Monday, May 10, 2010

How India's caste system keeps people poor

India's caste system is slowly becoming a thing of the past. The economic growth that India has seen over the last couple of decades helped to begin to do away with casts. During the I.T. revolution in India people from all castes could get good jobs and improved livelihoods.

This is the first year that India's census will have no questions on which caste one belongs to. However, some aspects of the caste system still reside in the rural areas. People of a lower caste still will not receive any services from government if the officials are from a higher caste. The only way to get help is through bribes.

From part of their series for the Canadian Press Craig & Marc Kielburger of Save The Children explain how the caste keeps some people in poverty by introducing us to the situation of 57 year old grandmother Babu Dhula. Our snippet was grabbed from the Vancouver Sun.

"What happens when there is a lack of identity is that people are not able to verify who they are," said Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, during the launch of the UIDAI project. "Because they cannot verify who they are, they cannot ... get on a BPL list. If they are not on a BPL list, they are not able to access the ration card."

The issuing of identity cards -- complete with photographs, fingerprints and iris scans -- is a valiant effort. But while it may help alleviate poverty in urban areas, it misses a key aspect of Dhula's identity that is still very much alive in the country.

Dhula is gayri -- a member of a low-ranking caste in India's officially abolished yet existent social system. The system, which has roots in Hinduism, defines people based on occupation, culture and socioeconomic status. Castes have virtually died out in the cities. In Gayriawas, it's still very much a part of Dhula's life.

Here, the official in charge of BPL cards is part of a higher caste. In this position of power, he may still demand a bribe, with or without Dhula's identification.

The census is rightly attempting to move toward a casteless society. And advances in technology have helped: "Technology has gone from being seen as something forbidding to something that is empowering," Nilekani said.

By rejecting the caste system, the government is sending an important message that discrimination has no place in India's future.

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