ((See Timothy Gill, Making Things Worse: How ‘Caste-Blindness’ in Indian Post-Tsunami Disaster Recovery has Exacerbated Vulnerability and Exclusion Report Commissioned by Dalit Network, Netherlands (Feb. 2007) available at: report.pdf)).

The post-tsunami recovery phase presents an example of the caste based discrimination in the distribution of relief which shows a systematic type of discrimination. The Dalit Network, Netherlands in its report (2007) highlighted the thorough discrimination meted out by dalits at every phase of the post-tsunami recovery program whether it is emergency phase, relief phase or rehabilitation phase. The various NGOs and newspaper also endorsed to the discrimination faced by dalits in the post-tsunami recovery process ((Reports from International NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Action Aid and local NGOs like District Forum for Dalit Liberation, People’s Watch Tamil Nadu etc. endorsed the caste based discrimination in the post-tsunami recovery phase. See for further reference Human Rights Watch, After the Deluge: India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami available at: reports /2005/India 0505/ index.htm.)). The discrimination was rampant in all phases of recovery process and was meted out with regard to the distribution of rice, sharing of emergency shelters, the removal of dead bodies and in matters of relief material provided in form of compensation and provisions for livelihood ((For details see supra note 41)).

Tsunami hit the fishermen the hardest because of their proximity to the coastline but dalits were also seriously affected by the disaster in which number of dalits loses their lives and thousands lose their few possessions. Dalits faced discrimination in post tsunami relief distribution while the upper caste fishermen were given special treatment. The upper caste fishermen were provided with far better boats then they had before tsunami. The dalits were not allowed to drink water from tanks put up by UNICEF ((Janyala Sreenivas, “Tsunami Can’t Wash this Away: Hatred for Dalits” available at: http://www. Indian _id= 62212)). The post tsunami phase made dalits more vulnerable and caste tensions became rampant in the areas affected by tsunami on the issues of unequal distribution of assistance, disputes over status as victims etc. The study of the post tsunami recovery phase observed that though dalits had lesser loss of lives and property in many ways they suffered more greatly than the others due to their vulnerability and poverty ((Supra note 41 at 12.)). In the emergency phase, many dalits were completely denied access to food, water, shelter and toilets because of the untouchable status of dalits. in the relief phase the beneficiary lists were prepared by the caste panchayats excluding dalits from the list for the purposes of the initial relief. Dalits were given leftovers and rejected relief provisions. Dalits were considered as ‘lesser victims’ because they were not from the fishermen community. Even the dalits fishermen had to face discrimination in getting relief. In the rehabilitation phase also caste regulated the measures taken for the rehabilitation of the victims of tsunami. Upper caste fishermen were provided with better boats but dalit fishermen were exceptionally provided with boats ((Id. at)).

The Tamil Nadu government is to be blamed for this unequal distribution of disaster relief at every phase of the recovery program. The government failed to compensate dalits for the loss of their property and possessions. In many cases the disaster relief distributors not even visited the tsunami affected areas. People’s Watch Tamil Nadu in its report of 2005 reported that 346 six villages found to be “affected by the tsunami but excluded from rehabilitation.” Around two third of these villages were dalit villages ((People’s Watch Tamil Nadu, “The Hit and the Affected” as cited in supra note 41 at 13)).

M. Soloman Bernard Shaw of the National Service Scheme stated ((Supra note 41 at 58)):

I have personally seen food and clothing being distributed by  agencies to members of only one community in nagapattinam,  even barely 50 meteres away at the end of the street, the dalits continued to wait in hope- and in vain.

So the discriminative treatment of the scheduled castes even in cases of humanitarian relief shows the most polluted version of the caste discrimination, the degrading nature of the societal values and indicates towards the failure of the state to prevent such discrimination. Even the discrimination by the State agencies in distribution of disaster relief is indicative of the administration’s connivance in the perpetuation of caste based discrimination.


In the Concluding lines it can be said that a large segment of dalits is poor and engaged in private sector where it has to face the caste based economic discrimination. Dalits have to face caste based economic discrimination in the various market and non market transaction where there is no protection against such discrimination. The dalits are still forced to do traditional degrading occupations with restriction on occupational mobility and untouchability adds an additional dimension to their economic discrimination as their untouchable status hinders their employment in the alternative income generating occupations. The reservation policy in the public sector has also not done much good because of its restrictive reach and it has only benefited only a few among the scheduled castes. So there is a dire need to provide protection to the scheduled caste engaged in the private sector against the economic discrimination faced by them. The economic empowerment of the scheduled castes is very much necessary along with raising the educational level among dalits. There is no doubt that the government has initiated measures for the economic upliftment of the scheduled castes like special plans etc. The special plans described as powerful mechanism for ensuring dalit economic empowerment has itself been thwarted in its application and implementation by administrative agencies at the central and state level either by inadequate investment of public resources, non-utilization or diversion of funds earmarked for dalit empowerment. According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, during the past five year plan period, an average of 2 billion Euros ( US$ 2.96 billion) per year was illegally diverted from these funds ((National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, Background of the Dalit Situation in India (September 2007). The figure is calculated from: Expenditure Budget Vol. II (Notes on demands for Grants), Union Budget 2006-07; Statement No. 21, Expenditure Budget Vol. I, Union Budget 2006-07; Outcome Budget 2006-07 for various Ministries of Central Government) cited in Smita Narula, “Equal by Law Unequal by Caste: The ‘Untouchable’ Condition in Critical Race Perspective” 26 Wiscounsin International Law Journal, 302 (2008).)). The outcome is the economic disempowerment of the scheduled castes leading to the violation of human rights of this large segment of society. The economic policies earmarked for the economic upliftment of the scheduled castes need to be implemented in a more coherent manner whereby considerably large number of scheduled castes can be benefitted by them. The level of illiteracy and poverty is much more required to be lowered down but that is possible only if the policies for the poverty and illiteracy eradication are implemented with utmost sincerity.  Then only the aim of social and economic justice so enshrined in the Constitution of India can be achieved in its true spirit.