The Yomiuri Shimbun
The following is the third installment in a series of articles reporting on new developments in India, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence this year, and where the nation is heading.
Bihar in eastern India is known as the most impoverished state in the country.
In its capital, Patna, bland-colored buildings stand in rows, as stray dogs and pigs eat garbage on the streets. However, in one house with a galvanized-iron roof that had a wall missing, there was an air of feverish excitement.
"We have great expectations of you," Anand Kumar, 33, told 30 young people in front of him. They were scholarship students selected from several hundred students. The house was a prep school for those aiming to enroll in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the country's most competitive college.
However, this one was different from the other prep schools. All of the people there, including the students and Kumar, who is the principal, are from lower castes–a target of discrimination in Hindu society.
The Hindu caste system began around the 13th century B.C. The top three castes are Brahmins (priesthood), followed by Kshatriya (governing and warrior) and Vaishya (commercial and agricultural). Lower castes include Shudra (artisan and laborer) and other "backward" classes. They are followed by outcasts such as Scheduled Castes (former "untouchables") and Scheduled Tribes including mountain tribes.
According to a government report released in October, 70 percent of India's population belongs to lower castes.
After its independence, the Constitution of India banned discrimination based on the caste hierarchy. Nonetheless, the caste consciousness is still deep-rooted in Indian society. The problem tends to emerge during the turning points of one's life such as marriage and finding a job.
For lower-caste people, higher education is one of the few tickets to success.
The quality of India's higher education is said to be very high compared with the international standard. Only 5,000 out of 300,000 applicants can pass entrance examinations at seven IITs around the country.
Originally, the schools had been founded with support from the United States to train elites in science-related fields. The graduates today are virtually assured of getting jobs at leading companies. Banks offer student loans free of interest.
The situation intensifies competition to pass the entrance examination.
Students from well-to-do families naturally have the advantage because their parents can afford to hire private tutors or use other methods.
"My mission is to send as many students as possible from lower castes to IITs and change society," said Kumar.
In a bid to support the lower castes, the Indian government has adopted a reservation quota policy in granting admissions to state-run universities and in hiring government employees.
The government has reserved 22.5 percent of enrollment at national universities for students from Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In April, the government announced a plan to allocate another 27 percent of enrollment to students from backward classes. If the policy is implemented, about half of the entire enrollment would be reserved.
Priyansha Kusur, the eldest son of Krishna Kusur, a 45-year-old clock repairman in Patna, attracted public attention last spring for passing the IIT entrance examination after studying at Kumar's prep school.
His sister, Preeti Kusur, 15, said, "After my brother passed the entrance exam, I saw that you can change your life through your ability, regardless of caste."
Preeti said she hopes to become a doctor in the future.
Some students have begun to protest the government's preferential policy for lower castes. Although the policy was intended to tear down social discrimination by caste, they say it is reverse discrimination.
"A person who can run the 100-meter race shouldn't be given the benefit of starting the 100-meter race from a distance of 50 meters. This is making a mockery of ourselves" said Anirudh Lochan, a 25-year-old medical student at Delhi University in New Delhi.
Students at state-run universities in major cities protested the government's announcement in April to expand the quota for lower-caste students. They clashed with police, causing a major riot.
Medical school students were some of the most vocal protesters since many of them belong to wealthy higher castes.
Lochan, who organized a rally, came from top Brahmins.
What lies behind the protest is concerns among higher-caste people. They are worried that degrees in economics are starting to carry more weight than castes in urban areas developing from recent economic growth. This means that higher castes will not necessarily be guaranteed intellectual jobs.
"We keep ignoring the fact that the main discrimination isn't social–it's economic…Here, if you have money in your pocket, you get admission, regardless of your caste," Lochan said.
Meanwhile, the government policy is supported by Hari Pippal, 58, who is from a Scheduled Caste (Dalit), but runs Heritage Hospital with 150 beds in Agra, a city known for the Taj Mahal, which is registered as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
Pippal said it is a fact that people who claim to be from a higher caste often look down on lower castes, even if they are so poor that they have to beg for money. He believes that Dalit need to work much harder than higher-caste people to succeed in Indian society. Therefore, some preferential policies should be allowed, Pippal said.
He pointed to the names of 45 doctors listed at his hospital's reception. Their castes could be guessed based on their family names. With an ironic laugh, Pippal said that 80 percent of the doctors there were from higher castes.
Pippal started the hospital after succeeding in many other businesses beginning with a shoe shop. He said he remembers his shock when he heard a doctor say that his hospital salary was good, but he did not want to work under Chamar (a lower caste for people in the leather business).
Anand Kumar, who is trusted greatly among lower-caste people in Bihar State, said his passion for education is based on a personally humiliating experience.
Kumar, who wanted to become a mathematician, struggled to hide his lineage to a peasant caste when he entered Patna University because people in the state are conservative and sensitive to castes.
However, 95 percent of the students and all the professors belonged to higher castes. Immediately after his caste was revealed, Kumar said his professors ignored him in class.
Milind Kamble, president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which supports entrepreneurs from lower castes, lamented the slow changes in people's consciousness regarding the caste system.
He believes that it is meaningless to reserve jobs for lower-caste people only in government positions. Since the employment of lower-caste people in the private sector remains slow, there is no other way but for lower castes to start their own companies and hire from lower castes, Kamble said.
The economic development in India has increased the opportunities for people to become wealthy and succeed regardless of their castes. However, the division or psychological rift between castes remains deep.
(Feb. 2, 2007), The Daily Yomiuri, Japan