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The Demand for Disadvantage


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  • Rohini Somanathan

    (Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi, India)


Disadvantage is a popular and controversial word in India these days. In October 2007, half a million Gujars, traditionally a pastoral community of north and central India, filled the streets of several towns in the Indian state of Rajasthan demanding that they be classified by their state government as disadvantaged. The Gujars wish to be listed as Scheduled Tribes, and thereby receive greater parliamentary representation, preferential treatment in public employment and lower admissions standards in many educational institutions.1 Yet, ethnographers have cast doubt on their aboriginal descent, they share customs with other groups in the middle of the social ladder,2 and a current web site hosted by members of the Gujar community refers to the group as “a proud people” with “the desire and ability to rule the world”3. The case of the Gujars illustrates, oddly but powerfully, the ways in which culture and politics mingle to shape acceptable notions of social justice and government policy in democracies. In a poor, growing economy with academic costs well below the market value of educational training, the tag of disadvantage has come to acquire value and, ironically, the desire for mobility has brought about a demand to be classified as disadvantaged. It is this demand that I would like to reflect upon here- its cultural roots, its social rationale, the political mechanisms through which it is expressed and some of the economic implications of the policies that it has generated.

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Paper provided by Centre for Development Economics, Delhi School of Economics in its series Working papers with number 169.

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Length: 21 pages
Date of creation: Jul 2008
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cde:cdewps:169

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Keywords: Shapley value; potential; consistency; games in partition function form.Goup-based policies of preferential treatment began under British rule in the first half of the twentieth century. After political independence in 1947; the Indian constitution converting some of these policies into rights; facilitated the expansion of state-led affirmative action. The constitution was unusual in that it juxtaposed provisions for the equality of all citizens before the law with those that mandated the proportional political representation of specific groups and allowed the state to make special concessions for their advancement. In the decades that followed; these provisions did dilute the dominance of the traditionally elite in political and social life but also generated caste-based contests for the rents from public office and the gains from spending on public goods. Mandated political representation and other types of affirmative action changed the balance of power but also created new types of inequalities within the set of targeted communities. Demographic data from the census; public employment and college admission records; and studies of electoral outcomes all suggest that the minimally disadvantaged and the numerically strong communities benefitted more than the others. The constitutional space given to affirmative action was initially valuable because it encouraged the state to acknowledge its responsibility towards the socially marginalized. Over time however; it has created a peculiar discourse of social justice and development in India in which individual advancement is linked to group mobility and groups move forward by claiming that they have been left behind. In the process; the state has neglected less controversial and more fundamental rights such as the universal access to primary and secondary education that may have done more for larger numbers of truly disadvantaged communities. Section 2 describes the constitutional basis for affirmative action policies in India and provides a brief history of these policies. Section 3 presents secondary evidence on the characteristics of beneficiaries and the distribution of benefits. It also documents the inequality in educational attainment that emerged within the set of communities that were targeted as recipient of affirmative action over the 1931-1991 period. I conclude in Section 4 with reflections on the divergence between the intended and actual effects of affirmative action in India.;


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Cited by:
  1. Jean-Marie Baland & Rohini Somanathan & Lore Vandewalle, 2011. "Socially Disadvantaged Groups and Microfinance in India," Working Papers 1117, University of Namur, Department of Economics.


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