In the job market, Caste role reversal

I am absolutely thrilled to share another story on caste. This one again has gone missing from Mint’s website. I found this story’s draft on my drive and googled with the first four lines. Guess what, this blog had shared the story with the Mint link that does not work anymore. Thanks to the blog, I now have a full version of my published article. This article talks about the reversal of caste in the labour market with globalization.

Here you go:

In job market, caste role reversal Wed, Nov 10 2010. 1:00 AM IST

Rapid globalization has altered the historical structure that allotted
well-paying jobs to the upper castes

Pallavi Singh

Anil Kumar Mishra wears a sacred yellow thread around his torso,
effectively covered by his ash-blue uniform. While ushering in
visitors’ vehicles in the basement parking of V3S shopping mall in New
Delhi’s Nirman Vihar, he always hopes not to run into any acquaintance
from his village Shahabad in Bihar.

The yellow thread, he insists, can embarrassingly give him away.

Back home, this relic of religiosity is what shapes his identity—he is
the privileged Brahmin, the upper-caste Hindu whose primary role in
the Varna system is to worship the gods. In fact, this is what his
father Badrinarayan Mishra did all his life and survived on regular
doles from Hindu devotees during festivals.

Two of his younger brothers in Shahabad continue the family tradition,
but Anil says the vocation assigned to him by virtue of his caste
brought his family little money.

At 45, the college dropout is in a line of work which is considered a
lowly occupation for Maithil Brahmins—one of the highest ranking
Brahmins—in his village. He is a parking attendant, and by his own
admission, if he had enough education, he would be doing something
else. “Respect is very important in a job and everyone respects
priests. Position of a parking attendant is still better than that of
a security guard. No one gives him any respect, you know, and people
often address him lousily. I would never tolerate that. After all, I
am a Brahmin,” he says, adding that people seldom violate his
instructions in the parking lot, which is at least not disrespectful
for his upper-caste lineage.

For thousands of years, caste has remained a superior marker and an
important identity in India for upper-caste Hindus such as Anil, but
rapid globalization and economic reforms in its wake may now be
reversing the historical structure that allotted the well-paying jobs
only to the upper castes and forbade them from taking up menial jobs.
“In India, one doesn’t have a caste without any occupational identity.
But in a globalized world, much of the caste order has begun to
reverse itself primarily because of movement of low-caste Dalits from
farm to non-farm sectors such as industry, entry of multinational
firms with caste-neutral jobs and the subsequent race for money,
clearing the space for unemployed upper castes to step in,” says
Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit writer, activist and author of Dalit
Phobia: Why do they hate us? Prasad is currently researching the
emerging trend of this role reversal in collaboration with the
University of Pennsylvania in the US.

A recent study by Prasad, Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett and Shyam Babu,
excerpted last month in the Economic and Political Weekly and reported
by Mint, reflected two significant changes in economic activity of low
caste community in Uttar Pradesh: More and more Dalits are working as
sharecroppers on farm land rather than as labourers, and fewer among
them are handling animal corpses, traditionally an occupation limited
to the community.

Prasad argues that such changes, reflective of a higher social status
for Dalits, have diluted the upper caste arrogance of Hindus
significantly. “Upper-caste Hindus are going through a great amount of
distress. For centuries, they have owned land, but in the post-reform
period, they suddenly realize that owning a television set or a mobile
phone is a much bigger social status than their caste superiority.
They feel threatened when they can’t achieve them,” he adds.

The growing importance of money in a free-market era is also
undermining the importance of caste by allotting more value to
material possessions instead of social status, Prasad says. “This
money-making phase is very similar to the wave of materialism in the
US in 1960s when the growing importance of money resulted in more
democratic relations between the whites and blacks. Even the upper
caste Hindus such as Brahmins and Rajputs are willingly taking up jobs
that they vehemently detest,” argues Prasad.

Saroj Kumar Chaudhary, 18, perfectly understands the situation. He was
brought to Delhi from Madhubani in Bihar a year ago by a relative
after his father, a small-time farmer, began chiding him for his
constant demands for a mobile. A high-school dropout, Saroj landed a
scavenging job with the Centrestage Mall in Noida.

During the ten-hour shift at the mall, Chaudhary’s primary task is to
keep its toilets clean for which he is paid Rs.4,800 a month. However,
in the slums of Loni in Ghaziabad where he now lives, he is known as
an attendant in a television showroom, a lie he deliberately sells.
“Everyone knows I am a Bhumihar Brahmin and no one expects me to do
such a dirty job,” he says, admitting to his upper-caste identity
after repeated queries.

To Saroj’s rescue are the modern tools of scavenging—a steel wiper,
toilet cleaning solutions and tissue papers—and for the “new-age
look”, he also has a dark blue uniform with a cap similar to that of
his colleagues; even the work he does has what Chandra Bhan Prasad
calls a “caste-neutral name for a caste-loaded occupation”:
housekeeping. “Multinationals have been instruments of change in this
regard; they have made scavenging appear caste-neutral. Brooms have
vanished and these men in the toilets look like professionals,” Prasad

But it was neither the euphemistic name nor the modern tools for
scavenging that led Asha Devi to join the housekeeping staff at
Pacific Mall in Ghaziabad. Since migrating to Delhi from Etah district
in Uttar Pradesh seven years ago, Asha who is a Rajput, the warrior
caste, took up the housekeeping job a month ago, without telling her
husband, for the sheer shield of anonymity it offers. “I was working
as a maid in the bungalows of Noida before this. I would earn about
the same amount of money then too, but then, everyone around us would
know that I was washing utensils and sweeping floors in bungalows. My
husband wouldn’t like that either, so how could I tell him I am
cleaning toilets now?” she says.

Asha’s husband, who is an autorickshaw driver, picks her up after work
and she says she takes special care about what she wears after her
10-hour shift is over. “I take a bath and use a deodorant. Even
make-up. And, I almost every day remind my supervisor that he should
not tell my husband anything except that I dust off files in an
office,” she says.

Alak N. Sharma, director of Institute of Human Development in New
Delhi, says the upper-caste migration from villages to bigger cities
and metros is growing at an exponential rate, especially in states
such as Bihar where individual landholding has shrunk over the years.

“Upper-castes who have traditionally held land over the years are now
finding it difficult to feed themselves. Earnings from agriculture
aren’t enough anymore even as property partition in families keeps
reducing individual landholding. In fact, upper castes are migrating
more now than the lower castes are,” Sharma says.

Many Dalits and even upper-caste Brahmins, especially in rural areas,
don’t have a shot at a decent education—a must for the fastest-growing
areas of India’s economy such as software development, medicine and
engineering. India’s reservation policy, which reserves seats for the
scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes in
institutions of higher education, haven’t benefited the community
much, argues its critics.

Yet, reservations helped OBCs such as Naresh Yadav, who runs an auto
agency in Haryana’s Faridabad, get college education and employment.
“After graduation, I worked in a call centre and saved money to start
this agency. Without education, would you expect me to come this far?”

Yadav’s small-scale Yadu Auto today employs six drivers, out of which
two are Kayasthas, the merchant caste several ranks higher than the
Yadavs in Hindu caste order.

For a number of migrants, moving outside the state for work also works
as a symbol of upward social mobility and freedom from the repressive
caste hierarchy in the state. Only 42% of migrants working in rural
areas of Bihar would appreciate having a job in their native state,
notes a recent study on migration from the state by the Delhi-based
Indian Institute of Public Administration. “Out-migration for
employment sake has now become a craze. So much so that now staying at
village is equated with laziness among fellow villagers,” says Girish
Kumar, co-author of the study.

Gore Lal Singh, a Rajput, owns five bighas of land (two hectares) in
his village in Allahabad district, dominated by members of his caste,
but he would continue with his job as a security guard at the Pacific
Mall in Ghaziabad than go back and till his land.

“I can’t afford hiring (agricultural) labour for my land and if I work
myself, it will be looked down upon. So, I had to come here… But there
are many here who do even worse, you see, many who work as servants,
many who sell newspapers, many who do work they wouldn’t go back home
and talk about,” he says.

Many, like him.

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