Administration & Management

It's Art of Governance & Not Commerce Alone

Economic Growth- But No New Jobs:Later Half of First Decade of 21st Century India

Have 20 years of economic liberalization been kind to the poor? In particular, how have India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes fared since the country opened up to the forces of economic reforms? Already politically empowered, have they also been economically empowered by liberalization?

Already politically empowered, have India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes also been economically empowered?

An important new study by economists Viktoria Hnatkovska, Amartya Lahiri and Sourabh B. Paul examines the economic performance of SC/STs by analyzing a large mass of data from five successive rounds of the National Sample Survey from 1983 to 2005.

The study is among the first to examine the behavior of wages, consumption, education and occupation choice for SC/STs compared with the rest of the population, exploiting the large and rich NSS data.

The study’s three principal findings are striking. First, it finds significant convergence in educational attainment and occupational choice over the period of the study. In 1983, non-SC/STs had, on average, 3.62 years of schooling, against 1.41 for SC/STs, a discrepancy of 157%. By 2005, non-SC/STs had 5.6 years of schooling on average, while for SC/STs it was 3.2 years, so the percentage gap had closed to 74%. Non-SC/STs still dominate white collar employment, which tends to be higher paying than blue collar and agricultural work, but the gap has narrowed from almost three times as many non-SC/STs in 1983 to about 1.5 times as many in 2005.

Second, the report finds a “statistically significant” movement towards convergence in wages between SC/STs and everyone else. A statistically significant finding is one in which we can have confidence that the results are genuine and not an artifact of measurement. In particular, the authors find that the “wage premium” – a ratio between the wages of non-SC/STs relative to SC/STs— has steadily declined from 36% in 1983 to 21% in 2005. To put things in perspective, the corresponding wage premium for white males over black males in the U.S. has stayed constant around 30% for the last several decades.

Third, the authors find that convergence in wage levels has been caused in large measure by educational attainment of SC/STs slowly catching up with the rest, although a gap remains.

But what explains these trends? Are wages converging principally because the education gap is closing (perhaps through caste-based reservation), or are other factors such as a lessening of discrimination against SC/STs responsible?

The authors show analytically that the majority of the wage gap can be explained by demographic characteristics, such as age, experience and whether people live in a rural or urban area. But the single most important determinant of the wage gap is the gap in educational attainment, the most important demographic difference. The implication is that the narrowing wage gap is indeed a result of the narrowing education gap.

The study also finds that caste-based reservation had a “negligible” effect on the wage gap. Because of its potential policy significance, this finding must be interpreted with caution. The finding is that reservation by itself cannot account statistically for much of the narrowing wage gap.  But that, of course, doesn’t mean that reservation isn’t important. One cannot rule out that reservation indirectly has led to a narrowing of the wage gap, working through the effect of allowing SCs/STs to catch up in terms of education and occupation choice.

There is corroborating evidence on the importance of reservation. For instance, the Indian Express reported recently that SC representation in upper-tier government jobs has increased almost eightfold, from 1.64% to 12.5% in the last 45 years. ST representation has grown almost 20 times. These figures reflect, in part, reservations of 15% and 7.5% for SCs and STs, respectively.

What lies behind these optimistic results? Leaving aside the debate about how big or small a role caste-based reservation has played, there are other market-based explanations that have played an important role, which the study highlights.

The most natural explanation, which is close to the heart of every free market economist, is that 20 years of economic liberalization have reduced the importance of caste and accentuated a move towards “market meritocracy,” where wages and incomes better reflect differences in education and other characteristics, not caste.

This reflects an idea proposed by the Nobel economist Gary Becker a half-century ago, that discrimination in any form becomes costlier when the market becomes more important, and so we will see less of it.

This is a plausible explanation but isn’t the only possibility. The study also flags the increased importance of community-based social networks bringing together SC/STs. Closer integration may lead to what economists call “network externalities,” so that every member of a group benefits more from interacting with their peers than if they were on their own.

The bottom line is that there’s convergence between SC/STs and everyone else, but convergence doesn’t mean they’ve completely caught up. Nor does it mean that caste-based reservation has not or will not continue to play a role.


Always Yours — As Usual — Saurabh Singh





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