Skip to content



Inequalities and castes in India: the case of the Dalits

- The traditional society of India is strongly defined by a social hierarchy and very marked and internalized values.

Inequalities and castes in India: the case of the Dalits

In recent years, some events have caused the debate on inequality to resurface with force, including the failure to reduce poverty rates and the increase in the gap between rich and poor.

Usually, the term social inequality has been used to refer to a socioeconomic situation, that is, to the differences in terms of wealth, income and working conditions between countries and regions. However, inequality is not only an economic issue, as it is not only of countries but also of social groups. In this sense, we could define inequality in sociological terms as the existing social distance between different groups, regions or countries, arising from an unequal distribution of resources.

Thus, this social difference refers both to an economic question and to cultural capital (educational capacities) and social capital (relational capacity and participation in power). But it is important to point out that inequality "is not something natural, but is sustained by networks of privileges that are established and authorized with the consent of men" (Reygadas: 2008), which means that inequality is a social construction and, therefore, can be altered by the action of social groups.

Political, economic and socio-cultural context in India

India is a country located to the south of the Asian continent that is divided into three large regions: the Himalayas on the northern border, the northern Ganges plain to the south and the Deccan plateau in the center. With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, today it is the second most populous country in the world after China, and it is estimated that it will surpass it very soon.

India is a republic made up of 28 states, and the economic reforms carried out in 1991 have made it one of the fastest growing economies, along with the rest of the BRIC countries (China, Russia and Brazil).

However, the high levels of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition, which represent the main problems affecting the Indian population, are still notable. Almost 25% of the population lives below the poverty line (close to 300 million), and the richest 1% owns 53% of the country's wealth.

India, country of diversity and contrasts

India is one of the countries with the greatest wealth of cultural diversity. It is such a large country that some people consider it a “subcontinent”. The country was colonized by the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century, and became an independent nation in 1947 after a non-violent struggle for independence. The Indian leader ** Mahatma Gandhi ** concentrated millions of people in a multitude of national campaigns of civil disobedience, which is why he represents one of the most significant and prominent figures for the Hindu population.

Due to its history, the country has been assuming different cultures, religions, customs and languages, which have been shaping the current way of life. Each region has its own identity, but they all share a common cultural identity. Here are some of the most important cultural aspects.

  • Currency: The official currency is the rupee. On the front is the face of Gandhi, and on the back is written "10 rupees" in many languages.

  • Languages: In India there are two official languages: Hindi and English. But they coexist with another 20 languages, depending on the State, and more than 1,500 languages and minor dialects are also spoken.

  • Religions: On a religious level, the existence of some 850 million Hindus (81%) is remarkably significant, who also coexist with 150 million Muslims (13%), and 35 million Christians (2%). In addition, there are about 20 million Sikhs[1] (2%), or Buddhists[2] (1%). Therefore, India brings together a great amalgamation of diverse religions.

  • Customs and traditions: A striking gesture is its characteristic greeting by joining the palms of the hands while saying Namaste, which means "I salute the light of God that shines in you." However, there are more types of greetings and each religion has its own. For example, there are people who greet each other like in the West, shaking hands; Muslims bow their heads and say “salam aleikum” (“may Allah's peace be with you”); and Sijis say “satshri akal” (“God is the ultimate truth”).

  • The mark on the forehead: The oldest practice consists of marking oneself with ash, which is a sacred element that symbolizes renouncing the world. It is also common to use a vermilion paste called kumkuma, which mixes turmeric, alum, iodine, camphor and other products. With any of them the tilaka is made, a mark on the forehead that symbolizes religious affiliation or caste. This mark can also be made as a form of blessing. On the other hand, it is customary for married women to wear the bindî mark, a round vermilion dot, which is believed to protect their husbands.

All this diversity leads to the formation of many small minorities. Therefore, Amartya Sen's phrase is very explanatory: "Of whatever is said about India, its opposite is also true" (Fernández Chamorro: 2013).

Social Hierarchy

The traditional society of India is strongly defined by a social hierarchy and some very marked and internalized values. In this way, the caste system continues in force, and describes stratification and social restrictions. They also define social classes made up of thousands of hereditary endogamous groups, often called jatis or castes.

In this sense, another basic referent is the family, since the castes are inherited by birth, and determine the position, social relations, marriage, or even the profession of each person.

Caste System

To understand the social organization in India, we must take into account that there are four fundamental castes, and they are established according to the degree of purity in which the society is divided. This system was developed more than 3000 years ago, with the arrival of the “Aryans”[3], to differentiate themselves from the native population (the “dashas”, which means “slaves”). Depending on the type of work they perform, we find the Brahamanes or priests; the Khastriyas warriors and administrators; the Vaishyas merchants; and the Shudras, who are engaged in manual labor.

In the lowest stratum of society we would find the "untouchables" or dalits, which is the excluded population, and they represent approximately 16% of the population, which would be about 200 million people.

Source: Vicente Ferrer Foundation, Informativa Anantapur magazine, nº8, page 34. Article: Traces of India. Basic keys to understanding castes.

Social reality of dalits

Below the bottom layer of the caste system are the dalits or "untouchables." This social group is characterized by being the most discriminated against, since they live condemned to a life of poverty and economic, labor and social inequality.

They are strongly stigmatized and separated from the rest of society for being considered "impure". Therefore, they lack the same opportunities in terms of access to education, work and even the health service.

It is estimated that one out of every six Indian inhabitants is dálit. In other words, there are approximately 200 million people in total, separated from society, despite the fact that in 1950 the Constitution prohibited their exclusion.

The dalits usually settle in slums or slums, on the outskirts of large cities. These urban slums are mainly characterized by the lack of one or more services such as access to drinking water, sanitation, security in terms of tenure and permanent housing, as well as the enjoyment of a Sufficient space to develop community life, among other factors.

Therefore, the Dalit population that lives in the slums faces a daily disadvantage situation in the different spheres of life.

  • Education

For Dalit children, access to public education remains quite limited. Many parents have no choice and send their children to look for money and food, even though they wish they could educate themselves and aspire to a better life.

As can be expected, the lack of education has a direct impact on another series of problems, such as the greater difficulty in acquiring a job and, therefore, the scarcity of economic resources, in addition to the lack of knowledge regarding rights and opportunities, and the consequent failure to claim them.

  • Health

Often they do not have the possibility of accessing health services. In fact, the highest rates of infant mortality correspond to the areas where there is a higher concentration of extreme poverty and overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, since these conditions are a perfect breeding ground for the spread of diseases and low child immunization . In this way, health services for the poorest tend to be of lower quality, which means that they often resort to less safe practices and carried out by less qualified people, or paying a supplement for medical care.

  • Nutrition

Directly related to the health issue, it is noteworthy the significant inequalities experienced by the inhabitants of these areas in terms of nutrition and access to adequate and sufficient food. Malnutrition in children has a direct impact on growth retardation, as well as concentration difficulties and increased chances of contracting diseases.

  • Employment

As we have already anticipated, factors such as the lack of educational level and general knowledge, high unemployment, deteriorating working conditions, reduced income and the uncertainty of food and fuel prices have a significantly greater impact on intense in the inhabitants of the poorest areas. Thus, the lack of opportunities and unemployment is merciless with those who have the fewest resources to face this situation of misery, which is why they often have to look for alternative ways that do not always follow the legal channels. In addition, child labor is the order of the day in these areas, since children are forced to contribute to the family economy in order to cope with their situation of misery.

  • Citizen security

In the case of children who live or work on the streets, it is common for them to be exposed to violence and exploitation, sometimes even at the hands of the police. Children not officially registered at birth are much more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, as authorities have more trouble tracking and protecting these children.

Therefore, child labor is a direct consequence of the lack of schooling for children living in slums, and this fact gives rise to a whole series of abuses and degrading situations for the person.

In conclusion, extreme poverty, in combination with factors such as rapid industrialization and the proliferation of irregular settlements, is an ideal context for family disintegration, violence, and the lack of opportunities and resources for the most vulnerable sectors.

Hopes for the future: walking towards social inclusion

As mentioned above, the Indian Constitution annulled the previous caste system in 1950, making discrimination against lower castes illegal. However, in practice, violent and discriminatory acts have not stopped.

Figures like Mohandas Gandhi have been a great achievement in achieving laws and regulations that protect this large sector of the Indian population. The government has granted them more labor guarantees and they even have their own representation in Parliament and, between 1997 and 2002, they had a Dalit president, K. R. Naranyanan.

Despite all these achievements, much remains to be done.

This reality must be addressed from a political, social, economic and cultural dimension. Thus, top-down policies (from top to bottom) that ensure stability and economic growth must be put into practice, as well as bottom-up (from bottom to top) policies that focus on the development of individual capacities, that improve the distribution of income and offer the opportunity for the poor to embark on the search for a better life.

[1] The Sikh religion is independent of Hinduism and Islam, founded by Guru Nanak, who conveyed the idea of unity just at the time when the Indian population was being separated by castes and religions. It consists of respecting all of them, considering that there are many ways to reach the only God, the Truth. Therefore, this religion rejects the caste system, ritualism and asceticism and, most importantly, recognizes the equality of genders and religions, and promotes a humble and honest life.

[2] Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, and is also considered a philosophy or method of spiritual training. It developed from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in northern India in the 5th century B.C. Buddhism does not develop postulates about a Creator or a God, its teachings do not imply dogmas or beliefs, but the purpose is to eliminate feelings of vital dissatisfaction derived from desire, greed and any anxious desire. To achieve this state of enlightenment, Buddhism promotes a series of techniques aimed at developing meditation and attaining spiritual wisdom.

[3] The word “Aryan” comes from the Sanskrit “aryá”, which means “noble”. . The origin of the Aryans is uncertain, but it is known that they invaded India around 1500 BC (until 200 BC). This civilization introduced the Vedic religion and mixed with the indigenous people of the Indus Valley, as well as their religion, which worshiped fertility and nature.


    1.Naciones Unidas (2013): Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio. Informe de 2013. Nueva York. Disponible en:

    2.DAVIS, Mike (2006): El planeta de los tugurios. Temas. Ed: New Left Review. Madrid, Akal.

    3.Mondal, Puja (2013): The Nature and causes of growing slum problems in the metropoklitan cities of India.

    4.Fernández Chamorro, Carlos (2013): “Desarrollo con democracia”, entrevista con Amartya Sen, Premio Nobel de Economía. Plaza Pública, Guatemala. Disponible en:

    5.Fundación Vicente Ferrer (2008): Huellas de la India. Claves básicas para entender las castas. Revista Informativa Anantapur. Pag. 34. Barcelona. Disponible en:

    6.Seuba, M. y Serra, M. (2009): India, del verde al gris. La migración, en busca de una segunda oportunidad. Fundación Intervida. Barcelona.

    7.ONGD Semilla para el cambio (2012): Video documental “Del Slum a la escuela”. Varanasi, India.

    8.Pérez de Armino, Karlos & varios (2008): Diccionario de Acción Humanitaria y Cooperación al Desarrollo. Icaria editorial. Bilbao, España. 9.Hindustan Times (2012): “Rural poor in India better off than urban poor: Unicef”. New Delhi.

    10.Davis, M. (2008): “Planeta de ciudades miseria”. Foca. Ed. Carlos Prieto del Campo/ Universidad Nómada. Madrid.

    11.Harvey, D. (1973): “Urbanismo y desigualdad social”. Ed.Siglo XXI.

    12.Sassen, S. (1991): “La ciudad global”. Princeton University Press.

    13.Víctor Renes Ayala, V. (1993): “Luchar contra la pobreza hoy”. Ed. HOAC. Madrid.

    14.Castel, R. (1991): “La dinámica de los procesos de marginación: de la vulnerabilidad a la exclusión”. El Espacio Institucional. Buenos Aires. Ed, Lugar. Pag.37-54.

    15.Reygadas, L. (2008): “La apropiación: destejiendo las redes de la desigualdad”. Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol.70, nº4, octubre-diciembre 2008, pp.828-833. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. México.

The best content in your inbox

Join our newsletter with the best of CEMERI

Related articles

undefined, s/a. “Desigualdades y castas en la India: el caso de los dálits.” CEMERI, 15 sept. 2022,