Vulnerability Due To Caste

Caste system and its implications for Indian society are important for the UPSC exam. Aspirants should read a lot on such issues because questions can be asked on these issues in GS 1, 2 and even the IAS essay paper.

In India, members of gender, caste, class, and ethnic identity face structural discrimination that adversely affect their health and healthcare access. Women face double discrimination being members of specific caste, class or ethnic group apart from experiencing gendered vulnerabilities. Women have a lower position in comparison to men in Indian society generally. They have almost no control on resources and on the major decisions of their lives. In this country, early marriage and pregnancies affect women’s health negatively. Around twenty-eight percent of women in India get married below the legal age and have pregnancies. These have serious repercussions on the health of women. Maternal mortality is very high in India. A big percentage of women receive no antenatal care. In India, hospital delivery is lowest among women from the weaker economic sections when compared to those from the higher economic classes. Women face violence and it has an impact on their health. During infancy and growing years a girl child faces different forms of violence like infanticide, neglect of nutrition needs, education and healthcare. As adults they face violence due to unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, sexual abuse at the workplace and sexual violence including marital rape and honor killings. The experience of violence and its impact on health varies according to the women’s caste, class and ethnic identity. Caste also perpetuates inequality. Caste in Indian society is a particular form of social inequality that involves a hierarchy of groups ranked in terms of ritual purity where members who belong to a particular group or stratum share some awareness of common interest and a common identity. The caste system is linked to the possession of natural resources, livelihood resources and in the Indian context also to land economy and land-based power relations.


Traditionally, caste relations were based on the hierarchy of occupations where work related to leather, cleaning dead cattle from village grounds, work related to funeral ceremonies, etc. were placed at the bottom. People or castes who were performing the task of eliminating the polluted elements from society were considered ‘untouchables’ vis-à-vis the Brahmins who were highest in the order based on the purity-impurity principle. Structurally the lower castes were economically dependent on the higher castes for existence. The Scheduled Caste (lower castes) remained economically dependent, politically powerless and culturally subjugated to the upper caste. This impacted their overall lifestyle and access to food, education and health.

A good section of the Dalits are still dependent on others for their livelihood. Dalits does not refer to a caste but refers to a group of people who are in a state of oppression, social disability and who are helpless and poor. They were earlier referred to as ‘untouchables’ mainly due to their low occupations i.e., scavenger, cobbler, sweeper. In a caste-dominated country like India, Dalits who comprise more than one-sixth of the Indian population, stand as a community whose human rights have been severely violated. Literacy rates among Dalits are only about 24 percent. They have very poor purchasing power; have inadequate housing conditions; have no or limited to entitlements and resources. In rural regions of the country, they are landless poor agricultural labourers attached to rich landowners from generations or poor casual labourers doing all kinds of available work. In the city they are the urban poor employed as wage labourers at several work sites, beggars, vendors, small service providers, domestic help, etc., living in slums and other temporary shelters without any kind of social security. The members of these groups face systemic violence in the form of denial of access to land, good housing, education and employment. Structural discrimination against these groups takes place in the form of physical, psychological, emotional and cultural abuse which apparently receives legitimacy from the social structure and the social system. Physical segregation of their settlements is common in the villages making them live in unhygienic conditions. All these factors affect their health status, access to healthcare, and quality of health service received. There are high rates of malnutrition reported among the marginalized groups resulting in mortality, morbidity and anaemia. Access to and utilization of healthcare among the marginalized groups is influenced by their socio-economic status within the society. Structural discrimination directly impedes equal access to health services by way of exclusion. The negative attitude of the health professionals towards these groups also acts as a barrier to receiving quality healthcare from the health system. In the case of women, discrimination increases by the complex mix of two factors-being a woman and being a member of the marginalized community. A large proportion of Dalit girls drop out of primary school in spite of reservations and academic aptitude, because of poverty, humiliation, isolation or bullying by teachers and classmates and punishment for scoring good grades. The scavenger community among the Dalits is vulnerable to stress and diseases with reduced access to healthcare. The Scheduled Tribes like the Scheduled Castes face structural discrimination within Indian society. Unlike the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes are a product of marginalization based on ethnicity. In India, the Scheduled Tribes population is considered to be socially and economically disadvantaged. Their percentages in the population and numbers, however, vary from State to State. They are mainly landless with little control over resources such as land, forest and water. They constitute a large proportion of agricultural labourers, casual labourers, plantation labourers, industrial labourers etc. This has resulted in poverty among them, low levels of education, poor health and reduced access to healthcare services. They belong to the poorest strata of the society and have severe health problems. They are less likely to afford and get access to healthcare services when required. The health outcomes among the Scheduled Tribes are very poor even as compared to the Scheduled Castes. Among the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes the most vulnerable are women, children, aged, those living with HIV/AIDS, mental illness and disability. These groups face severe forms of discrimination that denies them access to treatment and prevents them from achieving a better health status. Gender-based violence and domestic violence is high among women in general in India. Girl child and women from the marginalized groups are more vulnerable to violence. The dropout and illiteracy rates among them are high. Early marriage, trafficking, forced prostitution and other forms of exploitation are also reportedly high among them. In situations of caste conflict, women from marginalized groups face sexual violence from men of upper caste i.e, rape and other forms of mental torture and humiliation.

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