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

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."

An estimated 86 percent of technology workers at multinationals and large Indian outsourcing firms come from upper castes or wealthy middle castes, according to a study released in August 2006 by the government and activist groups.

At the same time, the vast majority of Indians living in the United States and Britain come from upper castes, partly because they have better access to work and education visas and can afford expensive plane tickets.

"Caste should not be globalized, and as India rises economically, that is the real fear," said Thevar. "I think this is the moment in India for us all to stand up and tell the world that we are capable. There is no longer such a thing as untouchable in the world."

Thevar and Dalit activists have even lobbied the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, with whom they see common cause and a shared experience in discrimination.

Congress has taken notice, and last month passed a resolution calling for the United States to work with India to address the problem of untouchability by "encouraging U.S. businesses and other U.S. organizations working in India to take every possible measure to ensure Dalits are included and are not discriminated against in their programming."

"It is now time for this Congress to speak out about this ancient and particularly abhorrent form of persecution and segregation -- even if it is occurring in a country considered to be one of America's closest allies," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said during a speech last spring on the House floor.

Franks went on to call Dalits "one of the most oppressed peoples on Earth."

The 2006 study found that public health workers refuse to visit 33 percent of Dalit villages, while mail is not delivered to the homes of 24 percent of Dalits.

The reason for the neglect, the study said, is that some in the upper castes believe lower-caste people are dirty and lack dignity in their labor as latrine cleaners, rickshaw drivers, butchers, herders and barbers.

The debate on affirmative action in India is similar to the one in the United States in terms of discrimination and ways to end it. But in India, those who experience discrimination, especially in rural areas, are the majority and are ruled by an elite.

The issue here is complicated by India's turbulent history of race, class and caste. Centuries-old customs of arranged marriages and inherited professions perpetuate caste divisions, which are further reinforced by some interpretations of Hinduism, India's dominant religion, which sanctions the caste system.

The country's education system also hardens caste. Lower castes largely attend public schools, which teach local languages, while private schools attended by upper castes teach English -- the most important criterion to be hired at a call center, where young employees spend their nights helping customers phoning from the United States.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that government set-asides should have lasted only 10 years after independence in 1947, not the six decades that they have. In the workplace and in colleges, affirmative action programs breed resentment, the critics say, because they dilute merit-based hiring that should, in theory, reward the most qualified job candidates, regardless of caste.

Creating quotas for the private sector would be a "disaster," said Shiv Khera, an author who opposes set-asides on the grounds that they call too much attention to caste. "We shouldn't even be asking what caste people are."

He also said that affirmative action will not fix what he sees as the roots of caste divisions: deeply impoverished public schools that don't teach English or even have enough funding for up-to-date books. The government should fix those schools, Khera said, "not worry about the private sector," a view echoed by others.

Still, affirmative action has helped pull tens of thousands of people out of abject poverty and into universities and government jobs, while creating a small Dalit middle class that many hope will expand along with India's economy. It also has given rise to a new kind of struggle, as other low-ranking groups known here as the "backward castes" protest that their government designation isn't "low-caste enough" to make them eligible for job set-asides, Khera said.

"That just shows you that set-asides don't work," Khera added. "It just makes the people more aware of caste and who's getting what job and why."

But inside the interview room, the young professionals applying for jobs with Temp Solutions said they would have never gotten an education without set-asides. The interviews were held at the Manuski Center, part of a Buddhist monastery. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits have converted to Buddhism in an attempt to escape the caste system.

Sitting in a circle as they waited to hear whether they would get jobs, Kamble and the other students talked about the often harrowing discrimination they faced.

"I knew there was hatred in the world and in India, when as a child I watched some upper castes refuse to sell my mother lentils and rice in the nicer part of the market because we were 'dirty,' and from a backward caste," said Vivek Kumar Katara, 22, who has a master's degree in social work focusing on helping the mentally ill. Without quotas, Katara said, "I honestly don't know if professors would have even let me sit in the same class as upper castes."

After awarding jobs to Kamble, Katara and others, Thevar said they would be expected to return to India once their visas expired and to help hire from their own communities.

"It will be our responsibility to tell the world about caste and fight it," Kamble said as a group of chosen candidates raced downstairs to call or tell their parents, who were anxiously waiting. She is to work for a child social services agency in Philadelphia.

Pacing downstairs, Kamble's gray-haired father, Valmik, put his thick, callused hands over his eyes and wept when he found out his daughter would be working for a major company. "I'm so happy and so proud," he said, hugging her. "I never dreamt of such a thing for our family."

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