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Social Mobility and Segregation in a Caste-based Society: Bengal, 1850-2020


This dissertation establishes how the 3000 year old discriminatory institution of Caste, continues to impact human capital accumulation, and restricts economic inclusion among the elites of the Bengali society, despite the latter's widely acknowledged progressive and liberal standing within the Indian society.

In Chapter 1, I introduce a large new data set on college graduates in India (1856-2017), to show that the educational mobility during this period was extremely low at the level of caste groups. By simulating counterfactual estimates, I show that perfect compliance to reservation policy could have substantially increased the rate of social mobility for the underprivileged lower caste and tribal groups. Some of the previous literature argues that the rigidity in Indian society is driven by caste-based endogamy. However, by analyzing social mobility at the level of exogamous sub-caste groups, I show that the absence of endogamy among the sub-groups does not promote higher rates of social mobility for these sub-groups. Threading these observations together, this paper suggests that seemingly informal yet historically persistent discriminatory institutions are a hindrance to accumulation of human capital and social mobility in the long run.

In Chapter 2, I show that the hierarchy of caste persists equally across gender, but there are variations in how caste affects the mobility of men (relative to women) across academic disciplines. One prior notion is that liberalization of Indian economy might have caused drastic changes in socio-cultural norms that in turn altered the course of long run social mobility for women. However, I observe (i) that relative representation of men and women across academic disciplines vary strictly in accordance with social norms, or socially dictated gender roles and that (ii) there is no significant change in women's relative share in certain academic disciplines that offer higher returns in the labor market. In a sharp contrast to prior research, I show that lower caste women were not able to break free from patriarchal norms to secure a passage into India’s elite graduates (be it in STEM or Arts). If at all, a decline in traditional social norms helped the upper caste women to persist in their already over-represented status within the elites. In fact, changing social norms might have helped upper caste men, but not lower caste women. Taken together, my findings suggest that a decline in traditional gender norms might be favoring some of the upper caste women, but gender identity continues to impose significant additional constraints to social mobility as one goes further down the ladder of caste hierarchy.

Introducing the digitized census records for the city of Kolkata (1871 - 2011), as well as by utilizing the electoral rolls (2021), I show in chapter 3 that both at the level of caste and religion, this historically important economic hub (and India's erstwhile capital) has become more segregated during the post independence period as compared to the colonial era. However, the apparent rise in segregation is reversed when smaller spatial units are considered as the unit of analysis, that is at the level of census enumeration blocks, the city has become relatively less segregated over the last 50 years. This challenges the speculation from prior research that modern economic development may have exacerbated caste based segregation in urban areas. Measuring segregation in another dimension - 'Exposure', I show that, despite legal abolition, untouchability continue to persist as the probability that other groups interact with the formerly untouchables, remain as low as 5 percent even in the most recent decades in most parts of the city. I further find that the religious diversity of the city has significantly declined over time, irrespective of the underlying spatial unit of analysis.

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