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Home > India > Business > Business Headline > Report

Of job hunting and Indian caste system

Suman Guha Mozumdar in New York | November 02, 2007 14:03 IST
Last Updated: November 02, 2007 14:10 IST

Despite India's bid to integrate itself into the global economy that counts more on merit than on lineage, Indian employers continue to follow age-old hiring practices that discriminate against lower castes.

This is the view of  Katherine Newman, professor of sociology in Princeton University and Paul Attewell, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, who led  a research study along with Surinder S Jodhka of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Sukhadeo Thorat.

"Indian employers, especially the large employers, do continue, despite their views that they do not rely on the caste factor for employment decisions, to have preconceptions or stereotypes about applicants in the labour market that reinforce caste as a source of employment discrimination," Newman said.

"We have shown how the stereotypes can influence hiring practices and make it very difficult for people, particularly when relying on questions of family background, which is a very common human resources practice in India," Newsman told in a telephone interview from New Delhi.

"Our conceptions are that they are in line with caste experience that makes it very difficult for people from dalit backgrounds and OBC backgrounds to succeed in the job competition," she said.

Admitting that discrimination in hiring practices continues in India, Newsman said the firms that have been interviewed are the most exposed to the modern competitive markets. "And yet they are still practicing human resource decisions that reinforce caste identity and act in a discriminatory fashion," she said.

"So the idea that a modern Indian economy will do away with these long-standing forms of discrimination is I think an error. And that is what all the four studies we have done show. We are focusing specifically on the formal sector, the big firms, the ones most exposed to international competition, and that is where many people argue that modern India is headed to, and that they do not need to worry about these problems," Newsman said.

The series of studies that Attewell said has been presented to the Ministry of Human Resource Development in New Delhi this week, for which both he and Newman had gone to India, will be soon published in a book form.

Newman said that research show that even in the modern sector, among the large firms and multinationals, these discriminatory practices continue often with different languages although without overt reference to caste.

"But it is a language that correlates and it does not really make much of a difference. It is a mistake to think that modernisation will by itself somehow cure this problem. It is not going to cure the problem," she said.

Asked how the problems could be solved, she said the debates over affirmative actions are important to continue because these practices do really matter in opening up opportunities.

"I think definitely investing in education is important and nobody would ignore that and I think enforcing anti-discrimination laws which is on the book is absolutely critical," Newman said.

"Most of all, I think we need to understand that as long as huge sectors of Indian population are shut out of the very best jobs even when they are highly qualified - because we were focusing on the graduates of the most elite educational institutions - India will be losing out on a huge amount of human capital it cannot really afford to waste," Newsman said in the interview.

"Unfortunately I think that it is pro-determined that merit is seen as defined by family background which in turns reflects caste, and so merit is not all by itself just about the credentials someone brings   from an educational institution," she said.

"When employers asked about family backgrounds, they were mixing this into their observations about credentials and defining merit as the combination of the two and so it is not for an individual to bring himself or herself up to the educational system if their families do not corroborate," Newman said.

She argued that if individual efforts would not carry people forward and siblings' employment and parental education would count, then it s not going to do any good to the Indian society.

Newman said that students and workers coming from lower caste backgrounds are not likely to have families "that looks like what the employer thinks" is the most desirable background to come from.

"In other parts of the world these kind of questions would not be asked, not because they are illegal, but because they would be considered irrelevant. And so I do think it is worth reconsidering as to why Indian employers care so much about family background when they are looking at people who are  presenting important and impressive educational qualifications as individuals," she said.

"Why should that matter? I have been surprised how little has been discussed on this issue This is the first paper to have raised this issue and this is an import issue,' she said.

"You can't do much about your family you are born into. You can do something about your own educational qualifications but you can't change your family. And if that is going to be held against people, it is going to be a long road indeed,' Newman said.

Saying that the language of merit comes very much from globalisation, she said that the view is that in order to increase productivity and competition what one looks for is the most qualified and hardest working people.

 "That is a mantra that is enforced in all of the western economies. Indian employers are embracing the same ideas, but somehow they are not moving away from hundreds of years of tradition of employing people from ones's own family or caste," she said.

"All of them reflect India's very aggressive move into the international economic order, but as long as those concepts remain of family background and all, and you cannot move away from those traditional forms of highly discriminatory hiring, it is not good for the future,' she said.