Thursday, July 26, 2007 

The Caste System in India Lives

I recently blogged about how the caste system was being lived out on the streets of India in the life of one very poor dalit woman.

About a month ago, (yes, I'm behind on blogging) the Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page weekend edition piece called "Caste Away" about a dalit (aka an Untouchable) who has attempted to break into the fast-growing, professional IT business in India. The article tells the story of how Mr. Thoti was been discriminated against throughout his attempt to build a career. There are moments of hope when he finds hiring managers who are color-blind to the caste system, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Even the chief economist of the Royal Bank of India (equivalent to USA central bank), another rare dalit success story, still faces discrimination.

If you are interested in further reading, there is a book written over a century ago by Mahatma Phule called Slavery which argues that India's caste system is similar to the slavery issue faced by the USA.

The India Caste System Overview

At the top of the caste system are the brahmins ... historically the priests and by far are the current ruling class (almost every institution) in India today. Then their nearest high-caste cohorts are the kshatriyas (warrior caste) and vaishyas (merchant caste). The vaishyas overwhelming oversee the banking and financial systems in India. The Sudras are the low-caste peoples ... numbering over 500 million in India! ... who are identified with a particular occupation (e.g. potter's caste, shepherd's caste, buthcher's caste, etc.) And then below the caste system are the dalits or untouchables.

Here is a picture of the caste hierarchy.

What is interesting is that the dalits, while still overwhelmingly extremely poor, are often better off than the low-caste peoples. Part of this is due to the affirmative action setup for dalits.

Have you experienced the caste system? Please post a comment (and please include your caste name in your comment!)

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007 

Working Poor 1, Anti-Wal-Mart Coalition 0

A month ago, Wal-Mart announced that it was finally entering the financial services business. I say, finally, because an unlikely group of anti-Wal-Mart collaborators ... big banks threatened by Wal-Mart's commitment to low-cost financial services and the traditional anti-Wal-Mart folks (populist politicians, union organizers and a range of other interests) ... had successfully blocked Wal-Mart from getting a federal banking license.

What is puzzling to me is why so many people are against more financial services for the working underclass/poor from the company which has brought them non-fee ATM access and the lowest cost option for check cashing. Wal-Mart claims that that users of their current financial services save on average $450/year or about $40/month. That's not chump change and reduces the poverty tax!

OK, so how did Wal-Mart get around this obstacle? They chose to partner with GE Money and Visa to offer a debit card ... or what they call a MoneyCard. You don't need to setup a bank account, nor do you require a credit check. Customers will be able to directly deposit checks onto their card, check balances online and get balance updates over their cellphone. In many cases, customers can greatly reduce and even eliminate check-cashing and other bank fees they would otherwise incur. Sounds pretty good to me. [Yes, there are fees which some critics have argued should be lower.]

Why does this matter? Wal-Mart reports that 20% of its customers (about 27 million people) don't have bank accounts. The MoneyCard and associated financial services provided by Wal-Mart enables these customers to have a virtual bank account with the convenience of both in-store Wal-Mart service hours (better than most banks) plus convenience of a standardized payment/cash card. I wouldn't be surprised if a large number of their customers who have bank accounts will move over to the MoneyCard as their preferred "bank account".

Please understand ... I don't think everything that Wal-Mart does is right. I think the issue of health insurance benefits for workers is a tough issue that we need to figure out on a state or federal level. Their record of dealing with some of their vendors also has some major issues. What I am calling for though is to give credit where credit is due. Wal-Mart has a strong track record of delivering value to their customers who are predominantly the working lower-income population. Let's get behind company initiatives which provide beneficial services like this.

More references:
New York Times article
USA Today article
Wal-Mart's official introduction info
Get your own MoneyCard today

Your thoughts on this? Post a comment.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007 

DDT works to prevent malaria

Uganda health experts are asking the developed world to allow them to strategically deploy DDT-based products to fight malaria.

Here are some stats on malaria:
  • Over 10 million Ugandans are infected each year
  • Up to 100,000 Ugandans die from malaria each year
Using an inferior product (more expensive, lasts shorter duration and costs more), Icon, Uganda was able to reduce a 100,000 local population carrying the disease (a key factor in long-term impact on malaria) from 30% to 3%! This investment more than paid for itself in lower healthcare costs and human productivity let alone human suffering.

The issue is that DDT has been banned by western governments since 1972 and international aid requires that receiving countries also ban DDT. There is no plan to use DDT for agriculture (which is why it was banned), but simply for household use to help kill the mosquitoes carrying the malaria disease. While the research now is very clear, G8 environmentalist still are against any uses of DDT.

See full article in WSJ, Give us DDT.

UPDATE 8-20-2007: New York Times article, A New Home for DDT, refers to new research that DDT has the added benefit that mosquitoes which are immune to DDT are still repelled by it making it an extremely effective indoor malaria (and yellow fever and dengue fever) prevention technology.

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Why government jobs aren't the solution

Warning ... this video is not for those with a weak stomach. But it does seem to be an authentic day-in-the-life video of a dalit woman in India.

The dalits (aka Untouchables) are at the bottom of the caste ladder in India. Many people describe the caste system in India as an apartheid or slavery system (see my recent book review on Slavery by Mahatma Phule) ... at least as powerfully entrenched as historically in South Africa and the USA respectively.

I asked a friend ... why do the local people continue to defecate on the street when there is a free nearby toilet? He said that they do this because it is a way of showing their superiority knowing that this woman will clean up for them. The caste system is not just about the high caste abusing the lowest castes, but every level of caste abusing those lower in the hierarchy.

So, this woman has a job. She earns 3,000 rupees per month or about $2/day. She has an outstanding debt (most likely from a money lender) of 10,000 rupees (about $200) for which she pays 1/3 of her income for interest only (10% per month interest!) ... and no principle. She likely had a family medical emergency/tragedy/wedding which forced her into debt and now she is basically a slave to this debt seemingly indefinitely.

You can tell this woman to simply quit her government job, but unless she has some other method of earning income, she will be even worse off. She appears on statistics as "employed", but I don't think many of us would consider this viable (and certainly not sustainable) employment.

My friend said ... "this is why India so critically needs more microfinance." Microfinance would provide this women with a small loan to use her industrious spirit to earn more take-home money and allow her a path out of her debt enslavement and likely death from the hazards of her government job. Maybe providing better government jobs would help some people, but that seems like an insufficient response.

I agree with him. What do you think?

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