The caste system (and its reflection, untouchability), with thousands of subcastes, is like so many stinking ponds which have polluted life for all those who came in contact with them. What we want is a flowing river with fresh and pure water.
(Sukhadeo Thorat, “Passage to Adulthood: Perceptions from Below”)
As a young boy, Sukhadeo Thorat felt humiliation when an upper caste child slapped his face for inadvertently touching the communal well. As a teenager, he felt anger when he and other local dalits (former untouchables) were slurred or socially shunned at gatherings, and excluded from religious temples.
As one of India’s leading economists and public intellectuals, Thorat has felt compelled to put caste discrimination on the mainstream research agenda, as well as to seek to influence policy and social movements with hard evidence about the ways in which tens of millions of persons remain ‘blocked by caste.’**
Thorat was reared in humble circumstances as a member of the Mahar dalit group in Maharashtra state, northeast of Bombay (Mumbai). By long tradition, Mahars and other dalits in villages across India have been forbidden from living alongside upper-caste residents, and from holding any but low-status, or dirty jobs. In his autobiographical essay, “Passage to Adulthood”* Thorat describes the daily indignities to which Mahars were subjected in his home village. He also tells of a social awakening for himself and others, beginning in the 1950s, under the inspirational leadership of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution and himself a Mahar.
After struggling to acquire a primary and secondary education in various Christian missionary and other schools that would accept dalit pupils, Thorat enrolled in Ambedkar’s Milind College of Arts in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. There, he joined a student body composed almost exclusively of dalits. He deepened his study of Ambedkar’s writings and Buddhism – a religion to which many lower-caste Hindus converted at Ambedkar’s urging – and assumed leadership roles among dalit student activists. He also became determined to pursue further study on caste discrimination.
In a recent interview at his home on the expansive south Delhi campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Thorat recalled the difficulties he faced in actually bringing his student activism, and his personal understandings of exclusion, to bear in his economic research, beginning in the 1970s. His initially proposed PhD thesis topic, on untouchability and occupational linkages, was declared by JNU’s Economics Department as too far outside the mainstream to be acceptable, he recalled.
He was later accepted for doctoral studies at JNU’s Centre for the Study of Regional Development, but only to study a more traditional topic in agricultural economics. “I joined that center, but I was not able to do research on issues that I wanted to work on. … So, I lost 10 years.”
It was not until he served as a visiting faculty member at Iowa State University from 1989-91 that Thorat had the opportunity to pursue theoretical and empirical studies on economic discrimination, which shaped his research on economic of caste and the problems of excluded communities in India. There, he had access to North American literature on economic discrimination, in particular that directed against African-Americans, as well as some studies of caste discrimination by non-Indian authors. From those sources, and his own intensive study of Ambedkar’s writings and related material, he began developing an approach to market economics that could take appropriate account of caste discrimination.
Ongoing efforts have involved developing concept of caste and untouchability based economic discrimination through market and non market exchange, and its consequences on unequal opportunity and the poverty of the dalits. He also has strived to persuade other economists, as well as grant-funding bodies, that caste discrimination affects economic outcomes in significant ways. In a study on market discrimination in rural area sponsored by the International Labour Organisation, for example, Thorat provided evidence of discrimination faced by dalits in the sale of milk, vegetables, fruit and other farm goods.
In developing and refining measures of untouchability, Thorat and colleagues have conducted similarly fine-grained field research, measuring exclusionary patterns in village schools, primary health centers, shops and in daily activities. A study sponsored by Thorat’s Indian Institute for Dalit Studies revealed that “Private doctors, for example, often avoid visiting or entering the houses of the untouchables. And often the health service providers avoid touching the untouchable child. They ask the untouchable mother to hold the child and do the treatment from the side.”
As Thorat’s work on caste and economic discrimination deepened and became more influential in academic circles, so was he able to exercise some influence over policy. He was instrumental in persuading the Indian government to recognize that the privatization which accompanied the country’s greater economic openness in the 1990s could be a blow to lower-caste persons who had climbed some rungs on the employment ladder through policies of affirmative action. Because such policies were focused on public jobs, the privatization of public enterprises could mean huge employment losses for dalits.
Thorat and colleagues organized workshops on the issue, gave testimony and met with high-level officials. Thorat himself shared his concerns with then-Finance Minister (now Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh.
He also was instrumental in helping to develop affirmative action policy in India’s private sector. “The private sector says ‘we don’t discriminate, we go merit and efficiency.’ Through proper research, we provided the evidence of discrimination in hiring.”
A series of studies followed, including ones which involved sending job applications to private employers that were identical except for different applicant names. Some surnames were associated with Hindu upper castes, some with dalits, and some with Muslims. The dalit and Muslim candidates were invited to interview at far lower rates.**
Ultimately, research, testimony and opinion pieces by Thorat and collaborators was crucial to the development of government-backed, incentive-based affirmative action program for private firms, as well as caste-sensitive policies on government procurement. Thorat noted both as important steps forward, but he also said that recent reviews have found private-firm compliance with affirmative action policies uneven, and that more pressure likely will have to be brought to bear.
Besides impact on government policy, Thorat has made significant contributions to broadening the study of societal exclusion and supporting civil society groups with research. In the early 2000s, he took leave from his duties as a JNU faculty member to develop the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies in Delhi, along with dalit NGO leaders from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Backed by a grant from the Ford Foundation, initial efforts were focused on providing a research base for the campaign, which sought formal United Nations recognition of caste discrimination as a human rights violation. The NCDHR continues to call attention to caste-based exclusion across India.
Thorat remains integrally involved with the Dalit Studies institute as its Managing Trustee, conducting and facilitating numerous major research projects with Institute members.
Further, as chairman of India’s main higher-education funding body, the University Grants Commission, from 2006-11, Thorat oversaw the creation of 32 Centres for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at universities around India. “I could see that there was a huge interest now around these subjects, and a group of scholars who wanted to do work but could not find space to do it. Now many of these researchers have opportunities to undertake research on issue related to exclusion and problems of discriminated communities” he said.
Thorat appreciates now how much progress has been made in bringing caste into the mainstream of academic research in economics, which in turn has provided a knowledge base from which important policy concerns can be raised.
“There was nothing by way of economic data much when I started in the early 1990’s,” he said. “The data organizations used to publish only few isolated report on dalits and adivasi [tribal groups] … There were many issues that we were not able to address. So we had to really provide an empirical base.”
Sukhadeo Thorat has written more than 70 articles and written or edited 19 books on social exclusion and dalit and other excluded groups, with Oxford University Press, Sage and other international publishers.
*Sukhadeo Thorat. 1979. “Passage to Adulthood: Perceptions from Below,” in Sudhir Kakar, ed., Identity and Adulthood (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 65-81.
**Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell. 2010. “The Legacy of Social Exclusion: A Correspondence Study of Job Discrimination in India’s Urban Private Sector,” in Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine S. Newman, eds., Blocked By Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 35-51.