October 30, 2023
Readers of this newspaper may find it difficult to discuss caste. The corporate sector rightly considers itself a meritocracy that looks at people only through their ability and not identity. With this caveat, this is the composition of India’s population, extrapolating from the 2011 census and subsequent studies:
Roughly 35% of Indians belong to other backward classes (OBCs).
20% are scheduled castes (SCs), 7% are scheduled tribals (STs).
18% are minorities.
20% are from ‘privileged’ castes.
So, 80% of Indians belong to ‘oppressed’ caste groups. If this is how society is composed, then the logical expectation is for most professions to reflect this composition somewhat roughly, even if not exactly. It is like how from a bag of 80 blue and 20 orange balls, if you pick 10, you would expect to get eight blue and two orange balls. However, society is not like a bag of random balls that follow statistical laws of large numbers.
This is the rough composition of India Inc:
90% of the leadership of Nifty50 companies are from ‘privileged’ castes.
95% of the 233 unicorn startup founders are from ‘privileged’ castes.
90% of the nearly 10,000 directors on corporate boards are from ‘privileged’ castes.
65% of the nearly 50,000 mid-level and senior bank officers in public sector banks belong to ‘privileged’ castes.
More than three-quarters of professional positions are taken by the 20% of privileged castes.
It is clear from the data that professional success is largely a ‘privileged’ caste terrain. Meanwhile, the composition of the labour class is:
90% of the 150 million MGNREGA workers are from ‘oppressed’ castes.
100% of the 12,000-odd manual scavengers in India are from SCs/STs.
75% of safai karamcharis are OBCs, SCs, and STs.
90% of all casual labourers are from ‘oppressed’ castes while 35% of salaried workers are from ‘privileged’ groups, according to GoI labour survey data.
Whichever way one looks at the data, it is evident that ‘privileged’ castes are over-represented in professional positions while the ‘oppressed’ castes are over-represented in the bottom rungs of the employment ladder. So, in the mixed bag of professional India, the ‘orange ball’ is picked far more often than the ‘blue’.
This is not the fault of corporate India or their stakeholders. This is our failing as a society. History teaches us that no society can be so economically divided along identity lines for too long without repercussions. In the nation’s interest, including the corporate sector, we must come to terms with this problem and find solutions.
Attempts to ignore or brush this aside are illogical and foolhardy. A recent article on this page by PRICE MD-CEO Rajesh Shukla (rb.gy/brcja) argued that the wage gap among Indians is a function of geography, not caste. It is a reflection of, say, Bihar being economically much poorer than Maharashtra, which explains the economic disparity, and it is not a privileged versus oppressed caste issue, the article argued.
This is totally untrue. Labour force data reveals that even within a developed state, say Tamil Nadu, privileged castes form the bulk of the salaried and professional positions. When there is such a big caste divide between professionals and labourers, it is only logical that there is a big wage gap across castes, too, since professionals are paid much more. And it is reflected in income and wealth inequality across castes.
So, it is not just a case of inter-state economic disparity, but also an intra-state economic divide along caste lines. There is no doubt that caste is the most statistically significant factor of professional success in India.
When ‘orange’ balls are chosen more often than ‘blue’ in professional India, inevitably, at some point, people from the numerically majority ‘oppressed’ castes will start to question the process of choosing the balls and those who choose them. This will then begin to manifest in our politics.
It is also important to admit there are no easy solutions for this problem. The fact that there is such a sharp economic gap between the privileged and backward castes after decades of reservations tells us that just reservations as a policy tool is not enough to solve this. There needs to be more creative solutions.
Corporate India may be justified in their fears of sacrificing meritocracy, which can impact their businesses. So, it is then important for corporate India to confront the issue first and then collaborate with other stakeholders to arrive at solutions jointly rather than have a social justice policy shoved upon them. Turning a blind eye to the issue and hoping it will go away on its own will only make things worse for corporate India.
Input by Shreyas Ashok Kumar