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The Caste of Credit in India

India’s government has shown considerable political will to eliminate caste discrimination over the last several decades. It must now channel that will toward ensuring that the financial-services sector improves Dalits’ access to their services.

NEW DELHI – In 1950, the newly independent India officially abolished its caste system and outlawed discrimination against the Dalits, known as “untouchables,” who had been relegated to the bottom of that rigid social hierarchy. This attempt to right historical wrongs was underpinned by a virtuous capitalist vision of thriving Dalit businesses that lifted their owners to a level of social and economic respectability that eroded prejudice against them.

But India’s caste system, buttressed by 3,000 years of history, has proved highly resilient. Despite nearly seven decades of well-meaning government intervention, caste identity continues to pervade every aspect of rural life in India, with Dalits facing deeply entrenched prejudice that impedes their ability to build better lives for themselves and their families, and to contribute significantly to India’s economy.

India’s castes are traditionally defined in terms of the jobs their members hold. For Dalits, that has typically meant punishing labor in mines and quarries, in hot-spice farming, or brick kilns. Menial or unhygienic jobs – unblocking sewers, disposing of human waste, stripping animal carcasses – go largely to Dalits.

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