India and the United States: Caste, Race, and Economic Growth

Narendra Jadhav, an IU alumnus, economist, writer, and educator and a member of India's parliament, addressed a large audience in Presidents Hall on November 14, 2016. After completing his doctorate in economics at IU in 1986, Jadhav worked at the Reserve Bank of India, rising to the position of chief economist. He later became vice chancellor of the University of Pune, a member of the National Planning Commission and the National Advisory Council of India. He now serves in India’s parliament. He is broadly recognized in India for two works detailing his family’s rise out of the caste system. In total, he has published 21 books ranging from biography and poetry to political economy.

In the sixth annual Patrick O’Meara International Lecture, Jadhav connected the U.S. historical treatment of African Americans with India’s caste system and explored the economic implications of a society that disenfranchises large segments of its population.

Although the “two largest democracies in the world” were established in radically different ways—the United States a frontier society seen as a land of opportunity; India, an old civilization characterized by a caste-ridden hierarchical society—they share a long history of “stigmatization, discrimination, and disenfranchisement against a large segment of their own people.” Jadhav noted that the “most striking difference is that the color caste system in the United States is based on social recognition whereas the caste system in India has been based on a religious sanction.” The disenfranchised in both systems “were not allowed to carve out for themselves a place in the mainstream. Both had to fight for a place.”

Jadhav traced this progress through the work of major figures—Booker T. Washington, William Dubois, and Martin Luther King in the United States and B. R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi in India. Despite differences between the countries, these figures found inspiration in the work of each other.

From detailing the history and slow progress towards social equality, Jadhav moved to the topic of economic impact. The traditional view, Jadhav explained, is that social identities do not matter in the economic market. Jadhav countered that view. “Group identities are invariably reflected in economic outcomes, such as income, wages, and credit. The groups face discrimination in almost every walk of life. We must take a holistic view of the pernicious effect of race and caste on their respective economies.”

Tracing the pattern of economic growth in the two countries across the centuries, Jadhav compiled an impressive array of statistics that point to the economic value of inclusion. He noted that the United States faces a future of slow growth while India’s young population offers the opportunity for double-digit growth through the availability of a growing workforce at a time when the working population of other major economic powers is shrinking.

However, despite different economic prospects, both the United States and India face similar challenges. For the United States to realize its potential for growth, its “policy would have to reflect the country’s diversity and represent all social groups.” India must also assure that large segments of its population are not excluded from developing their “talent, potential, and skills. If we want to harness India’s demographic dividend, we must invest in education and in skill development. If we don’t do this, we will be producing the mouths to feed but not the hands that can work. There is no way we can sustain economic growth unless this growth is inclusive.”

Watch the video here.

The U.S. and India face a war against class discrimination, illiteracy, and poverty, and their weapons are democracy, education, and self-empowerment. —Narendra Jadhav