Affirmative Action policies have been at the centre of debates on social justice for many decades. In India, within the broader debate surrounding affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes, an especially contentious issue has been that of the sub-division of the Scheduled Castes into smaller groupings for targeted transfers. In 2007, the Government of Bihar identified a sub-group of Scheduled Castes as especially disadvantaged: the 'Mahadalits'. For instance, the literacy rates of the Musahars, one of the largest castes within the Mahadalits, were 9% as per the 2001 census, while the average for Scheduled Castes in the state was 28.5%.
The 2001 census identified 92.5% of Musahar workers as landless agricultural labourers, who are often dependent on their employers for housing. A significant agenda in the Government’s targeted policies to uplift the Mahadalits of Bihar has been to attack the problem of their widespread landlessness. While the link between rural landlessness and poverty has been well recognized by policy-makers in India, there has been little political appetite for large-scale land redistribution. In this context, the Mahadalit Awas Bhoomi Yojana, that has sought to provide titles to small plots of land (up to 3 decimals in area) to Mahadalits in Bihar, may be a more politically feasible and financially affordable way to provide some access to land to India’s most impoverished citizens. A growing academic literature also suggests substantial impacts of transfers of such micro-plots of land, including improved social status of the beneficiaries. To the best of our knowledge, Bihar is the only Indian state where there is on-going affirmative action targeted at a sub-group of castes within the Scheduled Castes.
The Mahadalit initiatives in Bihar provide us with a unique opportunity to examine how the transfer of assets to ultra-poor households influences their sense of well-being and their notions of identity. While such transfers occur under other programmes as well, we do not typically have detailed information on the specific castes (jatis) that are receiving these transfers and cannot therefore link the benefits to the position of the group in the social hierarchy. Our study comprises two components. The first documents the heterogeneity within the Scheduled Castes and thereby comments on how much of this heterogeneity exists within the sub-group of the Mahadalits, and how much between the Mahadalit group and the remaining Scheduled Castes. The Census of India from 1961 onwards contains data on educational attainment as well as the occupational distribution for each individual Scheduled Caste. This enables us to create district-wise measures of the socioeconomic status of each caste. The second component of our study uses primary data from a field survey of villages in Bihar, to assess various government programmes of transfers to the Mahadalits. We investigate the efficacy of their targeting in the context of our information on social disadvantage from secondary sources, and study the welfare impacts of these programmes.