Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Caste & the Corporate Sector

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Caste & the Corporate Sector

Article excerpt

The Context

Liberalization of the Indian economy initiated during the early 1990s proved to be an important turning point for the country in many different ways. Under the new regime, the state began to withdraw from its direct involvement with the economy. Private enterprise was allowed and encouraged to expand into areas of economic activities that were hitherto not open to it. Though some scholars have pointed out that the growth of private capital in India began to accelerate during the early 1970s (1), it is during the post-1991 period that the private capital experienced expansion at unprecedented rates.

This expansion was not merely in terms of growth rates and profits, India also experienced an important ideological shift during the 1990s. The socialist rhetoric that had been so central to the Nehruvian idea of planned development lost its charm. Markets and middle classes came to occupy the centre stage of India's cultural landscape, displacing the emblematic 'village' and its poor peasants. Though nearly 70 percent of its population continued to live in its more than half a million villages and the majority remained employed in agriculture, India began to be show-cased to the world through its rapidly growing urban centres, its professional middle classes and its diaspora.

Indian economists have credible evidence to show that India's growth has not merely been middle class-centric and the number of those living below the poverty line has also been declining at a rate which is much faster than the pre-1991 period. However, economic data does not capture the entire social reality. For example, the new economic policy produced sectoral imbalances, and the neglect of the agrarian sector proved tragic. India witnessed a sudden spurt in cases of suicides by small and marginal farmers. Surprisingly, despite significant regional variations in the patterns of agrarian change, this happened simultaneously in different parts of the country, from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to Maharashtra and Punjab. It was difficult to overlook the connection between the "agrarian crisis" and the larger process of economic liberalization. Given the compulsions of a democratic system, the Indian polity had to soon respond to this "crisis", though much of it has been arbitrary in nature, simply through increased subsidies and loan-wavers.

The process of economic liberalization has also been criticized by ideologues of the historically marginalized sections of Indian society, the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), apart from the advocates of the farm sector. With declining avenues of employment in the state sector, jobs available under the quota system for the SCs and STs have been declining. The expanding role of the private sector in technical and professional education may also mean a shrinking of the quota system in higher education! In fact, the official data is beginning to show that those belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Muslim minority have been experiencing a process of further marginalization and downward social and economic mobility (2).

UPA's Proposal & the Responses

Though some Dalit intellectuals and activist groups began talking about the possible negative implications of the new economic policy soon after the introduction of economic liberalization, the issue acquired national significance only when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) proposed extension of the quota system for SCs and STs to the private sector upon coming to power in the Centre in 2004. In its National Common Minimum Programme, the new government made an unambiguous statement in this regard (2004:10): "The UPA government is very sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservations, in the private sector. It will immediately initiate a national dialogue with all political parties, industry and other organizations to see how best the private sector can fulfil the aspirations of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe youth". …

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