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Social Inequality and Exclusion

Social Inequality and Exclusion

In every society some people have a greater share of valued resources-money, property, education, health and power than others. These social resources can be divided into three forms of capital-economic capital in the form of material assets and income; cultural capital such as educational qualifications and status; and social capital in the form of networks of contacts and social associations. Often these three forms of capital overlap and one can be converted into the other. For example a person from a well-off family can afford expensive higher education and so can acquire cultural or educational capital. Patterns of unequal access to social resources are commonly called social inequality. Social inequality reflects innate differences between individuals for example their varying abilities and efforts. Someone may be endowed with exceptional intelligence or talent or may have worked very hard to achieve their wealth and status. However by and large social inequality is not the outcome of innate or natural differences between people but is produced by the society in which they live.


Prejudices refer to pre-conceived opinions or attitudes held by members of one group towards another. The word literally means pre-judgement that is an opinion formed in advance of any familiarity with the subject before considering any available evidence. A prejudiced person’s preconceived views are often based on hearsay rather than on direct evidence and are resistant to change even in the face of new information. Prejudice may be either positive or negative. Although the word is generally used for negative pre-judgements, it can also apply to favourable pre-judgement. For example a person may be prejudiced in favour of members of his/her own caste or group and without any evidence â€"believe them to be superior to members of other castes or groups.


Prejudices are often grounded in stereotypes, fixed and inflexible characterisations of a group of people. Stereotypes are often applied to ethnic and racial groups and to women. In a country such as India which was colonised for a long time many of these stereotypes are partly colonial creations. Some communities were characterised as martial races some others as effeminate or cowardly yet others as untrustworthy. In both English and Indian fictional writings we often encounter an entire group of people classified as lazy or cunning. It may indeed be true that some individuals are sometimes lazy or cunning, brave or cowardly. But such a general statement is true of individuals in every group. Stereotypes fix whole groups into single, homogenous categories; they refuse to recognise the variation across individuals and across contexts or across time. They treat an entire community as though it were a single person with a single all-encompassing trait or characteristic.


If prejudice describes attitudes and opinions, discrimination refers to actual behaviour towards another group or individual. Discrimination can be seen in practices that disqualify members of one group from opportunities open to others as when a person is refused a job because of their gender or religion. Discrimination can be very hard to prove because it may not be open or explicitly stated. Discriminatory behaviour or practices may be presented as motivated by other more justifiable, reasons rather than prejudice. For example the person who is refused a job because of their caste may be told that they were less qualified than others and that the selection was done purely on merit.

Social Exclusion

Social exclusion refers to ways in which individuals may become cut off from full involvement in the wider society. It focuses attention on a broad range of factors that prevent individuals or groups from having opportunities open to the majority of the population. In order to live full and active life individuals must not only be able to feed, clothe and house themselves but should also have access to essential goods and services such as education, health, transportation, insurance, social security, banking and even access to the police or judiciary.

Social exclusion is not accidental but systematic â€"it is result of structural features of society. The social exclusion is involuntary â€"that is exclusion is practiced regardless of the wishes of those who are excluded. For example rich people are never found sleeping on the pavements or under bridges like thousands of homeless poor people in cities and towns. This does not mean that the rich are being excluded from access to pavements and park benches because they could certainly gain access if they wanted to but they choose not to. Social exclusion is sometimes wrongly justified by the same logic â€"it is said that the excluded group itself does not wish to participate. The truth of such an argument is not obvious when exclusion is preventing access to something desirable. Prolonged experience of discriminatory or insulting behaviour often produces a reaction on the part of the excluded who then stop trying for inclusion. For example upper caste Hindu communities have often denied entry into temples for the lower castes and specially the dalits.After decades of such treatment the Dalits may build their own temple or convert to another religion like Buddhism, Christianity or Islam.

After they do this they may no longer desire to be included in the Hindu temple or religious events. But this does not mean that social exclusion is not being practiced. The point is that the exclusion occurs regardless of the wishes of the excluded. India like most societies has been marked by acute practices of social discrimination and exclusion. At different periods of history protest movements arose against caste, gender and religious discrimination. Yet prejudices remain and often new ones emerge. Thus legislation alone is unable to transform society or produce lasting social change. A constant social campaign to change awareness and sensitivity is required to break them.

State and non state initiatives addressing caste and tribe discrimination

The Indian state has had special programmes for the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes since even before Independence. The Schedules listing the castes and tribes recognized as deserving of special treatment because of the massive discrimination practiced against them were drawn up in 1935 by the British Indian Govt.

After Independence the same policies have been continued and many new ones added. Amongst the most significant additions is the extension of special programmes to the Other Backward Classes since the early 1990s.The most important state initiative attempting to compensate for past and present caste discrimination is the one popularly known as reservations. This involves the setting aside of some places or seats for members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in different spheres of public life. These include reservation of seats in the State and Central legislatures; reservation of jobs in government service across all departs and public sector companies and reservation of seats in educational institutions. The proportion of reserved seats is equal to the percentage share of the SC and STs in the total population. But for the OBCs this proportion is decided differently. The same principle is extended to other developmental programmes of the government, some of which are exclusively for the SC or ST while others give them preference.

In addition to the reservations there have been a number of laws passed to end, prohibit and punish caste discrimination; especially untouchability.One of the earliest such laws was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850 which disallowed the curtailment of rights of citizens due solely to change of religion or caste. The most recent such law was the Constitution Amendment Act of 2005 which became law on 23rd January 2006.Coincidentally both the 1850 law and the 2006 amendment related to Backward Classes in institutions of higher education while the 1850 Act was used to allow entry of dalits to government schools. In between there have been numerous laws of which the important ones are the Constitution of India itself, passed in 1950 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989.

The Constitution abolished untouchability and introduced the reservation provisions. The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act revised and strengthened the legal provisions punishing acts of violence or humiliation against Dalits and adivasis.The fact that legislation was passed repeatedly on this subject is proof of the fact that the law alone cannot end a social practice. State action alone cannot ensure social change. No social group however weak or oppressed is only a victim. Human beings are always capable of organizing and acting on their own â€"often against very heavy odds to struggle for justice and dignity. Dalits too have been increasingly active on the political, agitational and cultural fronts.

From the pre-Independence struggles and movements launched by people like Jyotiba Phule,Periyar ,Ambedkar and others to contemporary political organizations like the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP or the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti of Karnataka,Dalit political assertion has come a long way.Dalits have also made significant contributions to literature in several Indian languages specially Marathai,Kannada ,Tamil,Telugu and Hindi.

The Other Backward Classes

Untouchability was the most visible and comprehensive form of social discrimination. However there were a large group of castes that were of low status and were also subjected to varying levels of discrimination short of untouchability.These were the service and artisanal castes who occupied the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy. The Constitution of India recognises the possibility that there may be groups other than the SC and STs who suffer from social disadvantages. These groups which need not be based on caste alone but generally are identified by caste were described as the socially and educationally backward classes. This is the constitutional basis of the popular term Other Backward Classes. The OBCs are defined negatively by what they are not .They are neither part of the forward castes at the upper end of the status spectrum nor of the dalits at the lower end. But since caste has entered all the major Indian religions and is not confined to Hinduism alone, there are also members of other religions who belong to the backward castes and share the same traditional occupational identification and similar or worse socio-economic status.

Since the 1990s there has been resurgence of lower caste movements in north India among both the Dalits and OBCs.The politicisation of the OBCs allows them to convert their large numbers recent surveys show that they are about 41% of the national population into political influence. This was not possible at the national level before as shown by the sidelining of the Kalelkar Commission report and the neglect of the Mandal Commission report.

The large disparities between the upper OBCs and the lower OBCs make this a difficult political category to work with. However the OBCs are severely under represented in all spheres except landholding and political representation. Although the upper OBCs are dominant in the rural sector the situation of urban OBCs is much worse being much closer to that of the SC and STs than to the upper castes.

Social inequality and tribal

The STs are social groups recognized by the Indian Constitution as specially marked by poverty, powerlessness and social stigma. The jana or tribes were believed to be people of the forest whose distinctive habitat in the hill and forest areas shaped their economic, social and political attributes. Tribal groups have had long and close association with Hindu society and culture making the boundaries between tribe and caste quite porous.

The Independence of India in 1947 should have made life easier for adivasis but this is not the case. Firstly the govt monopoly over forests continued leading to acceleration in exploitation of forests. Secondly the policy of capital intensive industrialization adopted by the Indian govt required mineral resources and power generation capacities which were concentrated in Adivasi lands.Adivasi lands were rapidly acquired for new mining and dam projects. In the process millions of Adivasis were displaced without any appropriate compensation or rehabilitation. Justified in the name of national development and economic growth these policies were also a form of internal colonialism, subjugating adivasis and alienating the resources upon which they depended. Projects such as Sardar Sarovar Dam on the river Narmada in western India and the Polavaram dam on the river Godavari in AP will displace hundred and thousands of adivasis driving them to greater destitution. These processes continue to prevail and have become even more powerful since the 1990s when economic liberalization policies were officially adopted by the Indian govt.

The term Adivasi connotes political awareness and the assertion of rights. Literally meaning original inhabitants the term was coined in the 1930s as part of the struggle against the intrusion by the colonial govt and outside settlers and moneylenders. Being adivasi is about shared experiences of the loss of forests, the alienation of land, repeated displacements since Independence in the name of development projects and much more.

Inspite of the heavy odds against them and in the face of their marginalization many tribal groups have been wagging struggles against outsiders and the state. In post â€"Independence India, the most significant achievements of Adivasi movements include the attainment of statehood for Jharkhand and Chattisgarh which were originally part of Bihar and MP.

Social inequality and the disabled

The differently abled are not disabled only because they are physically or mentally impaired but also because society is built in a manner that does not cater to their needs. In contrast to the struggles over Dalit, adivasi or women’s rights the rights of the disabled have been recognized only very recently. Yet in all historical periods, in all societies there have been people who are disabled.

In India labels such as disability, handicap, crippled, blind and deaf are used synonymously. Often these terms are hurled at people as insults. In culture that looks up to bodily perfection all deviations from the perfect body signify abnormality, defect and distortion. Labels such as bechara accentuate the victim status for the disabled person. The roots of such attitudes lie in the cultural conception that views an impaired body as a result of fate. Destiny is seen as the culprit and disabled people are the victims. The common perception views disability as retribution for past karma from which there can be no reprieve. The dominant cultural construction in India therefore looks at disability as essentially a characteristic of the individual. The popular images in mythology portray the disabled in an extremely negative fashion.

The term disabled challenges each of these assumptions. Terms such as mentally challenged, visually impaired and physically impaired came to replace the more negative terms such as retarded, crippled or lame. The disabled are rendered disabled not because they are biologically disabled but because society renders them so. The social construction of disability has yet another dimension. There is a close relationship between disability and poverty.Malnutrition, mothers weakened by frequent childbirth, inadequate immunization programmes, and accidents in overcrowded homes all contribute to an incidence of disability among poor people that is higher than among people living in easier circumstances. Furthermore disability creates and exacerbates poverty by increasing isolation and economic strain not just for the individual but for the family there is little doubt that disabled people are among the poorest in poor countries. It is only recently with the efforts of the disabled themselves that some awareness is building in society on the need to rethink disability. Recognition of disability is absent from the wider educational discourse. This is evident from the historical practices within the educational system that continue to marginalize the issue of disability by maintaining two separate streams- one for disabled students and one for everyone else.

Social inequality and Gender

Because of the obvious biological and physical differences between men and women, gender inequality is often treated as natural. However despite appearances, scholars have shown that the inequalities between men and women are social rather than natural. There are no biological reasons that can explain why so few women are found in position of public power. Nor can nature explain why women generally receive a smaller or no share in family property in most societies. But the strongest argument comes from the societies that were different from the normal or common pattern. If women were biologically unfit to be inheritors and head of families how did matrilineal societies work for centuries? How have women managed to be successful farmers and traders in so many African societies? There is nothing biological about the inequalities that mark the relations between men and women. Gender is thus also format of social inequality and exclusion like caste and class but with its own specific features.

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