Escaping caste traps

Escaping caste traps
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First Published: Tue, Apr 22 2008. 10 58 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Apr 22 2008. 10 58 PM IST
A neat little experiment conducted by two economists in 2004 tells us a lot about a very contemporary debate —the persistence of caste traps. It is useful to revisit their experiment at a time when the reservations debate has flared up once again. This experiment suggests that caste is a deep-rooted problem that can persist despite laws banning discrimination as well as more specific interventions such as selective reservations.
Karla Hoff of the World Bank and Priyanka Pandey of Pennsylvania State University collected a group of 622 boys and girls at a junior high school in a village in Uttar Pradesh. They wanted to find out the effects of caste on performance. These students were in classes VI and VII. Half were from the so-called upper castes and the other half from the so-called lower castes.
The children were asked to solve a maze. Those who successfully completed the game were rewarded with money. So, there was a clear economic incentive to play the game for the benefit of the researchers. At first, the castes of the participating children were kept secret. There was very little difference between the success rates of children across castes during this part of the experiment.
Then the castes of the participating children were publicly announced during a second round of the experiment. The lower-caste children suddenly performed significantly worse during this round. The number of mazes that they successfully solved fell by a quarter.
The results of these trials show that people can continue to be victims of caste and racial stereotypes even when there is no legal discrimination in a society. We are aware of how biases affect the way people from certain castes are perceived. The problem here is different: Stereotypes become self-fulfilling. People tend to unconsciously behave in accordance with the way they are stereotyped. Similar experiments have been conducted in the US. One shows how the performance of black Americans taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) slipped when they filled questionnaires asking them to reveal their race.
Such experiments show that people tend to conform to stereotypes—and could lose out in life though there is little overt discrimination.
There are several reasons to be wary of jumping to any grand conclusions from the results of one experiment. First, the Hoff-Pandey trial was conducted in rural Uttar Pradesh, a region that has seen far less social reform, economic development and mobility than many other parts of India. So, it is an unrepresentative region in many ways. And the results cannot be used for national policy.
Second, the current debates on reservations in education are focused on the intermediate castes rather than the lower castes. Members of these castes have never suffered the brutal discrimination that the Dalits faced over the centuries. I doubt the caste factor would be so important in case the two groups of children solving the maze were from the “upper” and “intermediate” castes.
One solution is to create or support a “big push” to break the fetters of caste stereotypes. “Policies attempting to reduce inequalities need to be highly cognizant of the prevailing cultural norms. In the low-caste case, for example, simply giving supply-side incentives or reservations alone may not solve the problem. The tug of the prevailing norms can be stronger than material interests. The flip side of this logic produces a classic “big push” type of argument. If some small group of individuals who are typically discriminated against does manage to break the norms and succeed, the effect can be powerful. They can serve as role models for many others and remove at least the norm-induced barrier,” says Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan in a recent paper.
This happened in Maharashtra with the success of B.R. Ambedkar, who showed millions that there could be a life beyond the traditional demeaning jobs that others in his caste were condemned to. One example: Narendra Jadhav, who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, rose to become chief economist of the Reserve Bank of India and is now vice-chancellor of Pune University, writes in his autobiography how as a child his aim in life was to become a petty gangster. That was what his peers became. It was the Ambedkar movement that led Jadhav to the road to success. He, too, is now a role model for the next generation of Dalits.
Finally, hear what the World Bank says in its World Development Report 2006: “Discrimination and stereotyping have been found to lower the self-esteem, effort and performance of individuals in the groups discriminated against. This reduces their potential for individual growth and their ability to contribute to the economy.”
Caste is a tricky issue and there can be no easy answers. But, it is unfortunate that the debates all around us depend more on passion rather than fact. Meanwhile, cynical politicians such as Arjun Singh can play the divide-and- rule game.
Your comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Apr 22 2008. 10 58 PM IST