India’s Social Justice Agenda is Unfulfilled as the Labour Market Remains Gendered, Classist and Casteist

Despite years of concerted efforts to the contrary, the pursuit of social justice in India continues to be a utopian agenda in a dystopian economy. 

According to the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2020 Report by the International Labour Organization, in addition to the 188 million unemployed persons across the world in 2019, there are more than 470 million who lack adequate access to work. This discrepancy in the very nature of desired work available for people has meant that one in five workers live in extreme to moderate poverty as of 2019.

Inaccessibility to work and general unemployment trends have worsened in Asia and the Pacific region where the labour productivity growth rate has slipped from 4.3% to 3.9% in the span of just one year (2018–19). The decline is largely attributed to the deceleration in the gross domestic product (GDP) faced by India and some of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The numbers reveal that those most vulnerable to slipping back into poverty, or falling into traps of informal labour and exploitative working conditions, are those who come from already marginalised backgrounds. The limited availability of good-quality, well-paying jobs are reserved for those who have easy and open access to the labour market. This has meant that current labour policies have not only been unable to provide for jobs, but that the jobs they have managed to create remain exclusive and uphold pre-existing power structures and social hierarchies. Hence, despite developmentalist policies that follow the rhetoric of diversity and open access, economies remain casteist, classist, and gendered. 

The murky intersection of caste, class and gender with labour and economy comes out stronger than ever when viewing the underbelly of the Indian markets. For instance, in the first six months of 2019 alone, at least 50 persons died cleaning sewers. This was also the year in which the highest number of manual scavenging deaths occurred in the last five years. That these workers live in deplorable working conditions to do a job that is a health hazard on all accounts is not isolated from the fact that manual scavenging is an occupation rooted in caste biases. According to another report, around 1.84 crore bonded labourers are estimated to be trapped in deplorable work conditions across India. Of these, a majority belongs to Scheduled Tribes (STs) from rural and distressed regions, having migrated in search of sustenance and usually employed in brick kilns, carpet industries, mines, and plantation and construction work. In addition, India’s workforce has masculinised rapidly in the past years. That is, India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen from 31.2% in 2011– 12 to 23.3% in 2017–18. 

Hence, on the World Day of Social Justice, keeping in mind its 2020 theme of “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice,” we explore the EPW archives to take a deeper look into the state of those from marginalised social backgrounds in India’s labour economy. 

Gendered Barriers to the Labour Economy

A vast majority of those who disagree with socialist agenda believe that free markets are the panacea to ridding the society of divisions and hierarchies. They, therefore, do not believe that the economy has in-built barriers to entry for those who come from already deprived backgrounds. However, in her article, Meena Gopal speaks of domestic labour to bring out the gendered and casteist nature of labour. She observes that there is devaluation attached to domestic work, and though it is absolutely necessary socially, it is still one of the most abject and exploited occupations reserved for the most marginal women of society. Moreover, she notes, domestic labour acts as a real site ofcomplying with and upholding the rigid institutions of marriage, family, and the household. Though these institutions are central to social production, they also contribute towards its organisation and regulation. Therefore, the structure of domestic labour reproduces discriminatory social organisation. In addition to this, there is also a differentiation on the basis of the kind of labour produced by good wives and “others,” such as widows and prostitutes. This further adds to the layers of exploitation that marginalised women workers have to confront.

Thus, the relegation of women who are marginalised into certain kinds of labour further reinforces their marginalisation. Connections can be made between deserted women, destitute women, widows, prostitutes, working class women, women hired for domestic labour, migrant rural women, and low-caste women in caste-based occupations, even as the gendering and degradation are knit into the manner in which they are constituted as a segmented labour force. We see linkages here between familial and social patriarchies that continue to exploit women’s labour and maintain the segmentations in their labour markets.

Sabala and Meena Gopal elaborate on this differentiation, particularly with respect to how the  viewing of women’s bodies, primarily as a function of the male gaze, has had serious implications for how women have come to interact with capitalism at large. With declining opportunities to earn a livelihood pushing women to opt for types of labour that focus on their body, the security of said women has become a major concern. This has made them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, further marginalised them due to the nature of their work, as well as curbed their scrope for mobility between different kinds of employment opportunities.

The intricacy and complexity of women’s relationship to their bodies in patriarchal society is intensified for those who earn their living through exhibiting and using their bodies in a sexualised and gendered context. Broad concepts such as gender inequalities, sexual autonomy and power are magnified and condensed when a woman depends on her body for income. One needs to reconcile our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about our bodies and sexualities within this dependence.

Casteist Barriers to the Labour Economy

Vidula Sonagra and Nachiket Kulkarni highlight the intersections of caste and labour in India, by recounting an incident in Pune where a scientist complained against a domestic worker for “violating ritual purity and sanctity (sovala)” and misrepresenting herself as a Brahmin. They observe that though the police were quick in filing the scientist’s casteist complaint, the police did not file an FIR (first information report) when the labourer chose to complain against the harassment she faced. Thus, for all of our talk of modernity, a dirty casteist underbelly dictates whom we do and do not employ in our homes, as well as the dire lack of a redressal mechanism for those in the latter category.

While the incident has been widely condemned in many quarters and large sections of the media, there were some subtle and other brazen justifications of the act. The explanations of sovala in terms of the preference for hygiene actually reinforce the grotesque nature of discrimination as it associates the lower castes with filth. A section among the ‘otherwise’ liberals has subtly or explicitly faulted Nirmala Yadav for concealing her real identity, even as they find Khole’s complaint problematic. Even if Yadav did indeed conceal her caste to get a job which was “reserved” for a Brahmin–suvasini (woman whose husband is alive), the economic duress that forces a person to do such a thing cannot be ignored. Khole’s prejudices do not really shock us because one keeps coming across advertisements in newspapers for Brahmin–suvasini cooks.

Moreover, elaborating upon the caste-based labour provided by women in informal settings, Meena Gopal addresses how marginalisations are institutionalised in certain sections of the economy and certain kinds of employment. For example, the role of the traditional midwife or Dai is reserved for women from Dalit communities as something like “cord-cutting,” or, in general, defiling the body is seen as an impure occupation by some. Another caste-based occupation attributed to those from lower-castes is manual scavenging. Seen as impure and degrading work, it has historically been outsourced to members of the Scheduled Castes (SCs). This has subsequently been structurally incorporated in today’s economy, where, by virtue of their historical experiences and thus accessibility, Dalit men and women are forced to pick up such jobs to ensure bare sustenance.

Discussions on exclusion and discrimination based on caste speak of the operation of stigma, where caste stigma works through institutional structures to exclude people belonging to lower castes from entitlements and status, as well as within educational institutions. The stigma of untouchability thus reduces opportunities for advancement and continues the alienation of self, despite legal guarantees and mechanisms for equity. It is the experience of relations of labour, as evidenced both within caste-based labours and the location of dalit people in other situations, that bring to light the continued structural operation of the stigma of untouchability.

Kavita Chowdhury, taking the link between caste and labour further, looks at the prevalence of child labourers in Bihar and how it affects their economic prospects. According to the 2011 Census, Chowdhury notes, a staggering 51% of SCs and 56% of STs live below the poverty line in the state. Their economic and social well-being is further deprived due to the notions of impurity and untouchability in the state, which complicate their everyday interactions not just with upper castes, but also with non-SC/ST communities. This is particularly so for children from these communities, who have to face caste discrimination not only at school (leading to a high dropout rate), but also in employment.

When pushed into working in these caste-based occupations, the discrimination faced by the marginalised children is of unimaginable proportion. Children of the Dom community, who traditionally cremate the dead, are not allowed to work in agriculture. As an unwritten rule, children of the Dom, Valmiki, and poorer Muslim communities are forced to work only as ragpickers. Children from the Musahar community, now recognised as Mahadalits, are never employed in houses as domestic helps. If they ever manage to work in roadside dhabas (food joints), they hide their caste. The stigma is due to the perceived belief of the non-SC employers that the presence of the marginalised could "contaminate" their surroundings.

Writing on Adivasi rights and the organisation of legal clinics for the same, Kalpana Kannabiran, Sam Gundimeda, Pallavi Gupta and Lakshmi Vivek, address the glaring lack of legal recourse for Adivasis. They observe that several of the developmentalist policies propagated by the government only promote “a new kind of dictatorship,” wherein policies do not take into account the cultures and lives of the Adivasi people. Leading to forced migration, such policies have only aggravated the marginalisation of Adivasi women and abetted their exploitation by labour contractors, especially in urban environments. Furthermore, they note, there is a lack of legal literature on redressal mechanisms if companies neglect communities such as the Adivasis in any of their dealings.

While corporate law is taught in fair detail to students of law, corporate irresponsibility and wilful negligence especially with respect to communities under constitutional protection finds no mention at all in mainstream curricula. And if there is a mention at all, it is confined to courses on law and poverty.

Read More:

Household Assets and Wealth Quintiles, India 2006–16: Insights on Economic Inequalities | Udaya Shankar Mishra and William Joe, 2020

Caste, Class and Agrarian Movements in Bihar | Krishna Chaitanya, 1993

The Precarious Lives of Indian Miners: A Reading List | EPW Engage

Will the Budget Do Justice to the Social Sector? | EPW Engage

Caste or Economic Status: What Should We Base Reservations On? | EPW Engage

Poverty and Inequality in India: A Re-Examination | Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze, 2002


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