What is your last name? Do you eat meat? These are questions often asked while renting a house in Bengaluru. While they seem innocent on the surface, these questions enable owners to ascertain caste which, in turn, controls their decision on whether or not to take them on as tenants.
“If you are not from the dominant caste, they will delicately backtrack and state how there was a misunderstanding and they did not intend to rent the house at all” says Bengaluru-based author Vijetha, remembering how her mother would cook fish in their Basavanagudi home and light agarbattis to camouflage the smell as discovery would mean eviction.
This caste-profiling, Vijetha says, makes it impossible for Dalits or Bahujans to get a house in the city.
History of ghettoization
Neighbourhoods in Bengaluru continue to be segregated along caste lines, which has fuelled social prejudices and economic marginalisation.
In a podcast titled Caste and religion-based residential Segregation in Indian Cities by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Dr Naveen Bharathi, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), University of Pennsylvania traces the history of segregation in Bengaluru based on caste.
The city’s growth can be discerned in the post-Anglo-Mysore war period. The Bangalore Plague in 1898 led to the creation of Basavanagudi and Chamarajapete, which were planned largely on the basis of caste. “It was designed in such a way that Brahmins were allotted specific plots of the newly developed locality, while Lingayats, Dalits or Muslims occupied different sectors,” says Dr. Bharathi. Malleshwaram and a few other areas that came up later also came to be populated mostly with Brahmin residents, as the community was among the first to migrate to urban areas which provided better economic opportunities.
Even the present day names of several city areas is evidence of how deep the caste divide runs. Nagarthpete was for textile and gold traders, Ganigarapete was for Ganigas or the oil pressing caste, Cubbonpete was for people of the Devanga community who were weavers of traditional silk sarees, Kumbarapete for potters, Upparapete for members of the Uppara caste, Thigalarapete for Thigalas and so on. (Bharathi. N et al., 2018)
The post-1947 years saw technology and industrial growth enabling Bengaluru to get a number of public sector companies. That was when Jayanagar was planned and hailed as the then largest planned residential locality in Asia. But residential segregation based on caste persisted as did access to economic opportunities. Dr Bharathi states that as the people who had migrated during the early years after Independence were primarily from privileged castes, they got the jobs created by the tech boom.
A conscious bias today
“The structure of caste in the process of urbanization is expected to fuse with class blurring the inherent stratification of caste”. So read a 2019 study titled Isolated by caste: Neighbourhood scale Residential Segregation in Indian Metros, that Dr. Naveen Bharathi co-authored with Deepak Malghan from Indian Institute of Management and Andaleeb Rahman from Cornell University.
This is not hard to believe, based on the empirical evidence from Bengaluru’s real estate market, which shows favouritism towards people belonging to the dominant caste and religion.
Out of Bengaluru’s 84.43 lakh population, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes make up only 9.6 lakh and 1.54 lakh people respectively. Wards like Rajarajeshwarinagar, Mahadevapura and parts of Byatarayanapura house less than 10% of SC/ST population. Only 10% of the blocks in the map show a higher concentration of residents from these communities, while 8.08% of them housed no SC/ST residents. This holds true for some of the older areas of Bengaluru as well, like Malleshwaram, Basavanagudi, etc. which are largely dominated by the so-called “upper caste”.
Vijetha talks about the exclusivity of Basavanagudi, which is dominated by the Brahmin community. “They are exclusive as they cater only to other Brahmin households, in terms of invitations to food, festivities, etc” she says. This network gained visibility during the pandemic. She talks about how during the lockdown, while many did not know where to get milk from as everybody was cautious in venturing out, all her neighbouring households managed to get milk as they had a Brahmin supplier. This applied to food as well, as bachelors in her area belonging to the Brahmin community received packed vegetarian meals from an exclusive service.
The lack of social capital
Isaac Arul Selva, Editor of Slum Jagattu and a slum rights activist sheds light on the lack of social capital among those from the oppressed castes. He recollects an instance involving a slum dweller who belonged to the Naidu community. Due to his contacts with government servants, he was able to pull himself out of poverty, says Isaac, attributing this to social capital.
“Among scheduled castes, social mobility is very low and often takes generations” says Isaac. Echoing this, Amit Basole, Associate Professor at Azim Premji University says social networks are important when it comes to finding or renting houses, buying land, etc. as they provide access to economic betterment via sources of credit and information that flow through them.
Adds Dr. Bharathi, “a child which grows up in a segregated neighbourhood, has little infrastructure or social capital to rely on”.
Citing the historic correlation between caste and labour in India, Amit says while professions have been modernised, individuals continue to be engaged in occupations historically associated with their caste. “India’s informal economy prevents them from exiting these occupations by denying them entry into the formal market,” says Amit. “This is done by withholding education resulting in those from socially weaker backgrounds being stuck in low-paying occupations. They aren’t afforded the means to escape this trap”.
Isaac says people from marginalised castes form the majority of occupants in Bengaluru’s slums. Even individuals from minority communities in these slums are from the depressed classes within those communities. The residents are employed in various informal jobs such as housekeeping, construction work, driving, domestic help, etc.
“In Bengaluru’s IT sector, there hasn’t been a visible development in their condition as all of them are employed on a contract basis at these companies,” says Isaac. “None of them earn more than Rs.10,000 a month, and thus cannot make rent. So they resort to living in informal settlements of vataaras“. Isaac also pointed out how companies earmark cleaning jobs specifically for those form SC.
Additionally, Dr Bharathi states that slums and informal settlements supply labour to the formal settlements and neighbourhoods, so when the informal settlements are removed or razed, it affects the employment of its residents.
Pushed to the margins
Amit also links this to the ghettoization that occurs in Indian cities, Bengaluru included. This occurs because of the refusal of the gentrified parts of the city to include these marginalised communities in their employment, housing and educational structures. “This open discrimination and exclusion translate to lack of information and accessibility, which inevitably pushes them to the margins,” says Amit. “This also means they cannot access the parts of the city with thriving commerce, or they are compelled to live far away from their place of work which increases transport costs”.
Occupational segregation happens because these individuals are forced to work in less remunerative occupations, which contributes to their inability to live in certain places. “Even if there is no open discrimination, it compels them to live in ghettos due to being priced out of other areas”, adds Amit.
Talking about her cook Latha* (name changed), who belongs to the Dalit community, Vijetha said she and her husband used to run a small center serving non-veg meals to daily-wage labourers. But something happened forcing Latha to shut down the shop, and start looking for jobs as a cook in the area. Vijetha mentioned how people started assessing her dark skin and nobody was ready to employ her as a cook. Latha was forced to go back to doing work as a house help.
“The reason why Latha applied as a cook is that they get paid more and this would help get her back on her feet” says Vijetha. “Preference for a certain skin colour is an extension of casteist sentiments. Dark-skinned people who speak Tamil or a certain Kannada are often not employed as cooks”.
Ironically, the same people will call them to wash their bathrooms. Latha had confided in Vijetha’s family that other non-Dalit house helps who refuse to clean bathrooms, have often recommended Latha’s name to their employers to get it done.
Amit believes that affirmative action in public employment is a direct way of providing a chance for such people in the formal sector. However, if employment is to be a strong driver of social mobility, we need to create more jobs than we have been able to so far. More jobs would mean more occupational mobility, which would help blur caste lines.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that approaches to urban housing or policy making are more often than not, caste-blind.