Residential Segregation in India: A growing problem

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Image courtesy of Naveen Bharathi on the Harvard University South Asia Institute website.

The Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut hosted “Residential Segregation In An Urbanizing India,” on Feb. 19 through Zoom. Naveen Bharathi, a postdoctoral research fellow who focuses on political sociology and economic identity in India, presented his data on segregation in Karanataka. 

The caste, a hierarchical system in the Hindu religion where people are born into certain social classes and interactions between classes are restricted, was banned in 1950 but India still faces a residential segregation problem. In his presentation, Bharathi discusses Ravidas Sheb, a famous saint in the 16th century who believed that in a casteless society, things would be better and people would live in prosperity. However, Bharathi proves in his research that segregation is still a problem due to religion and caste discrimination. 

“Segregation causes a major problem for Indians because, in segregated neighborhoods, there are less likely chances of social-economic mobility,” Bharathi said. “Poor neighborhoods don’t have role models, there’s an alienation of certain communities and when there is violence in poor segregated neighborhoods, victims are easy targets,” Bharathi added. 

The caste system has a four-level hierarchy, according to the BBC in an article titled, “What is India’s caste system?” Brahmins are the highest-ranking, consisting of priests and academic professionals. Next are Kshatriyas, who are known to be military and government officials. Then it’s Vaishyas which include merchants and farmers. Toward the bottom are Shudras, known as laborers and peasants. Below the Shudras are the casteless, who are not even considered in the caste system. They are also known as Dalits or the untouchables, which consist of janitors and street sweepers. Bharathi mentioned throughout India there can be different variations of the caste system with different names.  

Typically those of Muslim religion and lower caste often get discriminated against according to Bharathi. He proved through his data that whether it’s rural villages or richer cities, segregation exists for all social classes but particularly harms the lower caste.  

“The degree of urbanization essentially doesn’t matter at all, it goes against the ideas of the founding fathers,” Bharathi said. “They thought if you moved from a smaller town or village to a bigger city the level of segregation will go down but that doesn’t really happen from the major findings of our study.” 

“They thought if you moved from a smaller town or village to a bigger city the level of segregation will go down but that doesn’t really happen from the major findings of our study.”

Naveen Bharathi

Bharathi explained an incident that occurred in Bombay where a landlord organization refused to rent housing to a family because the tenant was from a different ethnic group. The case was brought to India’s Supreme Court where they ruled in favor of the landlord because a ruling against the landlord would be a violation of the Indian Constitution. 

“In the Indian Constitution, it says you can’t discriminate people along caste lines, it also has due rights for people to form organizations and it doesn’t really outlaw organizations that form around caste lines,” Bharathi said. 

In order to measure the amount of segregation, Bharathi used both the Gini index and index of similarity. The Gini index is a formula used to measure income among individuals and households. The index of similarity measures how one particular group is spread out geographically compared to another. Bharathi not only showed that segregation exists but how it has always existed. He gave an example of Basavanagudi, an old city in Bengaluru where people have faced discrimination for the last 100 years.  

Bharathi stated that India’s segregation is unique because there is no interaction between segregated groups. In contrast to America, where despite ethnic segregation, there still is communication between groups, Bharathi stated. Deepak Malghan, an associate professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Management and also one of the co-authors of this research agreed with this statement. 

“Unlike American cities, you can have a block with upper castes and next to it you can have a neighborhood only with Dalits (lowest caste) … This is very specific to how Indian cities work. In many other Indian cities like Delhi, you can have an elite neighborhood but next to it is a slum.” 

Deepak Malghan, associate professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Management

“Unlike American cities, you can have a block with upper castes and next to it you can have a neighborhood only with Dalits (lowest caste),” Malghan said. “This is very specific to how Indian cities work. In many other Indian cities like Delhi, you can have an elite neighborhood but next to it is a slum.” 

Bharathi added that the rise of the technology industry in India has also played a factor in residential segregation, but the main reasons are due to both higher caste and private housing company discrimination. Although the Indian government requires some housing options must be dedicated to those with lower income, Bharathi explains that private housing organizations try to get around it by merging two apartments for upper-caste families.  

“If you are a Dalit child growing up in India, you have not met any upper caste child at all, growing up, you’re Muslim you haven’t met anybody other than a Muslim,” Malghan said. 

“What other people don’t realize is that if you’re an upper-caste child growing up in an Indian city, you haven’t had any contact at all with people from a lower caste, it works both ways, that’s what segregation is and there is a huge amount of issues. One is interested in characterizing spatial segregation because you’re also trying to understand the lack of contact between various groups,” Malghan emphasized. 

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