Monday, September 25, 2006

NEW DELHI — Years of affirmative action have upended India’s caste system to the point where some upper-caste Brahmins are reduced to working as porters and pedaling rickshaws, while almost half the places in universities will soon be reserved for lower castes and tribal people.

Ramesh Jha, a Brahmin, came to New Delhi because he could not find work in his village in eastern Bihar state, where farming jobs have disappeared and almost all the government jobs are reserved for lower castes.

He now cleans toilets, performing a job once done by only the lowest of castes — “untouchable” scavengers who cleaned excreta with their bare hands.

India’s version of affirmative action has gradually taken hold over the past 50 years, designed to bring justice to those who were long oppressed by the Hindu caste system.

Now the government, using data from a caste census taken in 1931, is on its way to increasing the number of university admissions reserved for lower castes and tribal people to 49.5 percent from 22.5 percent.

When the reservation system was introduced in 1990, violent protests surged through the country and one student immolated himself in protest. This year, large groups of medical and engineering students went on hunger strikes, faced tear gas and left hospitals unmanned for days to participate in protests.

The demonstrators say the quota system will squelch merit in India’s most respected universities and further fracture Indian society. More protests are expected when Parliament reconvenes for the winter session.

Since caste cannot always be determined by looks, corrupt government officials are known to create fake lower-caste certificates for anyone who pays. Recently, the Indian Express newspaper obtained a backward-caste certificate for Atal Behari Vajpayee — a Brahmin and former prime minister — simply by paying a bribe of less than $10.

Meanwhile, the status of Brahmins in many states is abysmal. In Andhra Pradesh, 44 percent of Brahmins in the 5 to 18 age group dropped out of school at the primary level, according to a book by J. Radhakrishna. And hundreds of thousands of Brahmins who were forced to leave insurgency-hit Kashmir now live as refugees in other parts of India.

Much of the progress made by the lowest castes is attributable to the work of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement in New Delhi, which has worked to improve conditions for those who clean public toilets while training them for other kinds of work.

Its founder, Bindeshwar Pathak, a Brahmin, recalls the day from his childhood that his grandmother forced him to swallow sand and cow manure because he had touched an “untouchable.” Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s social movement, he made it his life’s work as an adult to fight against that prejudice.

Mr. Pathak, 64, estimates that 13 million toilets are cleaned by members of the manual scavenging caste — women like Usha who started cleaning sewage when she was 15 years old, just after her marriage.

“I was sick when I did that work,” says Usha, who uses only one name. “My stomach always felt bad. My employers would never hand me food. They would only drop it on the ground.”

The Sulabh Sanitation Movement trained her to make noodles and grind spices to sell to hotels in the area. The community now looks up to her, and she makes enough money to send her children to school.

But, she says, no one in her slum has benefited much from reserved jobs in the government: They only get jobs as cleaners. And no one of her generation has enough education to gain admission to a university, even if the increased reservations are implemented.

Rather, she says, it is members of the subcastes that stand slightly above the untouchables who are in a position to take advantage of the government benefits.

In order to correct this imbalance, Mr. Jha says, reserved jobs and places in universities should be allotted on the basis of income rather than caste.

“Anyone coming from poverty level should be helped by the government, no matter what the caste, so they can grow and develop,” he says.

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