Tribe, Caste, Class, and Inequality in Twenty-First Century India
Think that market liberalization is the solution to all economic problems?
Ground Down by Growth reveals how free market capitalism has merely reinforced inequality in 21st-century India.
Who Should Read “Ground Down by Growth”? And Why?
If you’re interested in the history of modern India or have enjoyed books such as Behind the Beautiful Forevers, then this is one fine addition to your reading list, since it analyzes the lives of those which history usually forgets: the Dalits and the Adivasi.
Also, if you want to know more about how modern economic policies have affected the marginalized groups in India and to what extent free market capitalism has managed to eradicate poverty and inequality – here are quite a few case studies that will definitely interest you.
Since they all come to the conclusion that the liberalization of the markets and the trickle-down effect hasn’t helped not one bit the underprivileged of India, Ground Down by Growth is undoubtedly a book which socialists and communists would love to have around to make their points.
About Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche
Alpa Shah is Associate Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics.
In addition to contributing and structuring Ground Down by Growth, she has also written another book, In the Shadows of the State, Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India.
She has also written numerous articles on labor migration, Nepal’s Maoist revolutionary struggles, and affirmative action.
Jens Lerche is Reader in Labor and Agrarian Studies at
Jens Lerche is Reader in Labour and Agrarian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He has authored several articles on migrant labor and agrarian relations in India.
He is also the editor of the Journal of Agrarian Change.
“Ground Down by Growth PDF Summary”
Ground Down by Growth – to quote a great review by Rashné Limki from the University of Edinburgh – “is the story of India’s perennial and illusionary promise of achhe din (good days).”
Incidentally, these ache din were a mainstay in current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign in the lead-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Five years later, he’s still in power, the slogan achhe din aane wale hain (“good days are coming”) has become a mantra across the nation, but, as the authors of Ground Down by Growth show throughout their studies, the good days will probably never come for about 300 million people.
Yup, we’re talking about the Dalit and Adivasi communities, aka the backward castes, the Untouchables.
“Preface” – Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche
In the book’s Preface (which you can read in full here), Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche discuss the connection between tribe, caste, class, and inequality in modern India.
First, they give an overview of the literature on the subject and the opposing opinions, and then they move on to see what the data says that the “absolute commitment to the free market and state-sponsored privatization” has amounted to after three decades.
There are two Indias: one which ranks fourth on the list of dollar billionaires, and another which is the “India of dislocation and despair”:
The ‘trickle down’ of India’s spectacular growth rate is a very slow drip. Armies of migrants from the countryside live under tarpaulin tents, with almost no citizenship rights, while building the infrastructure that is to sustain the Indian boom. Indebted farmers are committing suicide. Protests are increasing against displacement for mining and industrial development. Marking poverty in a land of plenty, around 800 million Indians survive on less than $2 a day. Indeed, it is now no longer news that 8 Indian states have more poor people than 26 of Africa’s poorest countries put together.
In other words, though India’s economic growth is widely celebrated, the on-terrain results reveal a different reality.
“Some advances have been made in reduction of absolute levels of poverty,” write Shah and Lerche. “But – although people are slightly better off – they are less equal than before. Income and wealth inequality is increasing in the India that is being celebrated for its growth rates.”
Ground Down by Growth focuses on the marginalized communities of India and explores how they are treated – and how their conditions have worsened with the advent of capitalism – region by region.
1. “Tribe, Caste and Class – New Mechanisms of Exploitation and Oppression” – Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche
As stated in the “Preface,” Ground Down by Growth “asks how and why, despite India’s celebrated economic growth, the marginalization of low castes and tribes persists in the country.”
And the first article – once again authored by Shah and Lerche, explores theoretically “the inextricability of identity-based oppression – of caste and tribe in particular, but also region and gender – and class relations in the belly of the Indian boom.”
“Tribe, Caste and Class – New Mechanisms of Exploitation and Oppression” offers a theoretical framework for the studies which follow by renouncing the fashionable “intersectionality” approach to investigate poverty, discrimination, and oppression.
Instead, the authors go back to Marx and Gramsci and frame the rest of the studies along these three axes of analysis:
• inherited inequalities of power;
• super-exploitation of migrant workers; and
• conjugated oppression.
2. “Macro-Economic Aspects of Inequality and Poverty in India” – K.P. Kannan
In a nutshell, K.P. Kannan’s essay demonstrates something that should be obvious to anyone but the hardcore capitalists: the trickle-down effect may work for the higher castes, but the lower your position on the caste pyramid, the less sense it makes to believe that free markets will make any difference in your life.
Drawing on Kannan’s work on the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, the essay offers a statistical framework which proves, once again, that laissez-faire economy – or free market fundamentalism as some would say – rather than obliterating inequality entrenches it.
And before you start screaming from the top of your lungs “hey, you, communists, you, but that’s basic economics, after all,” please take a minute or two to digest this fact: 92% of Indian workers do not have secure forms of employment!
Because owners, hungry for docile workforce, try their best to keep the status quo, ensnaring the poorest in linguistically isolated communists and denying them access to welfare government schemes anyway they can.
That’s the capitalist miracle of India for you, right there!
3. “Tea Belts of the Western Ghats, Kerala” – Jayaseelan Raj
Jayaseelan Raj’s essay analyses the working conditions in the tea belts of Kerala, where for decades the main workforce consists of Tamil Dalits, “descendants of indentured workers initially transferred by the British to work on tea plantations.”
However, their condition hasn’t improved but deteriorated after India broke free of Nehru, because contemporary plantation owners have used the chaotic transition toward free-market capitalism to prevent the Tamil Dalits from accessing any personal land, including, say, kitchen gardens cultivated by them for their personal use.
This “inculcates a sense of psychological alienation in which workers control nothing in the plantation” – not even their own lives.
So why don’t they unionize, you ask?
Well, they’ve tried, but to no avail!
Because Adivasis are living in even worse conditions and every attempt at unionization is thwarted by threats that the Tamil Dalits will lose their jobs to Adivasi workers from Jharkhand.
Back at the time of the Inglorious Empire, the Dalits and the Adivasis could be used as a hypercorrect definition for Marx’s idea of “alienated labor;” more than a century later, it seems that nothing’s changed.
4. “Cuddalore, Chemical Industrial Estate, Tamil Nadu” – Brendan Donegan
Brendan Donegan’s essay, “Cuddalore, Chemical Industrial Estate, Tamil Nadu” analyzes how the shift from an agrarian to industrial economy has merely reconfigured the ever-existent caste-based dependencies – and nothing more.
Industrialization, shows Donegan, hasn’t resulted in an outward migration of people but has merely caused in-migration of industry.
In other words, it’s not that new factories are built in more progressive Indian cities allowing Dalits and Adivasis to break free from their untouchable status by moving somewhere else; it’s that former plantation owners have now built factories in the vicinity of the plantations.
Vanniyars and Gounders were the upper-caste landlords before the industrialization, and they are now factory owners and labor contractors; the Paraiyar (Dalits), the Irula (Adivasis), and the Nattar (fishers) were the underprivileged lower-caste workers in the agricultural past – and they still are.
Once again, their unionization is held in check by migrant contract workers (from Odisha and Bengal), and, once again, they are pressured into obedience through many hardly legal measures.
Here’s an example analyzed and commented upon by Donegan.
A Dalit breaks away from his lower-caste shackles and becomes a labor contractor; in time, he succeeds to agree 6 contracts with the local bone factory.
Before he even starts proving his worth, he loses 5 of these 6 contracts due to upper-caste political pressure.
The non-Dalit contractors do everything in their power (and even outside it) to stop a fledgling Dalit contractor from moving upward on the pyramid.
One more thing.
The only contract he’s allowed to keep involves “cleaning bones and packaging waste material.” In other words, what an Untouchable – be he a contractor or not – should do.
5. “Bhadrachalam Scheduled Area, Telangana” – Dalel Benbabaali
Many authors claim that education is the first step toward vertical mobility and equality; tell that to India.
In Dalel Benbabaali’s essay about the Bhadrachalam Scheduled Area in Telangana, we learn how the Koyas (Adivasi) and the Madigas (Dalit) are kept in check by the local upper echelons (the former Kamma agricultural castes) which deny them the right to education.
In an analyzed example, a local Kamma landlord continually obstructs the efforts of local school teachers to educate the children of the Koyas and the Madigas above grade 7.
He was never educated beyond that!
Benbabaali demonstrates once again the dark side of free market fundamentalism: many government regulations (even constitutional provisions are not an exception!) are overturned daily in the name of industrial capitalism.
6. “Chamba Valley, Himalaya, Himachal Pradesh” – Richard Axelby
Richard Axelby’s article in Ground Down by Growth deals with the Chamba Valley in Himachal Pradesh and two scheduled tribes (aka Untouchables): the Gaddi and the Gujjar (Muslim).
Now, if Dalel Benbabaali shows how upper castes exert control over scheduled tribes by denying them the right education, Richard Axelby demonstrates how even that is not necessary anymore since the tribes themselves do not believe in the emancipatory potential of education.
Because regardless of education, many Dalits and Adivasis are simply denied proper SC/ST (scheduled caste/scheduled tribe) status.
Without these documents, they are by definition not allowed to employment reservations, which means that all of those years they’ve spent learning are for, well, naught.
Axelby examines how the switch from pastoralism to agriculture has affected the Dalits and the Adivasis and how nomadism and seasonal migrations have resulted in many Dalits and Adivasis losing SC/T status in native jurisdictions.
In other words, even the government doesn’t help; in fact, quite on the contrary.
7. “Narmada Valley and Adjoining Plains, Maharashtra” – Vikramaditya Thakur
In Vikramaditya Thakur’s article of the conditions in the Narmada Valley and the adjoining plains in Maharashtra, we learn of the fate of the Bhils (or Bheels), the largest tribe group in India.
Thakur examines all the difficulties the Bhils have faced (and are bound to face) regardless of whether they have stayed in their traditional villages, migrated to towns for work or have been resettled via the Narmada Valley Project.
Strangely enough, the results of each choice amount to pretty the same: in villages or towns, by dams or in factories, the Bhils end up being oppressed by dominant castes (say, the Gujars of Gujarat).
Simply put, if you’re Bhil, you don’t stand a chance – no matter what you do!
8. “The Struggles Ahead” – Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche
The last chapter of Ground Down by Growth functions as a sort of a conclusion to the book.
In it, Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche list the findings presented in the articles summarized above and describe the problems that lie ahead.
Unfortunately, the latter are as many as you’d expect.
And it seems that the authors are not feeling that optimistic as to whether any current politician is interested in understanding them and finding ways to overcome them.
Key Lessons from “Ground Down by Growth”
1. There Are Two Indias
2. Free Market Capitalism Hasn’t Solved India’s Problems: It Has Worsened Them
3. The Marginalized Will Always Be Marginalized… Unless the Government Does Something About It
There Are Two Indias
Only the US, China, and Germany have more billionaires than India, something practically unimaginable until just about a few decades ago, i.e., before the liberalization of markets and the introduction of more laissez-faire capitalism.
However, at the same time, there’s another India, one “of dislocation and despair,” in which the poor of the past are now only absolutely wealthier, but relatively both more destitute and unhappier.
Free Market Capitalism Hasn’t Solved India’s Problems: It Has Worsened Them
Many proponents of free-market capitalism claim that the “trickle down” effect should, in time, solve problems such as poverty and inequality to a pretty satisfactory margin.
However, as far as India is concerned, this “trickle down” effect is a “slow drip” and, as a few studies show it is exactly this mechanism which entrenches inequality, rather than obliterating it.
And since the rich are getting richer by huge margins and the poor by minimal, actually India’s poor of the past are all the poorer now.
The Marginalized Will Always Be Marginalized… Unless the Government Does Something About It
Reading through the articles in Ground Down by Growth, one gets the feeling that the marginalized groups of India just can’t catch a break.
No matter what they do, no matter how much they try, they are simply incapable of moving a few steps upward the caste pyramid – due to higher-caste obstructions and corruption.
In a way, it seems that unless the government does something about these groups and their rights, they will always be the exploited ones.
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“Ground Down by Growth Quotes”The ‘trickle down’ of India’s spectacular growth rate is a very slow drip. Click To Tweet Social discrimination marks the contours of poverty in India. Click To Tweet The commission’s economists showed that by 2004–05, despite decades of economic growth, 77 percent of Indians were poor and vulnerable, living on less than Rs.20 (30 cents US) a day. Click To Tweet Although people are slightly better off – they are less equal than before. Click To Tweet Income and wealth inequality is increasing in the India that is being celebrated for its growth rates. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Ground Down by Growth may be considered a bit biased by some (it is unabashedly left-leaning and pro-Marxist throughout), but if the words tend to lie, the stats never do; and all of them, rather than shouting “progress for everybody,” seem to whisper “progress for the privileged.”
Ground Down by Growth – to quote a review by Jayati Ghosh from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, – “explodes the myth of the modernizing power of capitalism. This sensitive and acute analysis shows that, far from doing away with inherited inequalities of power, Indian capitalism uses and intensifies them.”
High quality, attentive, humane; and highly recommended.
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