Dispatch #46: The Great Indian Rooster Coop

In this dispatch we will look at the empirical research on social upward and inter generational mobility in India

Balram Halwai, the main protagonist of The White Tiger describes his life as ‘darkness’ while writing to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. 

By darkness he meant a life marked by the trepidation of belonging to a lower caste and poor household from an obscure village in North India. He goes on to compare his life with that of a chicken in a rooster coop, trapped and accepting the fate of being slaughtered. He uses the coop metaphor to describe the lives of people like him who serve at the will of their masters, unquestioningly. 

All he wanted was to break free from the shackles and do well in life.

A similar sentiment is being shared by Karam Hussain, one of the characters in Katherine Boo’s book Behind The Beautiful Forevers, who said-‘Everybody in Annawadi talks like this- oh, I will make my child a doctor, a lawyer, and he will make us rich. It’s vanity, nothing more. Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself, ‘What a navigator I am!’ And then the wind blows you east’.

At the heart of their predicament is the accident of birth that decides the fate of several million Indians. The fact that they have not been able to climb the social mobility ladder because of the occupations and educational attainment of their parents,has led to what is regarded as the inter-generational mobility crisis in India.

In simple terms, social mobility is defined as the movement of individuals and groups from one socio-economic position to another. Similarly, inter-generational mobility is defined as the changes in the socio-economic status of individuals and groups when compared to their parents or grandparents.

In this dispatch we will look at some recent empirical studies on inter-generational mobility or the lack thereof in India among historically disadvantaged social groups.  

Most of these studies rightly focus on the educational and the occupational mobility of the offspring when compared to their parents.

In a recent study, researchers Anustup Kundu and Kunal Sen have examined the multi-generational mobility in India that covers not only fathers but also the grandfathers. They claim that in India educational mobility has increased while ‘there is little difference in occupational mobility between the son–father and father–grandfather pairs occupational mobility’.

They further add:

Further, the findings by social groups suggest a murky picture of social mobility in India. We find that multi-generational mobility for Muslims in education and occupation has decreased in comparison to that of Hindus. While we find that multi-generational mobility for SC/ST and OBC in education has increased relative to General Castes, we do not find evidence of increased occupational mobility over the three generations for SC/ST/OBC relative to General Castes. Given the roll-out of affirmative action programmes in India since independence for the SC and ST, and for OBC since the early 1990s, the lack of progress on occupational mobility for these socially disadvantaged groups is a matter of policy concern, especially given the high prevalence of poverty among the SC and ST in particular. Finally, we find that the role of location is equivocal, with more occupational mobility seen for urban residents compared to rural residents over three generations, but less mobility when it comes to education.

-Anustup Kundu and Kunal Sen

The charts below show the empirical evidence by Kundu and Sen.

Here Gen 1 is the grandfather, Gen 2 is the father and Gen 3 is the son.

As can be seen in the chart, the educational mobility has increased as we move from Gen 1 to Gen 3 since the darker regions, depicting increase in the  years of education attainment.


When we look at this chart of occupational mobility, it clearly shows that it has not increased commensurate with educational mobility. In fact some of the darker regions (meaning more occupational attainment) in the western parts of India have lost occupational mobility in Gen 3.

These findings have been corroborated by this excellent Mint analysis of social mobility using the NFHS-4 data.

The same essay has caste-wise wealth distribution analysis which basically says that nearly 50% individuals belonging to the General category are affluent when compared to Muslims, STs and SCs.

In 2009, Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell did a social experiment. They sent dummy resumes to the job postings that were advertised in newspapers. For each such posting they sent 3 dummy resumes, each belonging to names with upper caste, lower caste and Muslim surnames. They found that the candidates with Muslim and lower caste surnames had lower chances of being selected for those posts. 

As described earlier, inter-generational mobility determines the social status of individuals vis-à-vis their parents. Economists Paul Novosad, Sam Asher and Charlie Rafkin in their study have used educational outcomes as a proxy to inter-generational mobility. They have found that in 20 years the inter-generational mobility of SCs and STs have increased but this increase has been offset by declining inter-generational mobility among Muslims. In their analysis the authors have shown that lesser sons in Muslim groups are completing their primary and high school studies. This essentially means that fewer Muslim sons are able to break free from the social and economic status of their parents.

Novosad et al conclude:

Upward mobility has not changed much from the 1950s birth cohorts to the 1980s birth cohorts. Men born into families at the bottom of the distribution are just as likely to stay at the bottom of the distribution today as they were in the 1950s. Upward mobility has risen substantially for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Upward mobility has fallen substantially for Muslims. Upward mobility has remained high for the rest of the population (Forward Castes, Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and others). Muslims are now the least upwardly mobile group in India.There is substantial geographic variation in upward mobility. The paper examines these geographic patterns and their correlates.

-Novosad and others

We often read in newspapers that a son or a daughter of working-class parents cracked the most difficult entrance exam for a professional course. We tend to think that finally the Indian society, by and large, is on its way to upward social mobility. But are these stories a reflection of the overall occupational mobility of Indians or are these just anecdotes?

Looks like those are more than anecdotes but less of a pan-India phenomenon.

The overall occupational mobility or ‘ascents’ in India is very low. This essentially means that the status of an individual in Indian society heavily depends upon the occupation of her/his parents. Duke University professor Anirudh Krishna and others have analysed the IHDS data to conclude that the chance of a laborer's son to remain in labor rather than become a professional or a clerk is high in India. They have devised an ‘odds ratio’. An odds ratio is the chance of an individual originating in Occupation A being found in Occupation A rather than Occupation B relative to the chance of an individual originating in Occupation B being found in Occupation A rather than Occupation B. The higher the odds ratio is above one, the more unequal are the relative chances, and the stronger is the association between the occupation of origin and of destination.

For example, the odds ratio for laborers versus professionals in India is 55. This basically means that the odds of a laborer’s son (Occupation A) remaining a laborer (Occupation A) than becoming a professional (Occupation B) is 55 times than the professional’s son (Occupation B) becoming a laborer (Occupation A). The chance of a laborer’s son becoming a clerk is slightly better at an odds ratio of 38.

Krishna and others found that social mobility across social groups shows massive disparities.

We find that among forward castes, 7.1% of laborers’ sons become professionals, and 43.1% of laborers’ sons remain laborers. In contrast, among Other Backward Classes (OBCs), 5.1% of laborers’ sons become professionals, while 52.6% of laborers’ sons remain laborers. Among SCs, however, only 3.3% of laborers’ sons become professionals, while a staggering 68.4% of laborers’ sons remain laborers. Similarly, among STs, only 2.5% of laborers’ sons become professionals, while 67.5% of laborers’ sons remain laborers. Significant barriers to social and occupational mobility still persist in India’s most disadvantaged social groups in spite of long-standing affirmative action programmes and intense political mobilisation of these groups since independence.

-Anirudh Krishna and others


In this outstanding paper titled ‘Wealth inequality, class and caste in India, 1951-2012’, Nitin Bharti has argued that a vast proportion of wealth, in the high income deciles (top 10%,top 5% and top 1%) has been concentrated within the upper castes and their share of assets is far more than that of SCs, STs, Muslims and OBCs. 

The chart below shows the heterogeneous nature of the wealth distribution across several social groups.

Bharti, however, argues that in the low income deciles (bottom 10% and bottom 50%) the assets share of the upper castes is way lower than the OBCs, SCs, STs and Muslims, thus indicating that the upper castes is not a monolith bloc and the poorer ones have less wealth than other social groups. It is this section of the upper caste communities who have been demanding OBC reservations in government jobs.

The inequality within FC has increased and it is potentially one of the reasons behind uneasiness among certain Forward caste groups in the country and their demand for OBC status- which helps them to gain access to reservation benefits (positive affirmation). “Jat” an agrarian community from North India, are demanding the OBC status in Central Government list of OBC Patidar (people with well known surnames Patel) group in 2015, started agitation for similar demand which became the central issue in 2017 state’s election. These caste groups are not considered socially backward and highly likely to have better economic outcomes. The surprising demand for OBC from these communities can be rationalized through the close threshold of ownership and a sense of competition for scarce resources.

-Nitin Bharti

A similar trend can be observed in the consumption share across all social groups. Hence in high income deciles the upper castes have more share in total consumption than OBCs, SCs, STs and Muslims. While in low income deciles the upper castes are worse off.

There are several ways by which the social mobility of disadvantaged groups gets suppressed. Spatial segregation, discrimination in jobs and stopping intercaste marriages

The recent Pew survey says that 62% Indian men and 64% Indian women think that it is very important to stop inter caste marriages.

In one of the scenes from the movie Super 30, Hrithik Roshan who plays the character of Anand Kumar, while giving a pep talk to his students says, ‘Aaj raja ka beta raja nahi banega. Raja wahi banega jo haqdar hoga’. In the movie Gullyboy, Murad, played by Ranveer Singh, hangs his head down in despair when his uncle says, ‘naukar ka beta naukar banega, ye fitrat hai’.

We all know what the Super 30 students and Murad did next.

The upward social mobility process is no more an exclusive project reserved only for the privileged and well-heeled. Anyone with the right opportunity can climb up the mobility ladder. This is precisely the theme of Lamba and Subramanian’s paper. The economic growth of three decades has also coincided with the growing cleavages between the groups that were socially and economically weak. The economic growth, affirmative action and the rise of regional caste-based parties have given heft to the issues of the SCs, STs and religious minorities, but there is a long way to go. The upward social mobility and the tools to climb up the mobility ladder are still missing and elusive for millions of Indians, even though some progress has been made in the past three decades.

Lamba and Subramanian have used the data from the 4 rounds of NFHS, to analyse the average years of schooling across social and religious groups in India. The data shows that while the average years of education for the upper-caste Hindus are converging with the OECD average, the SC, ST and Muslims have yet to catch up. The average years of education for SCs, STs and Muslims are below than the national average.

Education is the first step towards upward mobility. And this has been a consistent theme in all the academic work on India’s social mobility problem. But in addition to education attainment and achieving better learning outcomes, what is equally important and urgent is to ensure that individuals from the disadvantaged social groups get access to opportunities. 

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