Exhibition looks at role of low caste and tribal communities

By Sairah Masud

THE curator of a new exhibition in London has hoped for the Indian community to realise a “different side” to the country’s economic success by shedding light on marginalised communities who have helped others thrive and flourish.
Showcasing at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London, Behind The Indian Boom: Inequality and Resistance at the heart of economic growth explores the treatment of Adivasis and Dalits – India’s low caste and tribal communities – against the country’s decades of economic prosperity.

The exhibition was presented to the House of Lords for an evening last week as well as the UN General Secretary making a visit to SOAS to gain an insight into the issues raised.
Dr Alpa Shah, associate professor at London School of Economics, wrote a book on the economic and social hierarchy in contemporary India, but it was the desire to reach out to a wider audience that resulted in the curation of the photo exhibition.
“I didn’t want our work to be read just by academics. (We wanted) to communicate our research to a wider general audience who might not otherwise read our academic writing.
“It is wonderful that many people from the Indian diaspora are seeing and appreciating a different side to the dominant story of India shining – hearing a story that is often silenced – and are being moved by the lives and experiences of the adivasis and dalits
portrayed here.”

Curator, Dr Alpa Shah

Dr Shah travelled to the remote regions of east India where she lived in mud huts of the adivasis – who are widely regarded as “untouchable” and “wild” – for almost five years to gain first-hand experience of the inequality and poverty they have been suffering.
It was here she realised the stark contrast of the growth figures presented by economists to the experiences of such groups.
“I was there at a time when the Indian economy was booming and there was much talk of India shining and the promise that this growth was going to benefit everyone. But this rosy picture was very different to the world I lived in and experienced in the jungles of Jharkhand,” she said.
“I realised that despite what the economists were projecting across the country, adivasis and dalits remained at the bottom of the Indian social and economic hierarchy.”
Having continued to see a rise in its economic growth over the last few years, India is predicted to become one of the two largest economies in the world by mid-century.
Yet Shah asserts that such global capitalism has moulded older social inequalities into new forms of caste-based prejudice.
“Caste-based inequality is not a thing of the past. It is in fact part of the structure of advancements. The success and profit of big business and corporations is based on the exploitation and oppression of the labouring poor and their alienation from the land and the resources around them.
“Many workers have to move to far away parts of the country to work as seasonal migrant labour for a few months every year – in places where they are not even considered proper citizens, can’t speak the local language, have no access to food security for the poor, and so become ever more vulnerable.”
Such communities make up one quarter of the Indian population and account for one in twenty five people in the world. In India 92 per cent of workers are employed informally, even by global blue chip companies, with no social security, job security, or health protection.

DIFFERENT VIEW: The treatment of Adivasis and Dalits is explored in the Behind the Indian Boom

Shah said it is the global community’s “complicity that allows for such exploitation to take place” and has urged consumers to take more responsibility in recognising their plight.
“We may think: ‘Oh, how shocking the plight of these poor people’, but it is because of our actions here as consumers of the goods that dalits produce or as investors in the companies who are taking the land of adivasis away from that they are in this situation.”
A report by Oxfam found that eight people collectively own the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population. Furthermore, India is now home to the world’s fourth-largest inhabitants of billionaires after the US, China and Germany.
While Shah states that “too many vested interests” and a “wilful blindness” to the communities’ struggles are preventing any real change from occurring in the future, she said a global movement in challenging inequality is a step in the right direction.
“(We must) hold businesses, corporations and states to account. We need stronger labour legislation for decent work, protection of land rights, measures to ensure that everyone earns a basic living, attention to treating every human being with respect and dignity.
“We need to create space for the struggles from below – from the people who are exploited, marginalised and oppressed – and try to act on their demands for a better future for everyone.”
Behind The Indian Boom: Inequality and Resistance at the heart of economic growth is on until December 16.