India's Lower Castes Seek Social Progress In Global Job Market

Michael Thevar, who recruits lower-caste workers for temporary jobs, speaks to Pratibha Valmik Kamble, right, and Vivek Kumar Katara in Pune, India.
Michael Thevar, who recruits lower-caste workers for temporary jobs, speaks to Pratibha Valmik Kamble, right, and Vivek Kumar Katara in Pune, India. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 20, 2007

PUNE, India -- As a Dalit, Pratibha Valmik Kamble is part of the poorest and most ostracized community in this subcontinent's ancient caste system, a group of people so shunned that they are still known as untouchables. Her mother is a maid, her father a day laborer.

Yet here in this prospering city, Kamble, 24, was recently applying to an Indian firm called Temp Solutions to go to Philadelphia for a well-paid social service job there. During the interview, she twisted her hands nervously in her lap, knowing that if she landed the position, she would not only make more money than both of her parents combined, she would enhance their social status, and her own.

India has long had an affirmative action program for federal government jobs, setting aside 23 percent of positions for the most oppressed castes. Now activists are campaigning to open the private sector to them as well, whether the employer is Indian or multinational. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said he favors that goal.

So does Temp Solutions co-owner Michael Thevar, himself a member of a low-ranking caste. He gave Kamble the job. "I'm so proud of you," he told her after delivering the good news. "I know so well how much you struggled. That's why I am that much more impressed."

Kamble's eyes went wet as she straightened her mustard-colored outfit and smiled, appearing to be almost embarrassed by his praise.

Recruiting drives aimed at hiring members of India's unprivileged castes, who make up 70 percent of the population, remain rare in the subcontinent's booming service sector. But as India hurtles into world markets, such hiring has touched off a larger debate over the country's 3,000-year-old caste system.

In much of India, the system organizes people into a rigid social order by accident of birth, determining everything from professions to marriage partners.

While the caste system is outlawed by the constitution, low-caste Indians still experience severe discrimination. Dalits are regarded as so low that they are not even part of the system. To this day, they are not allowed to enter many Hindu temples or to drink water from sources used by higher castes.

So far only two major companies -- Bharti Enterprises and Infosys -- have announced they would set aside jobs for Dalits and other oppressed castes.

Ramesh Bajpai, executive director of the New Delhi-based American Chamber of Commerce in India, said the issue of affirmative action for oppressed castes has not been raised among his members -- an indication, some Indian workers contend, that many U.S. companies are not fully aware of the caste system and its complex legacy of discrimination.

India-based executives for IBM and Microsoft, which are among the top foreign employers in this country, declined to comment for this article.

"Things are changing in India and, I believe, changing for the good," said Bajpai. "As far as we know, our member companies try to hire across the spectrum of Indian society. But since the government has started talking about this issue, we in the industry will follow. It is a complex and interesting discussion."

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