D Ajit, Han Donker, Ravi Saxena, of the University of Northern British Columbia in their much-cited research ‘Corporate Boards in India- Blocked by Caste?’ published in the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) in 2012, calculated that 70% of Indian corporate boardrooms have a Blau’s caste index of zero. This, effectively, means that boardrooms of more than two-thirds of the top 1000 firms (private & State-owned) have no caste-diversity. The research found that an overwhelming 93% belonged to the forward castes. OBCs – a collection of caste groups lower down in the hierarchy – accounted for 3.8% of the directors. And despite six decades of affirmative action Scheduled Castes and Tribes accounted for only 3.5% of the directors.
This research was grist to the mill for the usual suspects, and eristic arguments of brahiminical capitalism flew thick and fast. Any social research on business often runs the risk of lending itself to vested interests. What is essentially a snapshot could be misconstrued and misrepresented as a deliberate exclusion by the Leadership. As India democratizes economically, there would be greater access to opportunities for everyone. However the more important question is whether there is an acknowledgement of the organic demographic reality of organizations? The answer lies somewhere between the contrived accusations of statistical legerdemain and the frenzied bouts of self-flagellation.
Organizations have demonstrated their commitment to diversity and inclusion in articulation and action. While gender, age, disability and sexuality have been the axes of inclusion, the social reality of caste has been glossed over. It is not difficult to understand the squeamish diffidence on caste. Much of it stems from the perception of caste as a feudal construct unlike gender or sexuality, which is ipso facto progressive. However caste has so insidiously seeped in our everyday lived reality that it cannot be whisked away as a relic of the past. As Shiv Visvanathan eloquently says, “Caste is information in knowledge society”.
The Millennial Aspect:
Every organization is striving hard, some even bending over backwards to engage millennial talent. Sundry studies and surveys have highlighted the need for a Talent engagement modus operandi tailored to Millennials. However a few studies have also cautioned against addressing millennials as a monolithic demography. The consciousness of a first-generation learner would be markedly different from a third-generational one. First generation learners enter organizations with social experiences (often underpinned by exclusion) which inform their consciousness.
The liberalization process in India began only in 1991 and therefore, India is still at a nascent stage. Affirmative action has ensured that at least half of the student community at premier institutes is drawn from the socially marginalized Dalit & Bahujan communities. Since the student community is the fountainhead of organizational millennial talent, it is axiomatic that the workforce of the future would reflect this social diversity. The point is not therefore of diversity but inclusion. The challenge that organizations face is to foster a culture which is not oblivious of the Dalit-Bahujan consciousness but embraces caste as another structural demographic dimension.
It seems remarkable that while our political process is excessively focussed on the fault lines of caste, our espoused organizational socialization is hardly cognizant of it. The choice between being Identity-blind and being Identity-conscious is often a difficult one to make for any D&I intervention but it is important to ask how does India Inc. engage with caste? This article is neither normative nor positivist but an attempt to include caste in the matrix of organizational identity. To even seek an answer to whether caste-based discrimination exists in organization is not merely contentious but subversive. Therefore, how can we engage with caste in the corporation without the zeal of an activist or the hypocrisy of the well-heeled? As wise, old Dumbledore said, “Acceptance is the first step towards understanding”.
A silent acknowledgement or an internalization of the asymmetric structural privilege that caste bestows is an important first step. Caste doesn’t lend itself for an easy discussion but a start must be made. As a guideline, delink the discussion on caste from a debate on reservations. Caste pre-dates reservations and would possibly outlast it. As an Indian organization which rightly prides itself on the adherence to Indian value systems, we must take the lead among our peers to address the elephant in the room (pun intended) and make an honest beginning.
(The Author is Management Trainee, Reliance Industries Limited)