New Delhi: Indians, all of them, across class and caste, traded up over the past decade, a period of rapid and record economic growth—that’s the counter-intuitive message in the latest update to Census 2011.
According to the so-called houselisting data released by the census, scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) have, like the rest of the country, and allowing for some variations across regions, demonstrated a visible growth in their material well-being, especially in terms of their access to telecommunication and banking services—two key parameters to measure inclusion, or the effort to integrate the underdeveloped and underprivileged into the country’s economic mainstream.
In March, the houselisting data released for the entire country showed a perceptible change in the lifestyle of the population in general, reflecting a silent but strong trend—trading up. The houselisting data collected along with the decadal census allows demographers to measure the level of the quality of life. The story that the data told was that of a rapidly expanding consumer economy.
According to the latest data release, among people belonging to SCs, access to banking services rose from about one of every four persons in 2001 to one in two in 2011; and to telephones, from three per 100 to one in two.
Similarly, for people belonging to STs, the proportion of those accessing banking services rose from a little under one in five persons in 2001 to a little under one in two in 2011; and telephones, from about two in 100 to one in three.
Interestingly, this change is seen most prominently in services that are universal in nature and which, especially in the case of telecom and banking, have seen active participation of private companies resulting in healthy competition. Such dramatic spurts are not visible with respect to other parameters such as the quality of roofing, and access to tap drinking water and electricity.
At the same time, the gap between people belonging to SCs and STs and others has narrowed. And this has coincided with the rapid political mobilization of these communities.
Narendra Jadhav, member of the Planning Commission and author of Untouchables, said the trend fits a narrative. “There is a change and there is no doubt about it. I have been saying this time and again that there is a silent revolution taking place among the SCs, if not STs. Their aspirations are taking flight; it is visible in the emergence of Dalit entrepreneurs and the trends visible in these (census) numbers. There is much greater transformation taking place than what we care to admit.”
According to Jadhav, the trend also manifests itself in the broad-basing of the benefits. “I would go to the other extent and say that our long-term growth has been made possible because people who were not in the mainstream have come into it. The broad-basing of the benefits of growth has given birth to new stakeholders.”
The numbers show that market-based systems can be employed to deliver certain class of services, say some experts. And that, in some instances, they work much better than government-authored welfare programmes for SCs and STs.
“It is a combination of increase in awareness levels among people as well as a push by banks to bring more people into the banking fold. Opening of bank branches in rural areas has increased awareness levels among the population. Migration and the need for people to access banking facilities to send and receive money have also played a major role in greater banking coverage,” said Nachiket Mor, former chairman of the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth.
And, in some cases, progress has been brought about by co-ordinated central planning.
According to M.V. Nair, former chairman and managing director of Union Bank of India, who headed a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) panel for revising the definition and structure of priority sector lending, the trend reflects the financial inclusion drive pursued by RBI in the past 10 years.
“Since 2005, there have been a number of regulations such as the business correspondent model and other technology initiatives to ensure that every household that does not have access to banking services gets a bank account,” he said. “Inevitably, schedule caste and schedule tribe households did not have access to banking services, either in rural areas or in slums in urban areas, and they benefited from this financial inclusion drive.”
Some analysts were however cautious in reading too much into the numbers.
N.C. Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, said that most bank accounts had been opened by wage labourers participating in the government’s marquee rural employment scheme and were largely not operational.
“There has been a great development for scheduled castes, and the gap between them and the general population is narrowing, but that is not true for scheduled tribes for whom it is diverging. Eighty per cent of people belonging to scheduled tribes live in central India. The data may be coming about because people from the scheduled tribes are doing very well in Himachal Pradesh and north-east states,” he said.
And a much closer reading of the data and more research will be needed before any conclusion can be reached, said S. Japhet, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy and professor at National Law School in Bangalore. “The increase in telephone (penetration) cannot be very indicative of a trading-up in material well-being as it’s not known how the telephone connection is being utilized; as in...does the person use it to make outgoing calls or only stick to incoming calls?”
Anuja contributed to this story.