Today, the caste system is officially frowned upon, and democratic empowerment has loosened its asphyxiating stranglehold.
Recently, the irrepressible Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, while addressing a public rally, declaimed to his audience that “one wrong vote would make their children become a chaiwala, pakorewala or chowkidar. Better prevent and prepare rather than repent and repair”. On the face of it this was a condescending and elitist remark. Any profession, howsoever lowly it may seem to one, needs to be respected. There is a dignity of livelihood that cannot be insulted. An honest day's work, irrespective of the kind of work it is, has an intrinsic value, and there is no need to look down upon it.
But Mr Sidhu’s comment raises interesting sociological questions, which place a mirror before us as a society. There is no doubt that we are a people with an incorrigibly hierarchical mindset that accepts inequalities in the social order as par for the course. For millennia we have had an inequitable caste system which has oppressed and exploited vast numbers of people purely due to the accident of birth. Such a system was considered to be ordained, and almost given religious sanction. Within this system, certain professions and vocations were associated with “lower” castes, and those practising them were ostracised.
Today, the caste system is officially frowned upon, and democratic empowerment has loosened its asphyxiating stranglehold. But the mentality of a stratified society is very much in evidence in everyday life. The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but an Indian remains perennially preoccupied with “superior” and “subordinate” relationships. It is this acceptance of the hierarchy of power that gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.
The first symptom of such a society is an obsession with status. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status one has to be seen to be above those below; and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations. In the past, status was prescriptive in accordance with caste. These rigidities are blurring today, but the preoccupation with hierarchy very much persists, and in some respects has become even more frenetic. New uncertainties — and new opportunities — have heightened sensitivities about who stands where in the pecking order, and has only accentuated the obsession with status.
Sidhu’s remark has to be seen in this context. There is nothing wrong in being a chaiwala, pakorewala or chowkidar. But, given the hierarchical nature of our society, and the value we give to status, certain jobs are considered inferior, while others are considered superior or more desirable. Thus, while we may censure Sidhu for his remark, the fact of the matter is that the occupations mentioned by him, remain for the vast swathe of the middle class undesirable.
Here, the question is not the money being earned by a person selling pakoras or tea. There could be outlets which have carved out a niche reputation and become hugely popular leading to considerable income and profit. Such outfits, indeed, do exist, where even the ordinary dhabawala is earning in lakhs. But, money cannot compensate for the absence of “status” that is seen to be inherent to such vocations. Money can ultimately buy status, but status — in conventional terms — cannot be only a consequence of money.
The reason for this is that we are a hugely aspirational society. The overwhelming bulk of middle-class parents want their children to become doctors and engineers, join the corporate sector, or get an appointment in the elite civil services. There is a preference for white collar jobs, and an aversion to those that require manual labour. The label of a job is important. It should convey to the world that their child has taken a first step in the escalator of upward mobility. A chaiwala may be earning more than what a new recruit in a corporate firm or the government will take home, but the money does not compensate for “status”. For this same reason, a pakorewala would like to become a Bikanerwala; a chaiwala aspires to be the owner of a Barista outlet; and, a chowkidar would want to head a security agency. And, they would want their children to move on and take more “respectable” jobs.
Our society is burdened by huge socio-economic inequities. Given this, it is not that nobody would like to be self-employed and earn as a street vendor. There are millions of unemployed and under-employed people in the agricultural sector, or in the dingy crevices of the deprived in urban cities who would jump at the chance of earning a livelihood through any means possible. But what is a coveted opportunity for such people, is a “step down” for those better placed, including the pan-Indian middle class.
If we are honest then, we have to see Sidhu’s statement in a more nuanced manner. At one level, he undoubtedly shows an elitist mindset. At another, he is only voicing the sentiments of a hugely aspirational society. In this polarity, there is room for a great deal of hypocrisy. Many members of the middle class, and our intelligentsia, would condemn what he said, but would baulk at the prospect of their own children becoming chaiwalas, pakorewalas or chowkidars.
The government spoke about these vocations to argue that employment has increased, or at the very least, not declined. This is debatable, and needs to be analyzed by economists, and on the basis of employment statistics, some of which have not yet been released by the government.
India has a huge demographic dividend. More than 65 per cent of our population is below the age of 35. An army of the educated youth — many of them unemployable —enters the job market every day. There are more aspirants for jobs than there are vacancies. An obvious solution is for more of the jobless to take to self-employed vocations, such as starting their own enterprises. But, whether they wish to volitionally become chaiwalas, pakorewalas or chowkidars, is a question that needs to honestly answered.