To the People in Glass Houses

Social welfare in India needs to improve

The divide isn’t exactly invisible. The image is now a cliché: a rural Indian slum standing precariously in front of glass buildings.

India is on the rise. Its GDP is growing internationally, its infrastructure is strengthening exponentially, and its image is constantly improving. But the nation still saddles heavy, ubiquitous poverty—41.6 percent of the national population remains below the international poverty line. A glance at the poor can tell you: Rickshaw drivers have creases that run deep in their faces, worn from heavy loads, and long distance bicycled. Dharavi, now famous from its exposure in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” still remains perhaps the most structured and cleanest of all Indian slums though one of the largest in the world.

But, for its residents and those on a similar socioeconomic level, national welfare isn’t necessarily as strong as it should be.

Since its independence from Britain, the Indian government has adopted equalizing welfare policy, as do other governments. But unlike other domestic welfare programs, India’s policy uses the outdated Hindu caste system to determine quotas in schools, jobs, and even parliament for members belonging to the Dalits, Scheduled Caste, or Other Backward Class. Through using a welfare system that favors OBCs and SCs instead of a broader socioeconomic-motivated policy, the government fails to include the countless members of other castes who still starve on less than a dollar a day—or the many others from different religions who obviously do not even have a Hindu caste affiliation. And as a result, lower-income Indians remain disproportionate, and some OBCs reach unquestionably undeserved heights.

In urbanized areas, on the other hand, we find that the poor includes many members of forward castes. In cities, caste-controlled norms have begun to phase out, and one’s fifth-generation ancestor’s caste affiliation fails to hold any importance. With India’s increasing urbanization and over a quarter of its population now living in cities, these urban areas are becoming the future of the nation.

Ruling parties recognize this gap. The Congress Party, which leads the currently ruling coalition, is considering a potential policy that might move to establish quotas for members of forward castes who are still below the poverty line. However, the move would only be a start. While integrating more forward caste members into education would start a longer process, ultimately ridding the parliament and jobs of quotas that favor members of the OBC, it would be more beneficial to instead promote public service exposure through education and internships to citizens below the poverty line.

Perhaps as glaringly, Mayawati, current chief minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, is a Dalit whose crowning achievements seems to be her consistent purchases of the newest Prada bags and erecting statues of herself wherever she might find space. A Dalit, she campaigned to champion the lower castes, unsuccessfully doing so by spearheading a caste-hatred campaign that has divided the state.  Her continued victories, facilitated by her ancestral ties to being a Dalit, have stunted the state and done nothing to help promote the welfare of the lowest income bracket in Uttar Pradesh. And she’s not alone in the Indian government.

India has improved. But it still remains a nation with slums next to glass buildings. As slum residents look on at their glass-walled neighbors, they may never know the lifestyle they lead. As the nation becomes more socially equal, however, perhaps one day they might.

Gautam S. Kumar ’13, a Crimson news writer, is an applied math concentrator in Cabot House.

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