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The People of India, Social Issues

Harijans, Urban workers, presidents of India, northern provinces, Muslim leaders

Social problems in India center on the connected issues of poverty and inequality. Particularly in rural areas lower castes and marginal social groups, such as tribal people and Muslims, are generally poor. India’s poor face disease, scarce educational opportunities, and often physical abuse by those who control their livelihood. It is difficult or impossible for the poor to escape and enter the modernizing sector of society, where discrimination on the basis of caste or community is less prevalent. In all classes and in urban as well as rural areas, discrimination and at times violence against women is almost taken for granted.

Poverty has been reduced in India since independence, although in 1994, 35.04 percent of the population still lived below the poverty line. Industrialization has created jobs in the cities, and rural workers have been able to diversify their sources of income. Urban workers at entry level, however, are usually forced to live in appalling conditions in slums.

Modern water supply and sanitation arrangements are rare in the poor areas of most towns and cities and are lacking entirely in most villages. As a result, many Indians suffer and even die from diarrhea, malaria, typhoid, and cholera. India has succeeded in eradicating smallpox and has brought down the overall death rate, in significant part by investing in a health-care system that includes hospitals, clinics, and drug manufacture and distribution. By the mid-1990s acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) emerged as a serious problem. To combat the disease, the Indian government, with help from volunteer groups, established a vigorous AIDS-awareness program.

Part of the problem of disease and poverty in villages is that poor people cannot afford the money and time it takes to provide treatment for their children, many of whom are already weakened by an inadequate diet. Girls of all classes are given less medical care than their brothers and so die in greater numbers. Many parents prefer sons, who remain with them and provide security for them in old age. Because daughters often require a dowry at marriage and are unlikely to earn an income that could raise a family’s economic position, they are seen as a liability. By the mid-1990s, the spread of family planning facilities and the increase in confidence that children would survive to adulthood helped reduce the preferred family size to just three children: two sons and a daughter. Second- and third-born daughters, especially in families without sons, continue to die at rates greater than average.

Discrimination against women does not end with childhood, nor is it confined to the countryside. Although India has had a woman as prime minister, the percentage of women serving in political or administrative office still remains very low. Some women are major leaders of grassroots movements, and women play an active role in India’s vigorous press. Yet women are rare in senior business positions and in the legal and medical professions. Women’s movements to combat violence against women have had considerable success in raising awareness of the issue and stimulating government action.

Discrimination against lower caste members, including the Harijans or former Untouchables, is still a problem in India. As a result violence between castes sometimes breaks out. Since independence, many lower caste groups have mobilized politically and have achieved positions of power or leverage in several states. More than 50 percent of the positions in the national civil service were reserved for members of lower castes by the mid-1990s. Efforts to organize the landless and the homeless, however, have not enjoyed the same success. In rural areas, men of lower caste traditionally serve those of higher caste. This situation has aggravated caste conflict and has helped to keep the poor politically and socially weak.

Relations between Hindus and Muslims have also been problematic. After the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, Muslims of the northern provinces who stayed in India—where they were a minority—became vulnerable. Riots between Hindus and Muslims have occurred on occasion since the mid-1960s. Muslims in rural areas remain largely untouched by the conflict. Riots tend not to occur in areas where there are structures of mutual social or economic advantage—for example, in towns with a large industry owned by Hindus and employing Muslims. Also, at the personal level, there are many examples of friendships and mutual respect. Muslim leaders have served as presidents of India, and Muslims have held positions of great prominence in all fields, including the military.

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