In just about every way that can be measured, prejudice, both social and economic, against Dalits has reduced since independence. Since 1991, after liberalization, some Dalits have been able to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the growing economy just as others have. This was in evidence at the first-ever national trade fair organized by the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Mumbai a few days ago. The fair was supported by corporate heavyweights such as the Tata and Godrej groups, and found support from the Confederation of Indian Industry as well. There is a move on the part of industry to encourage Dalit enterprise, which wants to embrace the concept of “supplier diversity” and promote Dalit entrepreneurship. No less than titan of industry Ratan Tata called upon corporate India to use its economic clout in pursuit of social justice.
There is some evidence to suggest that the expanded set of opportunities offered in the post-liberalization economy flattened the playing field for aspiring Dalit entrepreneurs. A rapidly expanding economy opened up new jobs and careers to people who were otherwise pushed to the margins of private industry. Liberalization upended the status quo and a number of Dalits were able to take advantage of the resultant chaos to acquire capital like never before. The market could thus be said to be levelling historical disadvantages more effectively than caste-based reservation has done.
The necessity of affirmative action—or, in the Indian context, caste-based reservation—has long been a matter of debate. Enshrined in article 15(4) of the Constitution, the quota system is intended to provide equal opportunity in education and employment to scheduled castes and tribes. How successful such a policy is in equalizing the playing field for Dalits is highly contentious —and, indeed, it has been argued that such a policy is more effective as a political tool to gather votes than to make available educational or professional opportunities that would have otherwise been closed to them. Certainly the idea of extending quotas to the private sector to increase Dalit economic achievement has merited strong opposition.
However, this does not mean that the government cannot incentivize private enterprise to promote social justice, or aid in removing some of the barriers that Dalit-owned businesses face. Dalit entrepreneurs lack the social networks or organizational backing or access to credit to compete with non-Dalit businesses, and this is precisely where the state can intervene by, for instance, prioritizing procurement from Dalit-run companies by public sector enterprises.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
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