Caste matters everywhere: schools, jobs or life at large

There is some quantifiable evidence that caste-based discrimination still exists in India


Research shows that students sometimes perform better or worse in exams because their teachers expect them to do so. Photo: Hindustan Times
Research shows that students sometimes perform better or worse in exams because their teachers expect them to do so. Photo: Hindustan Times

New Delhi: The suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula has triggered a debate on caste discrimination in India. There is factual evidence (here and here) showing the existence of caste-based inequalities in terms of asset holdings, education and employment. Sure, it can be argued that these are the results of historical discrimination/deprivation and caste- based discrimination does not exist anymore, given the constitutional equality all citizens enjoy.

Is it possible to find out whether caste is still used as a basis for discrimination in India? The question is not easy, as it involves capturing a subjective phenomenon. Various works of research in economics show that caste continues to act as a basis of discrimination in many aspects of life in India. Here are three such findings:

1. Teachers might discriminate in grading students on the basis of caste.

Research shows that students sometimes perform better or worse in exams because their teachers expect them to do so. This is referred to as the Pygmalion Effect. Often, this effect can manifest itself on account of their characteristics, such as race and gender. In a 2012 paper, Rema N. Hanna and Leigh L. Linden, economists at Harvard University and University of Texas, Austin, tested this effect for caste among schoolchildren in India by conducting a grading experiment. The experiment involved inviting schoolchildren with diverse caste, age and gender attributes to take a multi-subject exam with a sizeable monetary reward. The answer scripts were duplicated after the exam. After recording original attributes, one set—without caste and other details—was given to evaluators from within research team. Another set was assigned to locally recruited teachers (also from diverse caste, age and gender backgrounds). In the second set, random caste, age and gender information was assigned to the answer scripts to test how evaluators would react to the information while assigning grades. The scores assigned by the locally recruited teachers were compared with the ones assigned by the evaluators from the research team.

Hanna and Linden found that students who were assigned a lower caste tag were given a score which was 0.084 standard deviations lower than the ones who were assigned a higher caste tag. The authors also found that the probability of getting a lower score on account of different attributes such as age or gender was not significant.

2. Identifying yourself as a member of a lower caste can reduce your chances of getting a job

In a 2007 paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), S.K. Thorat, former professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Paul Attewell at the City University of New York, conducted an experiment by sending three applications each in response to newspaper advertisements for jobs. The applications were sent in the name of an upper-caste Hindu, Dalit and Muslim applicant. The authors found that the chances of a Dalit or Muslim being called for a job interview were significantly lower in comparison with an upper-caste Hindu. This, Thorat and Attewell argued, pointed towards discrimination at the very first stage of the application process. The authors found further evidence to show that even an overqualified Dalit applicant had a lower chance of being called for an interview than a qualified upper-caste Hindu. Similarly, when compared with a qualified Dalit and qualified upper-caste Hindu, an under-qualified upper-caste Hindu applicant had a relatively higher chance of being called for a job interview vis-à-vis the qualified Dalit.

3. For the same level of education and employment, lower castes report a lower level of life satisfaction

In a paper published in the latest issue of EPW, Princeton University economist Dean Spears, who is also associated with the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, has put forward data which shows that for similar levels of asset holdings and education, life satisfaction increases as one goes up the caste hierarchy.

The findings are based on a survey carried out in rural Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in 2013-14. The respondents were asked to situate themselves on an imaginary ladder of satisfaction with life, with higher levels denoting higher satisfaction. The respondents were divided into forward castes (including Brahmins and general castes), other backward classes (OBCs) and scheduled castes (SC, Dalit, Harijan). The author finds that life satisfaction levels increase with asset holdings and education levels, but caste-wise differences remain for a given level of asset-holding or education.