Markets Are Breaking Down India’s Caste System, Turning Untouchables into Millionaires

Malavika Nair and G. P. Manish, Foundation for Economic Education, August 31, 2016

This year marks the 25th anniversary of liberal reforms in India that led to the dismantling of many socialist economic policies and the end of the draconian License Raj. Liberalization has changed life for many in India over the past couple of decades, although much more remains to be done. Just the middle class alone has exploded from 30 million people in 1991 to 300 million in 2014.

So this is a good occasion to tell the story of perhaps the most unexpected beneficiaries of these reforms: the rising Dalit millionaires. In recent years, many thousands of so-called “untouchables,” or Dalits, members of the lowest group in the Indian caste order, have risen out of poverty to become wealthy business owners, some even millionaires.

By taking advantage of the greater economic opportunity brought about by market reforms, these Dalit entrepreneurs provide us with an important example of the power of markets, not just to bring about economic emancipation, but to fight deeply entrenched social discrimination.

The Plight of the Dalits

The Indian caste system is an ancient and complex social order that divides society into groups based on a somewhat rough division of labor. The Dalits belong to the lowest group, below the four-tiered hierarchy of priests, warriors, merchants and artisans. Traditionally, Dalits were relegated to a life of doing “dirty” jobs such as cleaning floors and toilets or handling garbage: hence gaining the name “untouchable” as others would refuse to come into contact with them.

Since one’s caste was determined by birth, and it was impossible to switch castes throughout one’s life, being born an untouchable meant a lifetime of being trapped in a low income “dirty” job with very low social status. Marriages would only take place among caste members, and hence one’s children would be faced with the same hurdles brought by the untouchable identity, leading to systematic discrimination locked into place for generations.

It isn’t surprising that the Dalits consistently rank near the bottom of poverty statistics in an already poverty-ridden country. The term “poorest of the poor” would be an apt description of their socio-economic status in general. For decades, this made them the targets of several affirmative action programs as well as many a politician looking to champion a cause.

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A visit to the Dalit Chamber of Commerce website (see also the Facebook page) reveals slogans such as “Fight Caste with Capital” and “Be Job givers, not Job seekers” as well as a spokesperson who favorably cites the invisible hand, a la Adam Smith! This voluntary Chamber of Commerce, set up in 2003 to bring Dalit entrepreneurs together, currently has 5,000 members whose enterprises jointly boast over half a billion dollars in sales revenue. The actual number of entrepreneurs in the population is much higher.

To what do they owe their success? Fascinating new qualitative research that tracks the life stories of several of these Dalit entrepreneurs reveals a common thread. The opening up of production processes to market forces created new opportunities like never before. Starting small and scraping together resources and capital, many of these Dalits now run business empires that actually provide employment to upper caste members.

There is Thomas Barnabas who was born into a family of bonded laborers, all eight of whom lived in a one-room house. Thomas recalls being thrown out of an upper caste friend’s home as a child after eating and drinking there because he was “untouchable.” They then proceeded to purify and wash the floor where he sat and threw away the dishes from which he ate.

Thomas now owns an industrial waste recycling and disposal business that has an annual sales revenue of $2.3 million and employs 200 people (including many upper caste members) outside the city of Chennai. He strove to fulfill an unmet demand for the processing of industrial waste generated by large corporations like Samsung, Dell, and Mercedes that set up manufacturing facilities in India after liberalization.

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These stories constitute but a tiny sliver of many thousands, if not more. They lead us to an interesting question: how is it exactly that markets fight social discrimination? Markets work in very different ways than the obvious and visible hand of state-driven policies. While the state seeks to outlaw and abolish caste identity by making discrimination illegal, markets work in quiet and invisible ways by making caste identity irrelevant.

Competition brings about the existence of meaningful and relevant alternatives that raise the opportunity cost of discrimination for everyone participating in the market. It is in an entrepreneur’s economic interest to hire and contract with those who have the highest marginal productivity regardless of their caste identity. For if he does not, his competitor might potentially steal away profits that he could have earned. The more open and competitive a market, the more true this holds.

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Can we say that discrimination melts away in a market setting? Not necessarily. Anyone is free to discriminate on the basis of caste identity, even in a market. However, the greater the economic opportunity out there, the greater the chance that the cost of discrimination will be borne by the discriminator himself, not the one being discriminated against.

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