There is not a single person belonging to the scheduled castes among India’s top ranking bureaucrats — the 149 ‘secretaries’ to the government of India.
Scheduled castes are those that are named in the ‘first schedule’ of the constitution for the purpose of protection from a historical trend of exploitation. Along with Scheduled Tribes (tribes formerly cut-off from the mainstream society and still backward in social indicators,) they form the Dalit or oppressed population of India.
In a statement in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament today, the government said the proportion of Dalits in the top layers of Indian bureaucracy may be lower than their overall representation in the administrative services as no reservations are provided at such levels.
“As officers, on the above posts, are appointed on deputation basis from various cadres, the percentage of SC/ST officers on these posts need not be same as in their respective cadres,” it said.
The proportion of Scheduled Tribes (which includes several well-to-do communities from the North Eastern states of India) is higher among ‘secretaries’ to the government of India, 4 out of the 149 counting themselves as such.
The lack of proportionate representation has been a pet peeve of various caste groups and associations of India. The bureaucracy has traditionally been dominated by the higher castes, particularly Brahmins, as they were traditionally more focused on learning and rituals.
The castes currently counted among Scheduled castes were often banned from learning to read and write and were relegated to jobs that others found too hard or distasteful to do, such as farming and leather works.
Indian bureaucracy is recruited through a series of grueling and high academic exams that require months, if not years of preparation. The method, which emphasizes academic ability over practical experience and ability, has been criticised for creating generations of ‘generalist’ civil servants who are good with words, but not always with execution.
The condition of Scheduled Castes is considered poorer than that of Scheduled Tribes as the latter primarily remained outside the main society while the former formed an integral part of the caste system, often termed as a exploitative for its heredity-based allocation of occupation.
In contrast, however, nearly all the major states in India have seen a political resurgence of lower caste groups. India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh is ruled by Dalit leader Mayawati, while neighbouring Bihar is led by Kurmi (a “middle caste”) leader Nitish Kumar.
According to the government numbers, the representation of Scheduled Castes is better at lower levels of the bureaucracy. At the levels of Joint Secretary and Directors — two steps below ‘Secretaries’ — their representation is 6.5% and 2.9% respectively.
Scheduled Caste members make up 16% of India’s population.