Land ownership in Indian villages is inextricably linked to caste, with dalits owing little or no land. Based on a survey in Maharashtra, this column assesses the impact of land acquisition and subsequent development on dalits vis-à-vis non-dalits. The findings suggest that while economic development can make inroads into the caste system, it possibly cannot end casteism in the short run.
Land acquisition is, undoubtedly, one of the most important issues currently facing India’s political economy. The process of land acquisition has significant consequences. The first is that all landowners are given a compensation package. The second is the externalities that arise out of the land being developed after acquisition. The latter consists of job creation in the companies that are set up, including in contractual services such as security, catering etc. There are also new opportunities for self-employment such as setting up tea shops, driving auto-rickshaws, construction labour contracting, and so on.
Additionally, land ownership in Indian villages is inextricably linked to caste, with dalits usually not owning much land, if at all any. This raises the question as to what are the implications of land acquisition for dalits1.
Land acquisition and development in Maan, Maharashtra
To answer this question, I undertook a case study of a village called Maan in the state of Maharashtra (Sathe 2015). Mann is situated about 17 kms from Pune city and is about 3 kms away from the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. In Maan, land was acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) with the objective of setting up capital- and skill-intensive industries under the Rajiv Gandhi Infotech Park (RGIT) Phase II and III, over 2000-2006. In 2006, there were protests against the acquisitions. Consequently, Phase IV of the project was stalled. So as of now, around half the area of the village has been acquired (by MIDC or private entities) and half is still with the villagers where they undertake farming. The developed area of the village consists of Information Technology (IT), automobile and pharmaceutical companies.
In terms of externalities, the question is whether dalits benefit as much as non-dalits from the development of the village. The key issues are as follows: Do dalits have the capacity to be absorbed in the new jobs created? Do employers discriminate against them? Can they make use of self-employment opportunities? Does the lack of social and economic capital come in the way of getting jobs or starting businesses?
The study involved a survey of all original inhabitants (excluding migrants) of the village, giving us a sample size of 778 households covering 4,081 people. More than 80% of the families in the sample are Other Backward Castes (OBC), which are middle, land-owning castes; and the remaining are dalits (9%), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Muslims etc. In addition to the main survey, there was also an exclusive survey of the 69 dalit families in the sample. The surveys were conducted in July-August 2013.
I compare dalit and non-dalit families over eight indicators: Pre-RGIT (2000) land ownership, land ownership in 2013, average monthly household expenditure, Index of Economic Standing (IOES), Index of Benefits Accrued (IOBA), education profile, occupational pattern, and issues related to dignity, discrimination and dependence. IOES captures asset ownership, bank account ownership, and condition of housing of the respondents. IOBA captures perceived benefits in terms of jobs and self-employment opportunities resulting from the development of acquired land. I estimate IOBA at the household level, at village level and at combined level2.
Impact on dalits vis-à-vis non-dalits
Expectedly, I find that landlessness amongst dalits is much higher than amongst non-dalits in 2013. Average monthly household expenditure and IOES of non-dalit households is higher than that of dalit households3. Thus, dalits continue to be economically inferior to non-dalits.
The IOBA at household level for dalits and non-dalits was not significantly different. Similarly at the village level, the perceived benefits accrued to both the groups were not significantly different, and at the combined level also, there was no significant difference between the two groups.
Next, I compared educational patterns for children below 21 years of age. I found that the percentage of out-of-school children in the 6-10 years age group was higher in the case of non-dalits as compared to dalits. Further at every level of educational attainment dalit children are either comparable or somewhat ahead in terms of enrolment. Thus, we can surmise that dalits are possibly making better use of educational opportunities than non-dalits.
In terms of occupation, I find that while 50% of non-dalits are farmers, the figure is only about 25% for dalits. A major chunk of dalits (44%) are working in non-governmental jobs; self-employment is low at 15% - possibly indicative of a lack of credit and capital, which hampers them from starting their own enterprises (as also argued by Jodhka 2010,2012). Discussions with the people in Maan revealed that hardly anyone from the village had got a job in the companies that were set up following land acquisition and the non-governmental jobs were largely with contractual service providers.
One distressing issue that got revealed in the course of discussions with the villagers is that when dalits engage in non-governmental jobs (mainly with contractual service providers) they usually end up doing housekeeping. Later it became clear that, in fact, it is euphemism for toilet cleaning. Conventionally, this work has been assumed to be ‘polluting’. The question that arises then is: Is the earlier caste inequality reproducing itself? It has been argued that the higher castes would avoid taking up such jobs and the lower castes may be forced into them as other jobs may not be easily available to them (Thorat and Newman 2010).
Dignity, discrimination and dependence
Examining the ‘lived experiences’ (Guru and Surukkai 2012) of dalits reveals that their situation has improved since RGIT. More than 80% have reported that their relations with upper castes have improved, their dependence on upper castes has decreased substantially, their educational opportunities have improved; and their bargaining power and political importance in the gram panchayat has risen.
A complicated picture
Thus, to conclude, we can see that the findings have thrown up a rather complicated picture. On the one hand, the economic condition of dalits continues to be worse than non-dalits as dalits own less land, their average monthly household expenditure is lower and their ownership of assets, housing etc. is poorer. However, as far as perceived gains from development of acquired land are concerned, there is no significant difference between the two groups. Moreover, the condition of dalits has improved in terms of dignity, discrimination and dependence after the RGIT. Dalits are highly dependent on non-governmental jobs. They seem to be engaged in jobs in the modern sector which is good because it helps them to get out of earlier dependence on the higher castes (through agriculture) and allows them an entry into a post-agricultural, post-feudal world. But because they are mostly engaged in toilet cleaning, they remain stuck in earlier caste identities. Thus, economic development can make inroads into the caste system, but possibly not end casteism in the short term.
- Dalits refer to Scheduled Castes (SC).
- For the Index of Benefits Accrued (IOBA), an example of a household-level question is: ‘Has anyone in the family got a job in a new company?’ An example of a village-level question is: ‘Has the working of the Gram Panchayat improved since land acquisition?
- The differences are statistically significant.
- Guru, G and S Sarukkai (2012), The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- Jodhka, Surinder S (2010), “Dalits in Business: Self-employed Scheduled castes in North-West India”, Economic and Political Weekly, 45(11): 41-8.
- Jodhka, S (2012), Caste: Oxford India Short Introductions, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- Sathe, Dhanmanjiri (2015), “Implications of Land Acquisition for Dalits: Explorations in Maharashtra”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. L, pp. 52-59.
- Thorat, S and K Newman (eds.) (2010), Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.