Social Inequality Essay

1. Introduction

“I have nor color prejudicies nor caste prejudices.All I care to know is that a man is a human being and that is enough for me, he can’t be any worse.” Mark Twain

Inequalities are a global challenge. They persist both within all countries and between them.Similar kinds of inequalities are faced in common by people across the world. Inequalities are not just problems for the people whose lives are most directly affected.

They have deep consequences for everyone in society. Inequalities harm us all. Among these consequences are: reductions in the pace and sustainability of economic growth; diminishment of the productive potential of all who are harmed and excluded, and the loss of this potential to society; the worsening of existing fragilities and vulnerabilities, including to conflict and disasters; and the weakening of social cohesion and of security for all.

Addressing inequalities is not only the right thing in principle, but also vital in ensuring that we have a sustainable and peaceful world.

Inequalities predominantly affect individuals and groups suffering multiple human rights deprivations. Typically, marginalized and excluded groups lag behind in the enjoyment of one particular right due to lack of access to other rights such as decent jobs, food, housing,health, sexual and reproductive health rights, information, education, participation, physical integrity or judicial remedies. Multiple deprivation and inequalities are often closely associated with and reinforced by specific forms of discrimination in the enjoyment of civil,political, economic, social and cultural rights. Efforts to reduce inequalities will require strong consensus at all levels, and large scale policies that reach from the local to the national to the global.

These efforts will require appropriate policy and legal frameworks, actions to protect people from discrimination and leveling-up measures to enable those whose capabilities have been harmed by inequalities to claim and realize their rights. Successful measures will not be “piecemeal”, but rather require a broad-based economic and social policy framework that is oriented towards inequality reduction. This is turn requires measures that are transformational in orientation rather than just marginal or incremental. Policy reform must be accompanied by concerted action to address negative social attitudes and build a universal demand for equality, tolerance and social justice. Attitudinal change is required at all levels, and across all generations.

2. Objectives

Objectives of this research are to highlight the one aspect of social discrimination still exsist in the modern society and its implications. Caste discrimination in India has been chosen as Indian society is profound with inequalities and to support the above objectives.

3. Scope

This review examines the inequalities within the society based on the caste. The definitions of the social inequalities and caste, factors which produces the inequalities, the consequences and the ways and means of tackling inequalities based on caste are discussed in this paper. Further caste discrimination in India has been chosen as a case study. The structure of this essay is straight-forward. Firstly, a chapter on caste discrimination. Secondly, a chapter on how the authorities should deal with the matter.

4. Definitions of the Social Inequality and Caste

4.1 Social Inequality

The Social inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society.

4.2 Caste

The word caste was originally associated with India’s traditional system of hereditary and rigidly stratified classes, but this noun can now be used to refer to any social group distinguished by shared characteristics, such as rank, economic wealth, or profession.

5.Why Inequalities

Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially-defined categories of persons. While many societies worldwide hold that their resources are distributed on the basis of merit, research shows that the distribution of resources often follows delineations that distinguish different social categories of persons on the basis of other socially-defined characteristics. For example, social inequality is linked to caste inequality,racial inequality, gender inequality, and ethnic inequality as well as other status characteristics.

6. Global Caste Discrimination

Discriminatory and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of a vast global population has been justified on the basis of caste. In much of Asia and parts of Africa, caste is the basis for the definition and exclusion of distinct population groups by reason of their descent. Over 250 million people worldwide continue to suffer under what is often a hidden apartheid of segregation, modern-day slavery, and other extreme forms of discrimination, exploitation, and violence. Caste imposes enormous obstacles to their full attainment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Caste is descent-based and hereditary in nature. It is a characteristic determined by one’s birth into a particular caste, irrespective of the faith practiced by the individual. Caste denotes a system of rigid social stratification into ranked groups defined by descent and occupation.

Under various caste systems throughout the world, caste divisions also dominate in housing, marriage, and general social interaction-divisions that are reinforced through the practice and threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and even physical violence. Lower-caste communities are almost invariably indistinguishable in physical appearance from higher-caste communities. This is not, as some would say, a black and white issue. For most outsiders then, the visual cues that otherwise accompany race or ethnicity are often completely lacking. Stark economic disparities between low and high-caste communities also get buried under a seemingly homogenous landscape of poverty. Poverty can be quite deceptive. It makes one conclude that all suffer from it equally. A closer look reveals the discrimination inherent in the allocation of jobs, land, basic resources and amenities, and even physical security.

A closer look at victims of violence, bonded labor, and other severe abuses also reveals disproportionate membership in the lowest ranking in the caste order. The language used to describe low and high-caste community characteristics in the examples that follow are striking in their similarity, despite the variation in geographic origin, with ideas of pollution and purity, and filth and cleanliness prevalent. In turn, these designations are used to justify the physical and social segregation of low-caste communities from the rest of society, their exclusion from certain occupations, and their involuntary monopoly over “unclean” occupations and tasks. The exploitation of low-caste laborers and the rigid assignment of demeaning occupations on the basis of caste keep lower-caste populations in a position of economic and physical vulnerability.

The triple burden of caste, class, and gender effectively ensures that lower-caste women are the farthest removed from legal protections. Only with the honest implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and of domestic laws designed to abolish the vestiges of various caste systems and to protect the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights of all, can the process of attaining economic and physical security, and human dignity, begin. In August 2000 the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolution 2000/4 on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent.

1 The resolution, aimed at addressing the issue of caste, reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent is prohibited under international human rights law. The Subcommission also decided to further identify affected communities, examine existing constitutional, legislative, and administrative measures for the abolition of such discrimination, and make concrete recommendations for the effective elimination of such practices. This important resolution underscores the notion that caste systems are inherently economic and social in their consequences and that the exclusion of lower-caste communities extends to the economic and social realms of wages, jobs, education, and land.

7. Case Study — Caste-Based Discrimination in India

India is often called the world’s largest democracy, containing the second largest population in the world. Since its independence in 1947 the western perception of India has changed; from categorising and treating it as a ‘developing’ nation — marginalised in the periphery with many of the post-colonial states — to today’s cautious reading that India is a power to be reckoned with and a possible ally in the international society. So what is India? It is a democracy on paper. But judging by India’s critical human rights issues, office corruption, state-fragmentation, insurgency problems, and its alarming overall poverty, India does not quite fit the normal definition of a democratic state. These issues are at the centre of discussions when elections are pending, and mandated governments often build their policy-programmes trying to address many of these problems. Unfortunately they remain to a large extent unhealed. However, I would like to bring up a core human rights issue in India that affects millions of people every day, namely caste-based discrimination.

Caste discrimination is not something that has emerged post-colonially. It is a cultural and social phenomenon that has been a part of the traditions of Hinduism for thousands of years, dividing people into castes in a hierarchical order based on their descent. Since independence Indian authorities has struggled to impede this type of discrimination with various means (and minor results), while at the same time endorsing religious freedom in a much proclaimed secular state. The efforts made by various governments, such as legislation changes, has been proved drastically insufficient and caste based discrimination has moved from being a religious tradition to becoming a human rights issue with international proportions.

With this paper I would like to present caste-based discrimination and how it is being addressed by the authorities in India. Caste discrimination is not a popular topic for discussion. It might be a matter of sovereignty, India and its people has the right to self-determination, so the question is, when is it justified for one democracy to point fingers and accuse another democracy of inadequate measures? There are numerous examples of other major powers disliking foreign enquiries about human rights (China for example); however, India is a peculiar case since it is defined to be a democracy. I will devote a part of the paper to discuss this further.

7.1 Definition and background

The Indian caste system refers to the social stratification of people into ranked groups defined by descent and occupation, based on the underlying notion of purity. Usually the caste system is described as a more than 2,000-year-old Hindu tradition geographically originating from early civilizations on the Indian subcontinent. The system divides people into four larger caste categories with their traditional set of inherited tasks.

  • Brahmins (priests and teachers)
  • Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers)
  • Vaisyas (merchants and traders)
  • Shudras (laborers and artisans)

A fifth category falls outside these larger categories and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits as they call themselves (“broken people“).The casteless group have earned their status “untouchable” from the tasks and labours they inherit which are often too polluting to grant them inclusion in the traditional caste system. In performing these labours they become physically untouchable by the other castes and expelled from certain parts of everyday social life. Basically the caste system is a pyramid and Dalits are at the lower end. Caste-based discrimination can influence all spheres of life and violate a cross-section of basic human rights including civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. It is also a major obstacle to achieving development goals, since affected populations are often excluded from development processes. The system traditionally discourages people from different castes to interact with each other more than out of necessity, for example by prohibiting inter-caste marriage.

Especially in rural areas, caste divisions dominate in housing, marriage, and general social interaction — divisions that are reinforced through the practice and threat of social exclusion, economic boycotts, and even physical violence. It should be noted that in contemporary urban India, social attitudes towards the traditional caste stratification are changing, especially as new forms of occupations are developing. Nevertheless the caste system continues to survive in modern India. There are over 160 million Dalits in India, not counting the tens of millions of Dalits who have already converted to other religions such as Buddhism and Christianity to escape their caste faiths. During the eighties and nineties caste discrimination became a much debated issue on the political arena following a report published by a government commission that mapped out and defined current “backward” castes and ethnic groups in India.

The report also stated a set of recommendations to be implemented by the authorities including several reservation laws for public and educational seats. Reservation laws had already been incorporated in the forties, with states endorsing their own types of discrimination preventive policies, but the report renewed the debate and created a much needed political and social awareness. The outcomes are disputed but there is nonetheless an increased presence of Dalits in the higher spheres of power in India today than any time before. The debate also saw the creation of numerous local and national political parties claiming to be representing the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, some becoming very successful. Two examples of high positioned Dalits are the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Kumari Mayawati who won the state elections in 2007 for the fourth time; and M. Narayanan, President of India 1997-2002.

7.2 Caste discrimination in practice

Being based in deeply engrained social structures, caste based discrimination is part of day to day life2. Discrimination is often based on housing, work and access to public spaces. There are examples of Dalits being denied access to public services such as deep wells, water taps, health care and education. Segregation in housing, schools and cremation grounds, occupational restrictions, prohibition of ownership and access to land, bonded labour, forced prostitution and manual scavenging3 are other examples of discrimination in the everyday life of Dalits.

Discrimination on caste base can also be seen in terms of the relative underdevelopment of low-caste groups: the literacy rate for Dalits is significantly lower than for the rest of the population, infant mortality and under-five mortality among Dalits are much higher than the average, and Dalits are paid lower wages than other workers for similar tasks. These are just a few specific examples. There are also more violent forms of caste-based discrimination. Dalits are on occasions subjected to violent attacks, murder, harassment, and other atrocities. These cases are rarely reported, investigated or prosecuted, as police, lawyers and judges often belong to more dominant castes and are unwilling to get involved. Impunity in such cases remains common practice. However, it has to be acknowledged that media are becoming more vocal on the condition of Dalits.

7.3. India’s legal framework

The government of India has on a number of occasions recognised that caste-based discrimination is a problem with deep social roots in the Indian society. Since independence the government of India has implemented legislation and policies aimed at improving the situation of low-castes groups and prevent caste-based discrimination.

7.3.1 Constitution

The Indian constitution (1947) protects the fundamental rights of every Indian citizen, including equality, freedom of speech, expression, belief, assembly, association, movement, education, equality of opportunity in matters of public employment without discrimination on grounds of race, religion, caste or gender. It also formally abolishes “untouchability” and prohibits its practice. The Constitution includes specific affirmative measures, for example reservation of seats in the public services, administration, Parliament (both upper and lower house), and setting up advisory councils and separate departments for the welfare of socially and economically vulnerable groups. The Constitution provides that the proper of implementation of the safeguards is to be monitored by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

7.3.2 The Indian Penal Code

India’s legal framework, The Indian Penal Code (IPC), provides various provisions specifically adopted to prevent forms of caste discrimination and other violations of minority rights, both on national and state level. Instead of a foundational rights’ framework for the protection of every citizen in India, the Penal Code provides various Acts to prevent specific types of behaviour, such as The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976) and The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act (1993). For example, The Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) list “unlawful” behaviours against Scheduled Castes and Tribes (by defining atrocities such as intimidation, sexual abuse, denial of access to water et cetera). Both the Constitution and The Indian Penal Code provides almost a watertight package of individual rights for the Indian population and the problem caste-based discrimination does not lie in an insufficient legal framework — rather it is a question of implementation.

7.4 Implementation issues

As noted above many laws have been introduced to prevent caste-based discrimination and untouchability. The government has set up several bodies and commissions to monitor progress, and some measures have enabled Dalits access into public office employment. The problem is not the legislation but its implementation. At all levels, there is a lack of political will to ensure that the laws are applied on the ground. Untouchability, bonded labour, poverty, manual scavenging, segregation, landlessness and violence are the everyday reality whatever the laws and special measures prescribe. Impunity is a core factor why it is so difficult for Indian authorities to come to terms with caste discrimination.

7.5 International commitments

Expect for the domestic legal framework that ensures human rights in India, the country has also committed itself to several international treaties and conventions. Almost all UN conventions has been ratified (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination).

In spite of India’s international legal obligations to protect Dalits’ human rights several UN Treaty Bodies, in particular CERD, CEDAW and CESCR, have urged the Government of India to implement the concerns raised in their observations and to ensure full implementation of these international treaty obligations at domestic level.

There is an ongoing dispute between India and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination whether or not caste-based discrimination should fall within the definition of racial discrimination.

So far India has refused.

7.6 Actions by NGOs

There are very few international NGOs working specifically with raising awareness on caste-based discrimination. Most of the larger scale efforts to push untouchability to the forefront of various international human rights agendas are being made by domestic civil society organisations in India, in particular by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). The organisation is a coalition of NGOs, human rights activists, journalists and academics throughout India which was formed in 1998 to respond to the continued practice of untouchability.

The organisation has made possible collaboration between smaller local NGOs all over India. NCDHR is also to a large extent responsible for various state actors recognising the problem, such as the EU (European Commission) and IOs like the UN, by continuously publishing reports and fact-finding documents on the Dalit situation. Perhaps the only “international” non-governmental organisation trying to raise awareness on Dalit discrimination is the Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), which often collaborates with NCDHR.

8. Tackling Inequalities

As per the report by Human Rights Watch for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Durban, South Africa, September 2001 following measures are to be taken.

  1. Establish a program and timetable to enforce the abolition of “untouchability,” segregation, or similar practices.
  2. Enact and fully enforce laws aimed at ending abuses associated with caste or similar practices.
  3. Monitor and publicize the extent to which existing laws to end caste discrimination have been implemented.
  4. Allocate adequate funds for programs for the socio-economic and educational support of communities that have faced discrimination on the basis of caste or descent.
  5. Ensure greater participation by the affected communities in civil administration, especially the administration of justice, including in key institutions such as the police and judiciary.
  6. Ensure that all necessary constitutional, legislative, and administrative measures, including appropriate forms of affirmative action, are in place to prohibit and redress discrimination on the basis of caste.
  7. Launch nationwide public awareness campaigns regarding legal prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of caste or descent. This campaign should explain in simple terms what actions are legally prohibited and what recourse is available to victims of discrimination and abuse.
  8. Provide political and financial support for programs of the United Nations and regional bodies to assist countries seeking to eradicate caste discrimination.

9. Conclusion

The discriminatory practices are chronic and deep rooted in the community, in both the powerful and powerless segments of society. Many initiatives have attempted to change this — much success has been recorded but not sustained due to lack of institutional mechanisms. Attempts were exclusive to certain castes that generated conflict and dispute at the individual, household and community level, and created confrontation among the castes rather developing consensus and respecting the rights of others. Custom or traditional practice is an excuse, as is the fear of ’SIN’ and psychological fright of becoming sick or harm to assets and, therefore, the majority of people are not ready to change their discriminatory behaviour towards Dalits.

For the same reasons,Dalits are also afraid of raising their voices against the discriminatory practices.Dalit awareness has been raised but no opportunity has been created to break the discriminatory socio-economic relations between Dalits and Non-Dalits. This has created a threat to the livelihoods of Dalit. As consequences Dalit women are forced to work longer hours as males are continuing to work away from home for want of job. Considering the extent of gender and caste based discrimination prevailing at the community level, isolated and exclusive intervention is not sufficient to make meaningful social transformation. Hence, integrated attempts are inevitable to address this situation.

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