Publication Date

1999

Abstract

The capstone Countering Economic Inequality: Problems and Prospects in Uttarakhand, India is based on a PIM 57's six-month practicum with a grassroots organization called SAHAYOG located in Almora, India. The central research question of the capstone is: "What are the viable options for countering the economic inequality facing Dalits in Uttarakhand?"The author opens the paper by offering a theoretical framework to help answer the preliminary methodological issue of the paper: How does one assess economic inequality? In the hopes of better understanding the difficulties, problems and elements in assessing economic livelihood, Amartya Sen's foundational question of "Equality of what?" was utilized. Building from Amartya Sen's theoretical foundation from his book Inequality Reexamined, the author refutes the moral theories of utilitarianism and welfarism as plausible theories of social arrangement. Instead, the virtues of what has been labeled the 'Capability Perspective' in the field of development economics were espoused as a more useful model for today’s policy makers in the developing world. The author comes full circle to the original exploratory question “equality of what? and posits the answer to the question as such: Inequality is the lack of freedom to choose from possible livings. The core theoretical and methodological issues of identifying, measuring and assessing economic inequality are then discussed in greater depth. It was emphasized that though quantitative economic indices must be incorporated into any poverty assessment research study, measuring people’s economic livelihood only by the standard normative approach goes against the grain of our intuitions about economic inequality. Consequently, the author stresses the importance of considering interpersonal capabilities of people on a case by case basis. The themes of distribution of wealth and comparative deprivation were exposed using several international examples to document the problems of measuring and identifying the various manifestations of poverty and varying degrees of standard quality of life around the world. Finally, the South Indian state of Kerala was highlighted to reinforce the argument against a purely normative approach for assessing economic inequality by debunking the automatic correlation between economic growth and enhanced standard quality of life. From there, the author offers the social, political and economic evidence from academic literature to bolster the polemic against the systematic inequality experience by Dalits in Uttarakhand and beyond. After arguing the case of Dalit inequality, the author takes up the task of challenging the proponents who emphasize education and health over income for improving standard quality of life levels in developing societies. The author’s analysis, grounded in a Kantian interpretation, hinges on the demarcation between the Human Development Index (HDI) components of health and education as ‘ends in themselves’ and the third component, income, as only a ‘means to an end’. The HDI component of income was distinguished from health and education components by its instrumental quality. The rise in income, it was acknowledged, is not the end-all to a good life. Nevertheless, raising income levels was argued as the cornerstone for the expansion of the intrinsically valuable social opportunities in the developing world for the poorest of the poor. The research findings from the field generated during the author’s practicum phase is then presented to answer the main research question: “With all variables being constant in each area, what is the dominant livelihood pattern, level of economic well-being and degree of social opportunity for Dalits vis-à-vis their upper caste neighbors?” The Economic Livelihood Village Survey (ELVS) consisted of 210 households surveyed in Kumaun, the Eastern Himalayan province of Uttarakhand. Of these 210 households, 143 were Dalit and 67 were from upper caste households. After the comprehensive data was provided from the three cross-caste comparative groupings, the data summary was organized by five categories: 1) land ownership, 2) sources of income, 3) marriage costs, 4) loans, and 5) animal ownership. The summary of findings painted a bleak picture of the systematic economic polarization and social marginalization facing Dalits vis-à-vis their upper caste neighbors. The author, attempting to move closer to answering the central question of the capstone paper of “What are the viable options for countering the economic inequality facing Dalits?” determines the two poverty eradication approaches of microcrediting and microenterprise as the most viable options for fulfilling the organization’s project goal of decreasing the economic inequality of Dalits in the Kumaun region of Uttarakhand. The Grameen Bank and BRAC, both headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, were described as successful models of micro level economic development. For microenterprise, a small NGO working in the Uttarakhand hills called the Pan- Himalayan Grassroots Foundation was espoused as a potential model to be emulated for transforming unskilled Dalits into successful small-business entrepreneurs. The two micro level development approaches were individually evaluated using two criteria: 1) ‘Is the approach self-empowering for the individual?’ and 2) ‘Is it sustainable for the community?’ Beyond all else, these two criteria served as the major evaluative benchmarks for judging each of the two viable options. After comparing the pro’s and con’s of both microcrediting (a.k.a. microlending) and microenterprise as viable options to socio-economic development, the author then evaluates the future potentiality of the two micro level development models for SAHAYOG, the author’s practicum organization. In the summary, the author believes that the existing set-up of society in Uttarakhand, dominated by the elite echelon of the caste system, cannot facilitate progressive measures that could empower the Dalit community because it is these upper caste groups who dominate the legislative and decision-making process. Until Dalits receive fair access and participation in educational opportunities, the economic assets and the political power structure, social inequality will continue to persist. Without special reserved measures pinpointing the Dalit community, an imbalanced rights-based society will remain, one weighted in favor of non-scheduled groups in the caste system. The need to make ideas of “oppression” and “marginalization” conscious for Dalits is vital if any social advancement can hoped to be achieved. Dalits, as participants in their own empowerment, must become versed in identifying the socially institutionalized barriers that inflict inequality and prejudice in their lives. It is concluded that the research findings generated from six-months working in the field show that the information presented in the capstone is only a small piece in a larger and more complex situation than the author originally expected. If anything can be conclusively drawn from this research project is that a more refined, focused and participatory research endeavor is required before implementing a comprehensive and widespread interventionary project in the Dalit community of Uttarakhand.

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