Caste and Entrepreneurship in India

by Lakshmi Iyer, Tarun Khanna & Ashutosh Varshney

Overview — Has India's political revolution been accompanied by corresponding changes in the economic sphere? This paper argues that for the most vulnerable, whether in villages or cities, the social structure has not changed. While Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and traditionally "middle-level" castes have made significant progress at the level of political representation in independent India, their progress in entrepreneurship has been uneven. By looking at the ownership of enterprises across the country, this paper sheds light on two larger narratives about India's emerging political economy: first, that the rich have benefitted more than the poor, the towns and cities more than the villages, and the upper castes more than the lower castes has acquired salience in several quarters. And second, that "Dalit entrepreneurship," a category conspicuous by its absence in India's business history, has become a significant trend. Findings by Lakshmi Iyer, Tarun Khanna, and Ashutosh Varshney show that while the "middle-level" castes have made progress in entrepreneurship, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are considerably under-represented in the entrepreneurial sphere. That is, for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, political gains have not manifested themselves in greater entrepreneurial prowess. Key concepts include:

  • By documenting some of the basic facts about caste and entrepreneurship, Iyer, Khanna, and Varshney provide evidence for the persistence of caste differences in important development outcomes.
  • The Scheduled Castes are communities that have historically been at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and subjected to considerable economic and social discrimination. Most such castes were considered "untouchables" by members of higher castes. Scheduled Tribes include communities that have traditionally been outside the Hindu caste system. The Indian constitution of 1950 explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste or tribe, and also provides affirmative action policies for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in political representation, education and jobs.
  • Members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are under-represented in the ownership of enterprises. These patterns are not specific to any one region or state of the country.
  • By contrast, members of traditionally "middle level" castes appear to be making significant progress in playing an important entrepreneurial role.
  • Differences across caste categories are more pronounced in urban areas compared to rural areas, suggesting that these results cannot be attributed purely to social discrimination that might be expected to be higher in rural areas.

Author Abstract

It is now widely accepted that the lower castes have risen in Indian politics. Has there been a corresponding change in the economy? Using comprehensive data on enterprise ownership from the Economic Censuses of 1990, 1998 and 2005, we document substantial caste differences in entrepreneurship across India. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are significantly under-represented in the ownership of enterprises and the share of the workforce employed by them. These differences are widespread across all states, have decreased very modestly between 1990 and 2005, and cannot be attributed to broad differences in access to physical or human capital.

Paper Information