Thursday, May 29, 2008

Protests in Delhi

The BBC this morning carries an article Tribesmen try to paralyze Delhi which reports that members of the Gujjar tribe are burning tires and trying to block roads that connect Delhi with a couple of its suburbs that "are home to hundreds of call centers and IT offices." The Gujjars are upset (understandably) that roughly 40 of them have been killed in the past week in clashes with police in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Their underlying grievance is that they want to be included in the government's list of disadvantaged groups, thereby enabling them to benefit from the affirmative action programs that give preferential hiring treatment in government jobs and set aside a certain number of places in educational institutions.

This kind of story highlights the fact that despite India's rapid economic growth and growing middle class, there remains a great deal of economic distress and anxiety in the country. Close to a quarter of the population lives on less than $1 a day (see Ashutosh Varshney, "India's Democratic Challenge," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007, p.98). Moreover, according to a 2007 government report, nearly half of Indian children under age 3 are clinically underweight, i.e., malnourished (Somini Sengupta, "Even Amid Its Wealth, India Finds, Half Its Small Children Are Malnourished," New York Times, 2/10/07). Because India's poor have had higher rates of electoral participation in recent years than its middle and upper classes (see Varshney, op. cit.), no government can afford to be indifferent to these kinds of grievances, and that is true even if the protesting Gujjars do not belong to the poorest of the poor. As long as the government has affirmative action programs for disadvantaged tribes and scheduled castes, I would think there will be contention about who gets to benefit from those programs.

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