It’s June, that time of the year when companies organise events to mark Pride Month, encourage employees to take part in a Pride March or incorporate the rainbow flag, symbolic of the LGBTQI+ community, into their branding. Pride Month might have started in the US to commemorate protests between the LGBTQI+ community and the police in Manhattan in June 1969 but, over time, more companies in India too are using it as an occasion to express support for the LGBTQI+ community and highlight their work in diversity, as is the case when March 8, International Women’s Day, rolls around and the conversation shifts to women’s representation and rights. However, a similar momentum seems to be missing in India Inc when it comes to expressing support for marginalised castes, or even having conversations around this, as experts in diversity and inclusion point out.
In India, diversity programmes tend to focus on gender, creating inclusive workplaces for women and coaching and mentoring women, says Kalpana Tatavarti, founder of Parity Consulting, specialising in workplace diversity.
“There is some appetite for programmes on LGBTQI+ inclusion and persons with disabilities. But no corporate has reached out for a session on caste equity or discrimination,” she says. The experience of The Outcast Collective, which helps organisations become more inclusive and mentions caste as a core metric, has been similar, with no client asking for a session on caste, though some have been open to it being part of a larger conversation around allyship. “Conversations around caste are hush-hush in Indian firms—very few even use the terms openly though a lot of them have antiracism policies as that’s what their Western counterparts have done,” says Rujuta S, lawyer and service delivery lead (Prevention of Sexual Harassment), The Outcast Collective.
The reluctance to address caste at the workplace means employees who face caste-based discrimination have nowhere to turn to, says Christina Dhanaraj, an advisor at Smashboard, a digital platform focusing on intersectional feminism. “Employees have no way of escalating incidents of caste discrimination and abuse as most private companies don’t have a redressal process in place. Their codes of conduct don’t mention caste, there is no advisory committee to handle complaints of this nature, and there are no guidelines on prevention of castebased harassment.”
The silence around caste in corporates came to the fore most recently when Google cancelled a presentation on caste in April, to mark Dalit History Month, by Equality Labs executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan, following a series of emails by some employees accusing her of being “anti-Hindu” and “Hinduphobic”.
(Soundararajan did not respond to ET’s request for comments.) In the wake of this, a senior manager, Tanjua Gupta, quit, saying in her resignation letter that “Google is woefully and wilfully ill-equipped to deal with matters of caste discrimination”. In her experience in India, Dhanaraj, who is now based in New York, has found that there is some willingness among a few companies to address caste “but it is nearly not enough”.
“The silence we witness in Indian corporates is primarily because of upper castes silencing this conversation, regardless of whether it’s initiated in the boardroom, within DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and HR teams, or at large gatherings,” says Dhanaraj, who has written about how Dalit women are left behind in corporate India.
There is also little comprehensive, upto-date data about the employment of SCs and STs in the private sector, which could be a starting point to increasing workforce diversity. There is a resistance among companies when it comes to transparency on the caste diversity of its workforce, says Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, who has done extensive research on the representation of marginalised minorities in India. He doesn’t blame them entirely because the caste of employees is not captured during hiring. But by having transparency, remedial measures can be taken, says Thorat, citing the example of Northern Ireland, where companies have to maintain a database of the number of minority Catholics employed, with the equal employment opportunities office sending letters if the numbers are not representative of their share of the population.
What data there is indicates a lack of diversity. A recent study, “Caste & Labour Market”, co-authored by Thorat, found that among regular salaried employees in the private sector, discrimination in terms of wages and employment is more in the higher ranks. Tthe study, published in the Economic & Political Weekly, found that in 2017-18, SC workers’ share in middle- and low-level occupations was high (70.56%) compared with higher castes or HC (47.23%) while the SC share in occupations such as managers and senior officials was low (29.43%) compared with HC (52.77%).
Another recent study, “Diversity in Corporate Boards and Outcomes”, which examined the composition of Indian corporate boards from 1999 to 2016, found that “they strikingly lack religion and caste diversity”. “We find that lack of diversity is prevalent and
whether you measure directors’ identity in terms of religion, varna, or the most granular level of identity, ie., jati,” says co-author Manaswini Bhalla, chairperson, economics and social science area, IIM-Bangalore. The study says 85% of last names of board members were associated with up to five castes. “The lack of diversity on boards negatively impacts a range of firm value and performance measures,” says Bhalla.
HOW FIRM IS AFFIRMATIVE?
In 2007, the private sector, which has been resisting reservation, finally agreed, at the persuasion of former PM Manmohan Singh, to have a policy on affirmation which would be self-regulated.
This included an affirmative action agenda divided into employability, education, entrepreneurship and employment and an annual meeting between the PM and industry chambers to apprise the former of the progress. “But after 2014, not a single meeting was held till 2019,” says Thorat. CII confirms that a meeting was held in 2019 with the PMO and then the pandemic intervened. “From CII’s perspective, we have been working on affirmative action since 2006 and have a number of vehicles to carry out the agenda,” says Sougata Roy Choudhury, executive director, CII. In 2021-22, CII says, under the affirmative action programme, over 1.7 lakh scholarships were disbursed, 3.6 lakh people were trained in vocational education and 1.9 lakh from SC and ST communities were employed by its members.
While there has been some progress on affirmative action, Thorat says there needs to be more. “Private companies are content to be on the periphery, with scholarships and job training. Beyond that, they are not willing to cede space in a substantial way.” Says Rutuja, “Organisations want to create the image that they seek meritorious candidates and are caste-blind or caste-agnostic. But that’s placing everyone on an equal footing when there is no equal footing.”
What helped break the silence around gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights at the workplace was a combination of legislation and pressure from global counterparts, say diversity experts. “Many firms have headquarters in the West and the push for greater diversi