For India’s lowest castes, path forward is ‘Backward’

Mohammad Rafiq Gazi, third from left, supports his community's effort to be called 'backward' though it might not aid him because he is too uneducated. He sat with family members. (Sanjit Das/Panos for The Wall Street Journal)

Decades ago, Siraj Gazi’s grandfather changed his last name of Chowduli to the higher-caste Gazi. He hoped it would erase the social stigma of his low-caste roots.
Today, 23-year-old Mr. Gazi, a college graduate, is trying to prove that he is, in fact, a Chowduli—a surname so low, it is akin to a racial epithet here.
“My grandfather wanted to stop people from looking down on us as ignorant and backward,” says Mr. Gazi. “But to get a better job, I’m willing to go back.”
Despite India’s expanding economy, the fruits of rising wealth—and opportunities for economic and social mobility—have largely bypassed many rural areas like Mr. Gazi’s fishing village near the Bangladesh border.
So India is trying to engineer advancement for its underclass through a vast and growing affirmative-action program. To decide who should benefit, officials are adapting a means of categorization long viewed by many as one of the great evils of Indian society: the Hindu caste system.
Since 1993, India has almost doubled, to 2,251, the number of groups on its official list of “backward classes” that are entitled to 27% of central-government jobs and university admissions, and a varying proportion of state jobs. Officials are in the process of classifying roughly 200 more groups as officially “backward” so that they benefit as well.
And for the first time in 80 years, the nation is conducting a “caste census,” tallying India’s thousands of sub-castes. A caste census has long been taboo, for fear it would reinforce discrimination. But this year, lower-caste groups forced the government’s hand. Their hope: The tally will show low-caste numbers are much higher than thought, justifying more government benefits and perhaps even job quotas in the private sector.
For centuries, caste determined not only peoples’ social status but their marriages and occupations as well. The hierarchy is based on four broad caste groups (topped by the priestly Brahmins), each divided into thousands of subgroups. An Agarwal from the Bania caste married within that group and grew up to become a businessman; a Yadav would herd cattle. Members of the Paraiyar group—from which the word “pariah” is derived—performed menial labor and because they were considered unclean, lived outside of villages.
Across India’s estimated 6,400 sub-castes, the system came to define a person’s socioeconomic status.  It continues to serve fundamental economic needs: Absent strong market forces or public institutions, people use caste networks to obtain jobs, loans and housing.
But caste can be fiercely discriminatory. Communities developed incentives to maintain their rung on the caste ladder, lest those below pass them.
Even though the lowest social group, the Dalits—once known as “untouchables”—has produced some successful businesspeople, it still lags well behind higher classes who have twice the median household income, a recent survey shows.
Around the time India opened its economy 20 years ago, ending decades of Soviet-style central planning, it also set out to create a society of equal opportunity. It did so by more than doubling the quota of jobs and seats in government colleges reserved for disadvantaged castes. India’s lower castes—a huge voting bloc—have used their newfound influence to express frustration at their lack of economic mobility as the economy races ahead.
The danger in using caste as a development tool, critics say, is that the government is perpetuating ancient divisions that still run deep. Just this April, the Indian Supreme Court in a wide-ranging ruling blasted the caste system as “a curse on the nation,” saying “the sooner it is destroyed, the better.” That ruling outlawed India’s unofficial courts that sanction “honor killings,” in which families kill young lovers who are from different castes rather than suffer the stigma of a marriage across caste lines.
India’s Constitution guarantees equality to all. But it also enshrines caste-based affirmative action for Dalits, known in legal terms as “scheduled castes,” and for indigenous forest-dwellers, known as “scheduled tribes.” In time, the government created a third group, the “Other Backward Classes.”
There are limits: People earning more than $9,000 a year are considered part of a “creamy layer” that doesn’t get benefits. But overall, almost half of all government jobs and college seats are reserved for the disadvantaged.
Among the Hindu groups now petitioning the government to be considered “backward” are the Devangas in the state of West Bengal, traditional weavers whose name means “those who make clothes for God.”
“Granting the status of ‘backward’ isn’t necessary if everyone is allowed to shine in life—but in reality this opportunity is lacking,” said M. Kesava Rao, the acting administrator at a high school serving mostly Devangas. The group is already recognized as “backward” by the state; it wants national recognition to qualify for federal quotas as well.
The Devangas migrated generations ago from the south of India to work in West Bengal’s jute mills. But the jute business is declining. A lack of other industries leaves them with little hope for social or economic mobility.
In Serampore, a town an hour’s drive north of Kolkata, about 6,000 Devangas live in tiny, pastel homes. Sewage flows along open drains lining dirt footpaths. Inside, women sit at pedal-operated sewing machines, making sari blouses they sell for about four cents each. Only one in five of the women can read at a primary school level, government figures show.
Kondaka Kameshwar Rao, 42, who is married with two children, is among the better-paid Devangas. He earns $140 a month operating a winding machine at a surviving jute plant.
But he can’t afford private tutors for his children, 11 and 14 years old. In the overcrowded classrooms of India’s public schools, tutors are key to scoring high enough on college exams to gain admission.
The only avenue Mr. Rao sees to give his children the economic mobility he lacks is to get the family “backward” status. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says. “Not everyone is Brahmin.”
India is unique in having such a complex social system to identify people in need. Yet critics say the affirmative-action program promotes inter-caste resentment as India’s 1.2 billion people compete for too few jobs.
China, which also struggles to lift its rural poor, has taken a different approach, investing more heavily in public health, education and infrastructure. While China had a head start—opening its economy roughly a decade earlier than India did—it outranks India in measures including poverty and maternal mortality. India is also pouring more money into schools and rural-employment programs.
Being categorized “backward” in India is no guarantee of benefits. Despite the job quotas, many people still can’t meet minimum requirements to get hired. Even most of the lowliest jobs in most state offices require an eighth-grade education, which many people lack.
In the Hasnabad area, where 750 Chowduli families live on the edge of ponds and canals, 40% of students don’t show up to elementary school for half the year, teachers say, when their parents travel to work in brick kilns several miles away.
The Chowdulis are Muslim, and therefore outside of the traditional Hindu caste system. But the word “caste” is routinely used by government experts to refer to social strata in underprivileged Muslim communities. West Bengal state, where the Chowdulis live, has nearly doubled its number of backward classes to 108 the past two years, largely by the inclusion of Muslim groups.
The Chowdulis already have state “backward” status. Now, like the Devangas, they are seeking federal recognition to benefit from more quotas.
Siraj Gazi, the young man who wants to change his name back to Chowduli, is the first member of the community whom anyone in the area can remember getting a college degree. He paid full tuition—all told, about $200 for a three-year degree at a state school.
Not even his degree has helped him land a decent job. He works part-time in a plant that filters arsenic out of drinking water. Thus he has been trying for two years to get an official government certificate identifying him as a Chowduli to gain the advantages of “backward” designation.
“I’m willing to go back and suffer people’s insults because the name is going to help me to get a job,” he says. “The truth is that even when we didn’t have the Chowduli name, people knew we were Chowdulis.”
His uncle, Mohammad Iman Gazi, lives down a mud path a five-minute walk away. He remembers the day several decades ago when he and Siraj’s grandfather decided to drop Chowduli as their last name. “We wanted to get some respect,” he says.
After the change, “We were still looked down upon, but we didn’t get looked down upon as much,” he says, standing in his two-room brick house, which he was able to build after winning $400 in the lottery a few years ago.
He says he will never change his name back to Chowduli. But if the younger generation sees something to gain, he says, he won’t stand in their way.
His own biggest regret, he says, is that he was so poor when his two sons were in school that he made them drop out at age 10 to work. Now they’re stuck in the tailoring industry, lacking the education to benefit from new opportunities.
One son, Mohammad Rafiq Gazi, 22, says he wanted to become a doctor, but his father couldn’t feed his family on the $15 a month he earned wading into a nearby canal and scooping fish into a net. Today, 12 years after quitting school, he earns $30 a month sewing women’s clothing.
 “I don’t like the job, but there’s nothing else to do,” he says. “The job is always sitting, 16 hours a day sitting.”
He supports his community’s effort to attain “backward” status even though it might not help him personally. He wouldn’t qualify for most jobs reserved for “backward” groups because he lacks the required eighth-grade schooling.
The government would do better to invest in schools and teachers, especially in rural areas, rather than promise jobs to people who aren’t qualified, says Anirudh Krishna, a public-policy professor at Duke University who studies poverty in India. “The government is just taking a symbolic shortcut,” he says. “This is a crying scandal.”
Today Rafiq daydreams about setting up his own garment shop. His older brother did so about three years ago after selling some goats for about $300 to buy several sewing machines. On a recent afternoon at his brother’s one-room factory, six boys ages 11 to 16 sewed red frocks.
But Rafiq doesn’t have the goats, or the savings, to buy his own machines, he says, so he feels stymied. “What will be the end?” he says.
Nobody in the family of his college-educated cousin, Siraj, can explain exactly why they pushed him to keep studying toward his degree. He graduated this year with a bachelor of science, majoring in geography.
 “We’re illiterate,” says Siraj’s stepmother, Murjina Bibi, “so we don’t really know what things he can do with an education.” But the family is “very proud” of his degree, she says. “We hope he can find a good job.”
Siraj’s part-time work in the arsenic-filtering plant pays him about $3.20 a day. His goal is to move up to “any kind of permanent job I can get that has job security,” he says.
Asked what job that would be, he pauses to think. The only employers he knows of in the area are a kiln and an ice factory, he says.
At length, Siraj says, “The best thing I can hope for is a government job” of the type he might get more easily with the “backward” status that the Chowduli surname will confer. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

—Krishna Pokharel and Arup Chanda contributed to this article.
(source: The Wall Street Journal/India)