Karl Marx was wrong about many things but right about one thing: the revolutionary way capitalism attacks and destroys feudalism. As I explain in a new study, in India, the rise of capitalism since the economic reforms of 1991 has also attacked and eroded casteism, a social hierarchy that placed four castes on top with a fifth caste—dalits—like dirt beneath the feet of others. Dalits, once called untouchables, were traditionally denied any livelihood save virtual serfdom to landowners and the filthiest, most disease-ridden tasks, such as cleaning toilets and handling dead humans and animals. Remarkably, the opening up of the Indian economy has enabled dalits to break out of their traditional low occupations and start businesses. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) now boasts over 3,000 millionaire members. This revolution is still in its early stages, but is now unstoppable.
Milind Kamble, head of DICCI, says capitalism has been the key to breaking down the old caste system. During the socialist days of India’s command economy, the lucky few with industrial licenses ran virtual monopolies and placed orders for supplies and logistics entirely with members of their own caste. But after the 1991 reforms opened the floodgates of competition, businesses soon discovered that to survive, they had to find the most competitive inputs. What mattered was the price of your supplier, not his caste.
Many tasks earlier done in-house were contracted out for efficiency, and this opened new spaces that could be filled by new entrepreneurs, including dalits. DIOCCI members had a turnover of half a billion dollars in 2014 and aim to double it within five years. Kamble says dalits have ceased to be objects of pity and are becoming objects of envy. They are no longer just job-seekers, they are now job creators.
Even in rural areas, dalits have increasingly moved up the income and social ladders in the last two decades. One survey in the state of Uttar Pradesh shows the proportion of dalits owning brick houses is up from 38 percent to 94 percent, the proportion running their own businesses is up from 6 percent to 36.7 percent, and the proportion owning cell phones is up from zero to one-third. Some former serfs have now become bosses. A rising proportion have become land-owners, and sometimes hire upper-caste workers. Even more revolutionary, say dalits, is the change in their social status. Once they were virtually bonded laborers, and could not eat or drink with the upper castes. Today the bonded labor system is almost gone, and dalits operate restaurants at which upper castes eat and drink. They remain relatively poor and discriminated against, but economic reform since 1991 has revolutionized their social and economic status.