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Analyzing the Role of Americans in Resolving India’s Most Pressing Developmental Issue — the Caste System

Analyzing the Role of Americans in Resolving India’s Most Pressing Developmental Issue — the Caste System

  • While we, as Americans, may be outsiders to this issue, there are numerous steps individuals in the U.S. and even other countries can take to support lower-castes and bring positive change to India.

From the young girl aspiring to be a doctor but told that she can never rise above her lowly station in life, to the dark-skinned boy forced out of school into manual scavenging, to the elderly Dalit denied medical care because of his caste— these are just some examples of the Indian caste system’s harsh realities. For hundreds of millions of Dalits, the caste system brutally determines their place in society, condemning them to a life of poverty and exclusion.

Rooted in ancient Hindu texts and practices, the system has evolved into a deeply-entrenched social hierarchy in India, influencing everything from marriage practices to job opportunities. Despite its official abolition in 1950, it remains a powerful force that significantly impacts millions of people today and starkly hinders India’s development.

Historical Context, Modern-day Implications, and Impact on Development

Derived from the Hindu scriptures’ cosmological structure, the caste system places individuals into specific classes based on birth and karma. The lowest caste, the Dalits or “untouchables,” are supposedly the least holy due to their distance from nirvana, which is the ultimate release from the rebirth cycle. At the other end of this scale, the priestly Brahmans are considered the highest human forms because of their closeness to nirvana. Above the Dalits are four other classes of human existence in Hinduism, which provide the framework for India’s caste system. The five castes, from lowest to highest, are Dalits, Shudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas, and Brahmans. 

The norm is that lower-castes, especially Dalits, experience lifelong exclusion because of their “untouchable” status. A study by Jasmine Rao on South Asian Caste Systems explains how millions of these people essentially do slave labor because they’re stuck with their ancestors’ debts (Rao). They are conditioned to expect solely a life of relentless work under the sun, hoping that somebody might buy their labor or produce, which is actually highly unlikely since higher-castes often refuse to touch anything associated with untouchables. Additionally, lower-castes’ darker complexions and shabby clothing further distinguish them as untouchables, influenced by colorist beliefs prevalent in Indian society. Dalits haven’t earned the isolation they suffer. This practice stems from the fear that even looking at an untouchable could pollute one’s social status and lead to a downgraded caste in the next life. 

Since India’s independence, the government has implemented some initiatives like compulsory schooling and reservation systems to uplift lower-castes, but socio-economic conditions and historical disadvantages continue to hinder opportunities for them. With India’s rapidly growing population of over 1.43 billion, limited job prospects intensify employment competition. The lack of proper education in the past for lower-castes further exacerbates the knowledge gap between castes, leaving lower-castes ill-equipped to compete on an equal footing with higher-castes. Consequently, the cycle of marginalization persists, confining and separating lower-castes and impeding meaningful economic progress.

Therefore, India’s caste system has profoundly impacted the country’s development trajectory. According to a CNN article, the wealth of 16 affluent people in India is equivalent to the wealth of 600 million poorer people (Basu). Despite India’s 8.7% GDP growth rate, as of April 2023, India ranks 132nd out of 191 countries on the UN Human Development Index (HDI), which assesses life span, education, and living standards (Arora). Additionally, India is a significant contributor of undernourishment globally, with 194.4 million people lacking adequate nutrition, as highlighted by Feeding India (Zomato). The country’s large population aggravates workforce competition and places additional strains on families as they provide for more people. These poverty-rates have all stemmed from the centuries-old caste system.

Rao’s study continues to explain that society itself is structured to keep this tradition of castes going, especially with inter-caste marriage restrictions. The inability to marry outside one’s caste confines lower-castes within their poverty-ridden state. For example, in Indian schools’ exams, similar to how Americans are asked to indicate their ethnicity, there is a section to specify one’s caste. However, these forms lack an option for mixed-caste individuals. As Rao explains, this creates complications when attempting to deviate from the marriage norm, as individuals must navigate the challenge of indicating their caste on official forms. Seemingly minor inconveniences like this contribute to the persistence of the caste system throughout the nation (Rao). 


The caste system’s barriers to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities have deprived marginalized communities like the Dalits of their potential contributions to India’s progress, trapping them in cycles of poverty. Moreover, Dalits face widespread discrimination and harassment, with little course for justice. This social unrest among Indian citizens impedes overall stability and India’s ability to achieve sustainable development. To truly unlock India’s potential, dismantling the caste system and ensuring equal opportunities and rights for all citizens, regardless of social background, is crucial.

See Also

While we, as Americans, may be outsiders to this issue, there are numerous steps individuals in the U.S. and even other countries can take to support lower-castes and bring positive change to India.

  1. Raising Awareness: Any person can raise awareness about the caste system and the discrimination and hardships Dalits face by sharing their information and stories within their own communities. From teenagers posting stories of an abused child on Instagram to humanitarian programs organizing discussions and sharing resources on the topic, the most impactful thing Americans can do is bring media attention to the lives of Dalits, and how limited their hopes and dreams are. Increased awareness leads to greater advocacy and support for these marginalized communities.
  2.  Supporting Dalit-led Organizations: Numerous organizations in India are dedicated to supporting lower-castes and challenging the caste system. Nonprofit charities like Dalit Solidarity and the Dalit Foundation of India provide healthcare, educational workshops, and economic opportunities to marginalized communities in South Asia. American residents can support these organizations by donating funds, volunteering time, or advocating for their work and sharing their messages with others. A simple monthly donation of $5 from American households can determine whether a widow and her five-year-old child sleep at a train station.
  3.  Promoting International Pressure: International pressure is crucial for driving change in India. By raising awareness and supporting initiatives, the global community can heavily influence India’s government in addressing the caste system and social norms. This pressure can lead to better monitoring of discriminatory hiring practices, ensuring universal schooling, and establishing trade schools and scholarship programs in rural areas. For example, the recent tragic Odisha train-crash highlighted the urgent need for improved safety measures in India’s railway system, which predominantly serves lower-caste commuters. The incident garnered international attention, pressuring the Indian government to enhance transportation infrastructure and prevent further devastating consequences. With international pressure and redirected government resources, Americans and the global community can significantly uplift the well-being and rights of lower-caste and economically disadvantaged individuals in India.

Clearly, India’s caste system severely impedes the nation’s progress, perpetuating inequality. The examples of discrimination and exclusion millions of Dalits face highlight their urgent need for change. Despite the Indian government’s efforts, limited job opportunities, education disparities, and social unrest persist. As American residents, we can raise awareness, support Dalit-led organizations, and exert international pressure for change to help dismantle the caste system and bring a more inclusive and progressive society in India. Through collective action, we can strive towards a future that upholds justice and equality for all.

(Top photo courtesy, Matthew Becker/Advocacy Project, International Dalit Solidarity Network.)

This essay by Shaunya Kumar won the first place in the high school category of the 2023 Youth Essay Competition organized by the India Philanthropy Alliance (IPA), a U.S.-based coalition of 16 nonprofit, philanthropic, and charitable organizations focused on India. 

Shaunya Kumar is a 9th grade student based in Shakopee, Minnesota. She will be gifting her $1,000 award to Dalit Solidarity.

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  • Shaunya, while I appreciate your concerns about the caste system, I wish you had also mentioned the substantial efforts which have gone into eradicating this inequality. Reservations for the Dalits (SC, ST, OBCs) go up as high as 50% in many fields leading to a ‘reverse imbalances’ in many opportunities. Laws too are in place for ensuring a balance in society, though admittedly they are broken to the detriment of the Dalits. BTW where did you come across school
    admission forms asking for the student’s caste.?

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