Dalits in Industry

Chandra Bhanu Prasad

The debate on affirmative action in the private sector has taken a bizarre turn, not only in terms of results but also in terms of attitude. Led by Ratan Tata, 21 leading Indian industrialists issued an ‘emancipation proclamation’ pronouncing the entire generation of dalit/tribal people with degrees from Indian institutions “unemployable”. Triggered by a newfound ‘conscience’ they have decided to create a new generation of dalits/tribals through “skill upgradation”. They will now give “credible” civil society organisations the task of refining dalit/tribal children, who will in the long run become “competitive” in the job market. Embroiled in the issue of this so-called skill upgradation and a few scholarships to dalit/tribal children, the private sector job debate has been given a sound burial, for the time being at least.
The private sector has reacted sharply since the initiation of a debate by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, a year ago, on whether affirmative action towards dalits/tribals needs to be extended to the private sector.
People and organisations are entitled to their own views; indeed this is an essential ingredient in any democracy. But industry could simply have rejected the government’s move.
Instead, it says it will not compromise on what it describes as ‘merit’. The question one needs to ask here is whether any agency, government, private sector or sting operation has ever established the fact that dalits selected through reservation under-perform in the workplace.
There are 58,000 dalit/tribal professionals working with public sector enterprises (PSEs) and public sector banks. According to a report by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (1989), there are 21,215 dalits/tribals in managerial/professional positions so senior that they are categorised as Group A, equivalent to the IAS/IPS. Most of these officers are either engineers or IT professionals; many are employed in organisations like BHEL, SAIL, NTPC, ONGC, IOC, MTNL, VSNL, HPCL and GAIL. Has any study been conducted by these organisations to show that dalit professionals under-perform?
BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd), for instance, is India’s premier engineering goods company with customers spread over 60 countries. BHEL participates in global tenders and has won contracts away from European and American companies. It has been making a profit since 1971. BHEL’s Haridwar unit, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the chain of companies, employs 1,200 engineers, amongst whom 189 are dalits/tribals. Has any study found these 189 engineers wanting in their performance?
Industry spokespersons have been saying that India would lose its competitive edge over global players if reservation were forced on the private sector. Does India have a competitive edge over global players? The truth is that the Indian economy is smaller than Mexico’s, much smaller than that of Brazil. India has a less than 1% share of the world market. And India is not an IT superpower as its share in the world IT market is less than 3%. This despite the fact that for around a decade India’s best talent has gone into IT education.
The truth is, Indian IT companies and professionals do not produce projects, they produce ‘spare parts’ for projects and help maintain them. We can be said to have ‘IT mechanics’. We constitute a cheap labour market. Any individual with basic IT training, given the opportunity, can prove her/his worth irrespective of marks/grades obtained during graduation. How long will industry continue to hide this fact from the public?
Dalits, on the other hand, have been arguing that the private sector is one the biggest beneficiaries of dalit reservation in government jobs. As first and second-generation consumers they spend nearly all they earn. Dalits/tribals invest least in immovable property; their earnings flow directly into the market, so necessary for a market economy to succeed.
On joining the private sector, dalits/tribals expand the consumer base and cause the private sector to flourish. The private sector, instead of examining dalits’ claims that reservation/affirmative action helps industry grow, has instead been condemning dalit/tribal communities.
As I understand it there is a very strong practice of affirmative action in the United States. Most American corporations follow aggressive recruitment policies regarding racial/ethnic minorities. In fact, there is hardly any US corporation without a diversity/affirmative action department. As a result, African Americans now comprise 14.08% of the American private sector workforce, though their share of the population is only 13.0%. The famous American magazine Black Enterprise , in its February 2004 issue, profiles 75 most powerful African Americans in corporate America, of whom 18 are CEOs.
Most US corporations follow a mission statement that invariably contains a non-discrimination declaration. In fact, any American company with 50 or more workers submits an annual report to the federal government showing the racial/ethnic proportion of its workforce.
Needless to say, this non-discrimination clause is meant to protect racial/ethnic minorities in the United States. A company that has no or very few African American employees can be charged with practicing discrimination.
American corporations entering into business partnerships with foreign corporations mandate the same non-discrimination clause as one of the conditions. That means an Indian company entering into a business partnership with an American company must assure that it will be “non-discriminatory” in its employment practices. That means, in the Indian context, a company entering into a business partnership with an American corporation must do for dalits what American corporations do for African Americans.
Industry spokespersons and organisations have deployed all kinds of arguments in response to the government’s initiative to create public consensus on the issue of private sector job reservation. They have used a variety of tricks to manipulate public opinion. The following statement best illustrates how low a respected industry body like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is prepared to stoop:
“Many US and European 500 companies that outsource their back office and research work to India provide contracts on the pre-condition that the vendors will be non-discriminatory in their recruitment…if reservations are forced, multinational clients could come under pressure from their shareholders to cancel off shoring contracts.” — CII, February 15, 2005

Author is a Dalit activist, writer and columnist