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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 January 2008, 00:00 GMT
Corporate India's caste consciousness
Karishma Vaswani
By Karishma Vaswani
India business correspondent, BBC News, Mumbai

In India, it is often said that work is worship and for Haribhau Varman, getting his job as a state bus driver has been little short of a miracle.

Haribhau Varman, bus driver
Thanks to this job my son will get an education. It's our way out
Haribhau Varman, bus driver

Haribhau is employed through the Indian government's reservation scheme for socially disadvantaged classes.

Thanks to that scheme, he was able to apply for this job, which pays him $40 (20) a month.

That is not much even by Indian standards - drivers and office boys in Mumbai or Delhi can make three times as much.

But it is a living he is proud of, and one that has allowed him to break out of India's centuries old caste system.

Lower caste

Finding a job is not easy for men like Haribhau, even in modern India.

He belongs to one of India's tribal communities, deemed lower caste for thousands of years by the ancient Hindu caste system.

Discrimination against the lowest castes has existed in India since time immemorial.

Although officially it was banned by the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1976, in many parts of India it is still practised.

In its least harmful form, it is a system in which your birth determines the kind of job you are allowed to do.

But in its most vicious incarnation, it was an opportunity for those in positions of power to exploit millions of lower caste Hindus who were brainwashed into thinking that escaping from their station in life was impossible.

Malu Vakh
I don't know how to do anything else because I haven't been taught to do anything else. This is the only way I know how to feed my family
Malu Vakh, wheat shredder
Economic growth is now changing that fact into fiction. Opportunities for men like Haribhau are growing slowly but surely.

"My ancestors were labourers - that's our caste," Haribhau says.

"Now thanks to this job my son will get an education. It's our way out."

But not everyone is so fortunate.

Forty-year-old Malu Vakh is from Haribhau's community and lives in the same village that Haribhau used to hail from before he got his new job.

He is around the same age as his fellow tribesman but he looks much older.

Stuck at the bottom of a historically hierarchical caste system, his life is filled with days of back-breaking work under the searing hot Maharashtran sun.

His skin is leathered from standing outdoors all day and his clothes have the musty reek of cattle.

That is because Malu earns his living by shredding scraps of unusable wheat to feed to farm animals. This is the only job he knows.

He lives in a thatched shack with his six daughters, his wife and three cows.

"No one else will do this job because it's dirty. Living with animals, bathing them, feeding them - it's considered unclean and against Hindu propriety," he says.

"But I don't know how to do anything else because I haven't been taught to do anything else. This is the only way I know how to feed my family."

'Unclean' jobs

It is estimated that the majority of India's population hail from socially disadvantaged classes, living in basic villages strewn across the country.

Mayawati campaigns for lower caste rights

They are generally employed in jobs or vocations that have long been considered unclean by Hindu priests - jobs that entail them working with animals, rodents, or worse - excrement.

Getting the kind of work that would help them get out of this life seems an unattainable dream, but now politicians are taking up their cause.

Fiery lower caste leader Mayawati from Uttar Pradesh is gathering support for a controversial new plan to reserve jobs for India's oppressed in the private sector.

In November of 2007 at a gathering of thousands in Mumbai, she told her followers that India must create opportunities for all of its citizens.

"India needs to have a society that's equal", Mayawati boomed to her audience of eager listeners.

"We shall not enrich the rich and affluent, but serve to bring a smile to the poorest of the poor in the remotest corners of India."

Mayawati wants Indian industry to follow the government's practice of reserving jobs for the lower castes.

She wants big corporations such as Infosys, the Tata Group and Reliance to put aside 30% of the jobs available in their firms for Indians from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Specialised training

Indian industry is reluctant to have its hiring policies dictated by the government, but some companies are taking action through training.

At Infosys's Bangalore campus, hundreds of socially disadvantaged students are trained in the technology business and are equipped with the skills they will need to get jobs in the future.

In collaboration with the Bangalore-based International Institute of Information Technology, Infosys provides training for lower-caste students who have not managed to get a job in the industry.

The training lasts seven months and does not guarantee a job with Infosys in the future, but it is designed to give them the requisite confidence and knowledge they need to get ahead in the corporate world.

"What you need is specialised training to give these students the additional input," says Mohandas Pai at Infosys.

"What we have given these students from the socially disadvantaged backgrounds is an opportunity to get jobs on merit."

"They study hard, we teach them the basics, and then they come out of this course and get jobs in the private sector on their own. Their whole lives have changed as a result - they look at themselves and their future differently."

School children
Lower caste parents hope there will be better jobs for their children

It is in the hopes of attaining such a future, that Malu Vakh saves whatever money he can to send his 10-year-old daughter Darshana to a basic elementary school in his village.

The young girl is quiet, shy and pensive.

When asked about her ambitions for the future, she smiles and says she wants to be a doctor or an engineer - dreams that Indian children from all walks of life have inherited from their parents as symbols of success and status.

She and her friends are encouraged to speak English: the language of opportunity.

Their knowledge of it is rudimentary at best - but it is something.

Breaking out of India's centuries-old caste system will only be possible for the next generation of Indians if they are given a proper education.

Only then will all of India's children be able to benefit from the country's economic boom.

India Business Report is broadcast repeatedly every Sunday on BBC World.

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