State of India's caste system: views differ

In the past week, both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have featured vastly different takes on the caste system in India.

The Washington Post's headline:

A 'Broken People' in Booming India

Low-Caste Dalits Still Face Prejudice, Grinding Poverty

The Wall Street Journal's headline:

Caste Away

India's high-tech revolution helps 'Untouchables' rise …

The Post is more pessimistic, saying "India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society here." It mentions the case of a Dalit woman (a member of the lowest caste, the "untouchables") whose two children died after a health center refused to help them.


Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal takes an optimistic tone, saying "… India's rapid economic expansion—and its booming high-tech sector—are beginning to chip away at the historical system that reserved well-paying jobs for upper castes and menial jobs for Dalits." It profiles the story of a Dalit man who is now a software developer and earns more in one month than his father did in a year.

So who's right? It's probably too early to tell, but one factor is sure to make a difference in the outcome: access to education. Many Dalits don't get a decent chance at a quality education. Affirmative action plans, which have been in place for nearly 60 years, can help them get into universities, but if they aren't academically prepared in the first place and have weak English skills, then it's hard to compete.

Probably the biggest challenge, though, is lack of leadership. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the caste system "a blot on humanity." But, unfortunately, the rest of the country's elite doesn't seem to have made egalitarianism a priority. As one publisher of books on caste says, "There's not even the pretension to fight caste. It's not trendy or a Bollywood star's cause célèbre to say you care about the working-man untouchable."


Unsolicited retirement advice for Tony Blair


After tomorrow, Tony Blair is going to have a lot more time on his hands, especially if—as seems increasingly unlikely—he heeds the advice of Blake and the FT's Gideon Rachman and turns down the thankless job of Middle East envoy.

Here's an idea. Why not leverage his star power by taking on the world's most neglected causes?

Al Gore already has dibs on carbon emissions. Bill Clinton has taken on HIV/AIDS. And so, Passport humbly submits five other worthy causes that Tony Blair may want to make his own:

  1. Keeping the taps running: Already, a third of the world's population endures some form of water scarcity. In addition to being a critical health and environmental issue, competition for fresh, clean water could also spiral into conflict. Blair's engagement would dramatically raise the profile of this unsexy but vital problem. (No offense, Jay-Z, but you're just not a big enough playa.) Broker a water-sharing agreement here, promote new technologies and conservation policies there and—boom! Nobel Peace Prize. 
  2. Ending micronutrient deficiency: It sounds like a high school science project, but the lack of access to essential vitamins and minerals afflicts over 2 billion people worldwide, and can lead to serious health disabilities, if not death. But this problem is solvable: Just a few small steps, such as fortifying basic food items, can work wonders. Private-public partnerships are tackling this issue already, but they need widespread public support. Blair's involvement would be a game-changer.
  3. Saving the fish: The world's oceans could be empty of commercial fish by 2048 if current trends continue. Only one-hundredth of one percent of the world's oceans is fully protected through marine reserves. Simple regulatory measures could do much to repopulate devastated areas. The European Union has been one of the major players obstructing greater ocean protection. Blair, no longer needing to appease Britain's fishing lobby, can ensure that Britons can enjoy a good old-fashioned English meal of fish n' chips for years to come.
  4. Fighting for refugees: More than twenty million people around the world have been displaced from their homes by conflict, human rights abuses, and persecution. Millions languish in refugee camps while the developed world bickers about who's obliged to do what. While in office, Blair was generally supportive of economic migration to the UK, but his attitude toward asylum seekers was the opposite. Now that Blair is no longer beholden to a populist electorate, he has the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his humanitarian side. And with some 4 million Iraqis displaced by a war he whole-heartedly supported, he's got a good place to start.
  5. Tackling child labor: More than 200 million children worldwide work under conditions that harm (pdf) their development—never mind that child labor is illegal under international law. Almost three quarters of these children are involved in the "worst forms of child labor," including slavery and sexual exploitation. Blair has already spoken out strongly against the practice of child labor and slavery. Now he's free of the diplomatic constraints that limit criticizing certain regimes too harshly. He's already proved that he can rally people and resources for an unpopular cause; imagine what he can do for a cause that few would oppose.