Social Groups and Class Divides

In India, there is a difference between political and economic debates around inequality. In politics, the debate is often in the context of social groups which have historically been poorer off as compared to the rest of the society – dalits and tribals for example, and from the early 90s, Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In economics, the debate is framed more in terms of income groups – those above and below different levels of income. How can we bring these two different categories (social groups on the one hand, and class on the other) together?

The chart below shows how households of a social group, say dalits, are distributed across ten different levels of consumption expenditure (a proxy for income), from poorest to richest (left to right), in a state as of 2010. Within each state and social group, I’ve further split the population into rural and urban (use the drop-down box at the bottom of the chart to switch). Hover your mouse over any one of the groups in a state to display a popup with more detail. So, for instance we note that around 18% of tribal households in rural India as a whole are concentrated in the lowest consumption group. The other charts in the same row give the comparable numbers for dalit (13%), OBC (10%) and ‘other’ households (5%).

(Use the drop down box to switch between rural and urban areas. Hover your mouse over a cell to see the data in more detail and for a comparison of rural and urban areas. Cells without data in them indicate that group is too small – 5% or below of the overall population to be included)

There are many interesting bits of information here. For rural India as a whole, dalit and tribal households are concentrated in lower consumption groups (as we would expect). OBC households are much more evenly divided across all consumption groups. In general, inequalities are sharper in urban areas. And note the shape of the graph of the ‘other’ category – in almost all cases it is upward, showing that a disproportionate chunk of that population is concentrated in the upper consumption groups.

But patterns across individual states are more interesting. In some of the richer states such as Punjab and Haryana, inequalities are sharply pronounced in the case of dalit households– more so than in other states. In Delhi, and in urban areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka, we can see a pronounced concentration of dalits in the middle groups. Ditto for rural Gujarat. In urban Tamil Nadu, a larger chunk of the ‘other’ group is concentrated in the ‘richest’ consumption bracket, as compared with the national average. Note the difference in the shape of the graphs of the tribal households in rural areas of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.

But so what? It’s quite tempting to draw conclusions about politics from this. So we could argue for instance, that the sharper inequalities in the dalit population of rural Punjab and Haryana, as compared to say, UP, is because of the much more visible role of the dalit movement in politics in the latter. This is interesting to do but beyond a point it’s pure speculation and it’s not true in all cases.


If a cell or graphic is blank, it means that particular group is too small to be included (5% or below of the relevant population).

How are these graphs constructed? We start by taking the entire set of rural/urban households in a state (dalits, tribals etc) and putting them in one common bucket. We then split this population up into ten equally sized groups, according to consumption expenditure, and within each group, count the number of dalit households, tribal households, OBCs etc. Each bar in each graph then represents the share of that social group in a state in that consumption bracket.

It’s important to note that these inequalities are relative to a state. So an OBC or dalit in the lowest income group in Punjab for instance, may still be better off in absolute terms, than a dalit in the same income group in Rajasthan.

One caveat about the ‘other’ category. It also includes a large chunk of Muslim households, which historically has been poorer off than the rest of the population. So we must be careful about concluding that all the population in the ‘other’ category is more privileged than other social groups.

The data are from National Sample Survey data on consumption across social groups (NSSO report 544 for 2009-10, Tables 2R and 2U).

Graphs made using D3.

December 2, 2013

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