In Diversity, India Seeks to Rise Above Caste, Color
by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research —
If, as defined in The Inclusion Paradox, “diversity is the mix, inclusion is making the mix work”™, then India has much to both celebrate and wrestle with as it determines its mix and focuses on how to make it work.
India represents a large swath of people. Roughly three-quarters of its roughly 1.17 billion people are Indo-Aryan, and Dravidians make up another large chunk. But the remaining 3% is divided among 2,000 ethnic groups. Hindi and English are two of the 18 recognized Indian languages. India hosts 15% of the world’s population, and of those, 70% are agrarian, living in villages and farms. India’s median age is a youthful 25. According to Department of State data, India is only one-third the size of the United States. So by being three times as populated, but one one-third as big, its population density is 9 times that of the US.
In India, discussing race relations involves inherent difficulty, particularly because there is no word for “race” in Hindi. The word “jaati” refers to a person’s caste. Or, “varn ka rang” means color of one’s skin. Thus, one can get close to a discussion of race, but it takes a bit of finesse to get all the way there.
Here’s a quick view of other parts of the mix and how it’s working.
Overcoming the ancient caste system in India is one of the country’s difficult challenges: How can a country uproot a system that predates the Bhagavad Gita? The varnas, or classes, consist of Brahmans (priests/teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers/soldiers), Vaisyas (merchants), Sudras (laborers) and a group not named but known as achuta, or untouchable.
This system today is outlawed, but still embedded, particularly in some regions. Today, untouchables are known as Dalits, and represent 200 million Indian citizens. Crimes against them, sometimes including rape and murder, but more frequently less violent crimes, can go unpunished. India has refused to consider caste as an international human rights issue.
Through Indian eyes, an understanding of the caste system goes far deeper than what is described in most Western literature. It was, for centuries, a useful mechanism for absorbing nomadic populations from Central Asia providing peaceful, stratified socio-economic order. While India recognizes that the system no longer applies, the societal movement away from it has been moving slowly.
The good news? When India has risen above caste, the results have meant an economic boon. In southern India, lower castes have been struggling toward equality since the early part of the 20th Century, focusing particularly on education and business success, as noted in the New York Times. According to the article, a key factor in India’s economic success–particularly in the south–was its ability to neutralize issues of caste.
Whiter Shades of Tan
More recently, skin color has become a basis for subtle discrimination in India and other Asian countries. Skin whitening products in India generate $500 million annually, with most of the popular Bollywood stars endorsing one or another whitening product. Earlier this year, Hindustan Unilever, which markets a Vaseline-brand whitening product, created an uproar when it launched a Facebook app that digitally lightens photos to be posted in social networking sites. As NPR describes, even men are feeling compelled to whiten their skin in India.
Women in India struggle not only for equality, but in some places for a chance to be born. Sex-selection abortions are on the rise in some parts of India, with some women choosing to abort female fetuses. Although it is illegal, some estimate that up to one million unborn girls are aborted every year in India. The real culprit isn’t necessarily a belief that girls are inferior. Rather, tradition requires expensive dowries from the families of brides, making girls an economic burden. On top of this, wives typically live with their husband’s families, and so can’t even be accountable for caring for their own aging parents.
But with the growing numbers of women attending college and with that finding their economic and social power rising, at least in modern India the lot of women is improving. But even here, women face a very visible and strong glass ceiling for management and leadership positions.
Unlike many of its Asian counterparts, a rapidly aging population is not a critical concern for India. Although the population is aging, India remains youthful. For example, among developed countries, Ireland has the oldest mothers, at an average age of 31. By contrast, neighboring Bangladesh has the youngest mothers among developing countries, at an average age of 25, per The Times of India. In fact, India’s working age population will grow by 240 million in 20 years, compared to China’s working age population, which will grow only 10 million in that same stretch.
India’s disability act, originally instituted in 1995, provides for children and adults with disabilities. Disabled children, for example, have a right to free education in integrated or “special” schools. In India, 3% of all government jobs are held for people with disabilities. Affirmative action prescribes land allotment such that appropriate facilities for disabled people can be developed.
That said, inadequacies exist, and attempts to broaden disability law as recently as February 2010 have failed. Civil rights, in particular, are minimal. Basic guarantees, such as protection from cruel and inhuman treatment, the right to marry, and the right to own property, currently are not addressed.
Gay rights in India took a giant leap forward last July, when India’s high court decriminalized gay sex. Ironically, the original law against homosexuality was implemented under British rule in India, but in recent years was defended as a way to preserve “traditional Indian sensibilities.” The Indian high court’s ruling specifically noted that the law against homosexuality conflicted with India’s “political principle of inclusiveness,” clearly establishing an optimist path–not only for gay rights, but for all diversity and inclusion issues in India.
The explicit issue of diversity in workplace is starting to pop up more in corporate India with some organizations even appointing diversity leaders. There is also a growing interest in the media on diversity topics. But as this quick survey piece shows, plenty of diversity topics are stirring in Indian society but its all prologue right now.