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Missing Entitlements in Modern India: Relevance of Ambedkar’s Economic Thoughts and Ideas

Missing Entitlements in Modern India: Relevance of Ambedkar’s Economic Thoughts and Ideas

Arun P


Arun P

Arun PIn the context of the modern century, the most vital currency for dignified livelihood and proper well-being is nothing but entitlements and rights. Basically, the term ‘entitlements’ refers to the guaranteeing access to rights which is granted and protected by law in a democratic state, where an individual avails it through the legal channels established by a state. However, the epistemology of the Indian society is engulfed by graded inequality i.e., Caste System which pulverizes the universal traditions of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. In such a hierarchized landscape, established entitlements and rights are losing their gleam, while they should be functioning to emancipate oppressed individuals from centuries old social tyranny. In such a context, the dilemma of entitlements is quite visible and importance of Ambedkar’s economic theory becomes quite relevant to understand and resolve this malady. This paper is an attempt to revisit Ambedkar’s economic theory to understand the ‘missing entitlements’ in contemporary India,  since, caste consciousness is the principal malaise which is hindering individuals to attain entitlements. This paper will reflect his ideas on three elements where entitlements are missing, they are land, labour, and education.

Generally, the trajectory of individual and societal development is measured in terms of the degree of welfare being served. The term welfare is equivocal in social sciences with varied understanding. Historically, the economists had been evaluating it in terms of material and utility served up to all individuals within an economic system. The major flaw of such an evaluation was that it failed to measure economic policies in terms of their effects on the well-being of the community. However, in welfare economics it is measured through the optimal allocation of resources by analyzing constituent elements such as laws, institutions and market as how it affects social welfare. It is essentially a normative aspect of economics.

One of the major contributions in economics was done by Dr. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar. His pioneering views disentangled the economic dimensions of social maladies of caste and untouchability. Moreover, his thoughts on broader issues in the strategy of economic development, social and economic democracy and state socialism are still relevant in contemporary society. He was a harbinger of economic welfare to the downtrodden, the underprivileged, landless labourers, poor small farmers, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Ambedkar’s Economic Ideas and Thoughts: Major Writings I

Ambedkar had left an indelible mark on the Indian society with his wide range of scholarly works in varied disciplinary subjects, along with rigorous political activism and much more. His major source of influence can be traced from the centuries of protest-movements and ideas of social reformers which carved his ideas and thought. He was greatly influenced by Buddhist precepts and works of Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru and Periyar as well as by Western ideologies and majorly by the French Revolution. While studying in the West he came under the influence of western intellectuals like philosopher John Dewey, anthropologist A. A. Goldenweiser, economists Edwin Seligman and Edwin Cannan. Due to such influences he had major intellectual interventions in his thought processes. Along with major writings in the domain of politics and religion, his works in relation to economic thought are quite influential and most relevant in modern India.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Ambedkar penned his economic contributions. His earliest work was The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India (1925) which is very relevant for Centre-State financial relationship in the present context. While the debates in contemporary period is heavily surrounded with centralization and decentralization, in such confusion, his ideas subscribe that administrative polities be independent so as to finance themselves, by their own respective resources. In order to make states viable and strong which could produce strong and effective central government by giving them power and responsibility. Later The Problem of the Rupee (1923) dealt with monetary standards, internal stability and currency management he was committed to the social dimension for alleviating the misery and degradation of the Indian poor. These ideas reflect his constant vision of people’s welfare. Also the paper on Small Holdings in India and Their Remedies (1918) reflects his views on Indian agriculture. Landholding remained a major contestation in the colonial and post-colonial India. His critical examination contended that land is only one of the major factors of production. It is a conglomeration of every factor of production which would contribute and cooperate as the basis for subsistence. In short, he meant that each and every factor is a prerequisite to subsist which could lead to efficient production. In the current dismal state of agriculture in modern India, his views still finds relevance as he argued that agriculture must be treated as an economic enterprise. Further, he suggested solving agriculture problem through collective farming, economic holding of land or equal distribution of land and large scale industrialization. Most importantly he stated a schema that state should be in the charge of state industry and insurance, hence provisions of money, water, seeds and fertilizers be provided by the government. During the making of the constitution in Constituent Assembly 1949, he spoke about ‘public expenditure’. He argued that the state should spend the resources garnered from the public not just blindly following of the written rules, laws and regulations, but it should be concerned about the faithfulness, wisdom and economy of the people in society. His ideas reflect that social welfare which the state would hold should be faithful, wise and original in its intentions to deliver public goods and services. It reflects the normative ideals which could be imparted in economics, which were lacking in economics as it was majorly infused with utilitarian ideals.

His analysis regarding various economic ideas and thoughts reveals historical, empirical and normative elements. We could see that his ideas on rupee, public finance, landholding, caste, untouchability and many more were squeezed out of extensive historical excavations from statistical data and sound empirical investigations. Along with that it also contains normativity for useful policy conclusions and not just with raw economic theorems. His vision for social justice and goal of emancipation of the downtrodden, exploited and oppressed people reflects in his economic thought. After completing education in the west and reaching India, his engagement with protest movements and activism made him disentangle the religious dogmas and deeply entrenched economical system of preordained servitude (untouchability) and hierarchical social organization (caste system). In the second quarter of the twentieth century, his writing reflect major ideas and thoughts which are discussed in the following section, since his ideas and thoughts are much beyond the above mentioned writings, rather it contains a bold attack on centuries old Brahmanism.

Ambedkar’s Economic Ideas and Thoughts: Major Writings II

The caste consciousness is the principal malaise which is hindering individuals to attain entitlements in modern India. Ambedkar being influenced by enlightened principles, gave severe criticism on the centuries old unjust social institution i.e “caste system”, which attacks individual liberties and human equality. In fact, he was one of the first to analyze economic dimensions of caste system and untouchability. Though, India got liberated from colonial rule and attained its swaraj for governance. However, such political freedom, does not seem viable until and unless the need for social and economic reforms are accomplished in independent India. In other words, economic and social freedom will be a driving force for the society to attain political equality. He stated it on November 25, 1949 in the Constituent Assembly that “we are going to enter into a life of contradictions in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality”. These words reflect his larger canvas of Indian society, which was divided hierarchically and ingrained with inequality.

The terrain of Indian society dwells on the caste system which follows preordained rules which are still prevalent in modern India. Such a brahmanical Hindu society based on ‘chaturvarnya’ which classifies society into four graded classes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra). It contains fixed and permanent official gradation which resulted in graded inequality for centuries which is still existent in modern India. It is quite a unique system with ascending tendency in pyramidic structural institution which is the worst outcome of this structural order. The origins of this social organization and economic disabilities of dalits lies in ritual scriptures and religious beliefs, especially in laws of Manusmriti. It is the harbinger and initiator in preventing the non-hindus from any economic competition. Thus, Ambedkar critiqued the defences of caste system as ‘just being division of labour’; in his Annihilation of Caste (1936)he argued that division of labour is not malady, since the division of labour is quite essential for every society. Instead it is ‘division of labourers’ among each other into an unalterable closed static system which divides individuals on the basis of social status and prior engagement to his labour. The outcome of such a static system leads to the cycle of inequality and injustice. Following such ritual protocols, the individual occupation is based on preordained caste system. According to him such draconian institution was the result of religious dogmas in Brahmanism.Therefore, he says an social and economic organization of caste is a harmful institution as it leads to occupational immobility, unemployment, disempowers the lower class, punishment and social boycott in community(if defied the traditional static nature of caste system as Hinduism does not support such repositioning of labour) and most essentially it subordinates individuals’ innate abilities.

Ambedkar further argued that the scriptural norms which perpetuate most degraded forms of practices in any civilized society is nothing but untouchability. He considered untouchability as being worse than slavery. Since, in the latter in order to maintain market value the master responsibly feeds and provides good condition for subsistence, however in the former, the upper castes take no responsibility to maintain or even provide minimal condition for subsistence. Hence, untouchability is even worse and terrible than servitude. In ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables‘ (1946) he argues that untouchability is not just a religious system, it is an economic system which allows uncontrolled and unhindered exploitation without any obligation. Because, under village system the lives of untouchables is closely intertwined with village life which could not be broken. Such economic interdependence leads to poverty and degradation.

Missing Entitlements: Relevance of Ambedkar’s Ideas and Thoughts
Entitlement has become the most often used word in analysis of welfare principle and outcomes in the last four decades and more. It refers to rights, as a just and enforceable claim of access and possession which may be legally compelling. It is not a loose concept, instead it revolves around concepts such as rights and social justice. However, its core idea is about ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ welfare provision and social policy. Ambedkar had been a champion articulator of these two currencies in his writings and speeches. However, it had been employed by welfare economists and most widely used by Amartya Sen. Sen declared that “Ambedkar is my father in economics” as those ideas which are being vigorously articulated by a welfare economist in the later half of the twentieth century had already been articulated by Ambedkar in his period. Entitlements have been defined by Sen as “the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and opportunities that he or she faces”. He uses the term ‘entitlement’ as a legitimate access to resources in any society, in simple terms, it is an entry ticket to resources. It has got two components: firstly,’endowments’ and secondly, ‘exchange entitlements’. They collectively describe the bundle of resources which an individual may require and acquire through legal channels and which an individual may legitimately command. Any failure in this process of entitlements would concomitantly lead to what Sen calls ‘entitlement failure’. His principle idea has been widely applied in famine and starvation, poverty and hunger, chronic malnourishment, distribution of resources and opportunities. The welfare economists though might have developed the concept of entitlement, rights and social justice, however, Ambedkar had anticipated the imperative of rights and social justice long ago. The current entitlement concept which endorses ‘entitlements’ as just and enforceable claim of access and possession which may be legally implemented by the state is the fruit of Ambedkar’s economic ideas and thoughts.

When we look into the condition of modern India in post-independence period, it is still strangulated with ingrained inequalities and caste system which concomitantly leads to condition of ‘missing entitlements’. The presence of discrimination and exclusion in access to social needs provided by governmental or public institutions in fields of housing, health, education, common resources (waterbodies, grazing land etc). Also forced participation of untouchables in certain jobs which is regarded as unclean occupations. The nature of exclusion and discrimination is so comprehensive with multiple elements which involve denial of entitlements and opportunities. It portrays a situation where certain sections of individuals still subsist with missing entitlements. Therefore, the caste consciousness is the principal malaise which is hampering to attain entitlements.

To analyze better in this essay I would discuss three elements where entitlements are missing, they are land, labour, and education.

(i) Land: According to ritual scriptures, shudras must not acquire knowledge, property and hold office under the State. Ambedkar says that it is entirely irrational and not based on personal conduct, instead it is the result of infamy. In modern India there is still a systematic denial of property rights to Dalits. The subordination of Dalits through landlessness encompasses denial of access to land, inability to own land and forced evictions. He placed the state as a harbinger to devise plans for the economic structure of society, to provide equal distribution of wealth and protection to the vulnerable and deprived sections of the society against economic exploitation. In his States and Minorities(1947) he has mentioned protection from denial, unequal treatment and social boycott from basic rights and entitlements:

1. Clause II, Protection against Unequal Treatment: “to be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, educational institutions, privileges of inns, rivers, streams, wells, tanks, roads, paths, streets, public conveyances on land, air and water, theatres and other places of public resort or amusement except for such conditions and limitations applicable alike to all subjects of every race, class, caste, colour or creed.”
2. Clause III, Protection against Social Boycott:”As promoting, instigating, threatening social boycott shall be declared to be an offence.”
3. Clause IV, Protection against Economic Exploitation: “That State shall acquire the subsisting rights in such industries, insurance and agricultural land held by private individuals, whether as owners, tenants or mortgagees and pay them compensation in the form of debenture equal…”

(ii) Labour: Similarly, denial of occupation and labour to dalits is persistent in modern India. Basically, it is an outcome of assigning occupations based neither on individual ability nor on capability, rather based on preordained caste occupation which leads to immobility of labour. The prerequisite condition of division of labour is to adjust in the changing contextual scenario to sustain and protect his livelihood. However, the static nature of caste system does not support such repositioning of his labour. Also, the space of individual autonomy is buried to choose occupational matters, it reflects that question of entitlements is integral and inseparable from the caste system. The brahmanical social order derecognizes equality in sphere of need, work and ability as criteria of rewarding labour. Instead, in the predetermined social order, the highest would get the most and the lowest would get least. The justification for such a system is stated as the economic principle of division of labour. Such division of labourers is still present in economic context of contemporary modern society. The major consequence of caste system is unemployment and further subordination of individuals’ innate abilities. Also, there is constant fear of punishment and social boycott in community if anyone defied to change occupation. Moreover, it leads to occupational immobility operating through restrictions in land, labour, credit and other services integral in any economic activity. Especially, the market discrimination in current society disempowers the individual born in lower class, through the process of exclusion.

It is basically due to its hierarchical nature which circumscribes entitlements to various rights which become further circumscribed as it goes down the ladder within caste system. In all walks of life, castes get interlinked with each other with social process of unequal measure of rights, as those on top of the order enjoy more rights than those at the bottom with meager social and economic rights. In caste-minded society, the mobility of labour is confined within the occupation of their particular caste. Because the individual skills and capability are clearly neglected as consequently it shrinks the mobility of capital, resources and individual capability because the basis of occupation is caste. Therefore, the preordained hierarchical domination only heads towards inefficient production and unequal economic growth. He argued that the caste system not only engulfed the oppressed dalits but also the whole economic system. Since the major part of Indian population was deprived to choose their labor and relentlessly forced to stick on to the unproductive work of their ancestral inheritance which undermines economic efficiency. Such disparity leads to unequal social order with differences in labor entitlements. The existence of such strangulation in modern society is based on strict adherence of social, religious and economic ostracism, boycott and violence is guided by social and religious scriptures to maintain itself. In modern India, the outcome of such adherence is economic exclusion in different spheres such as denial of jobs, capital, sale and purchase or leasing land/commodities/consumer goods. In such a scenario, the lower class remains strangulated with missing entitlements. Therefore, Ambedkar advocated annihilation of caste along with protection rights and entitlements as the only remedy for economic growth and development.

(iii) Education: India’s societal grass sprung upon the seeds of inequalities and injustice of caste system. The religious dogmas of purity and pollution is still prevalent in the sphere of enlightening spaces and distribution of knowledge. In such a scenario, installing an experiment of parliamentary democracy would stumble. It is only through installation of seeds of education to the masses, the centuries of servitude and oppression can be annihilated. Hence, he argued that the process of democracy would be incomplete unless the masses were given education.Though education has become a fundamental right, there still is relentless discrimination and exploitation. In order to protect entitlement to education for the deprived class, Ambedkar in his States and Minorities, Clause I emphasized ‘Provisions for Higher Education’. As the state shall undertake the following special responsibilities for the betterment of the Scheduled Castes. As governments (Union and State) to assume financial responsibility for the Scheduled Castes. In respect to it making adequate provisions in their education budgets. Further, finding money for primary, secondary, college and foreign education of the Scheduled Castes in India shall be the responsibility of the union government.


Ambedkar envisioned an equitable and just society, for that, he placed the state in the position to provide equitable distribution of wealth and welfare. He said in States and Minorities that it is the “obligation on the State to plan the economic life of the people on lines which would lead to highest point of productivity”. Therefore, ensuring entitlements which was being concerned by welfare economists, can be resolved through engaging with Ambedkar’s economic ideas and thought. As he argues that it is the responsibility of the state to provide rights and entitlements in the sphere of agricultural land, education and occupation. He envisioned a form of ‘state socialism’ along with providing access to rights and entitlement, he also argued about protection against socio-economic exploitation. Thus, the State’s intervention in socio-economic life would establish equitable distribution of resources and protection from an unjust and unequal treatment. It would guarantee entitlements to all citizens by securing equality, liberty and fraternity. His ideas seems relevant, as the fundamental basis of securing entitlements. In modern society it would be possible by securing those three cardinal principles which would protect missing entitlements of depressed classes and underprivileged class.Because the ethos of democracy which prescribe principles of liberty, equality and fraternity is in contrast with society based on caste system. Thus, his support to liberty, equality and fraternity is prerequisite in the present context. Liberty included the right to equal opportunity and duty of the state to provide all facilities required for growth to every individual according to his needs. Equality in terms of abolition of privileges of every kind and processes which lead to inequality. Fraternity, all-pervading sense of human brotherhood unifying all classes.

He was concerned with economic inequalities in the country which were due to prevailing inequality and injustice which consequently leads to inaccessibility to rights and missing entitlements. However, he believed that the law will shape and form the economic structure of society which was to protect the liberty of the individuals from invasion by other individuals. Since the parliamentary majority may dismantle through majoritarian dictatorship. Hence, by establishing state socialism by law of constitution, rights and entitlements could be saved from dictatorship. Therefore, the sole aim and objective in enacting fundamental rights for everyone and also seeking protection against exploitation.

In modern India, accessibility to rights is trampled. Although the individual is entitled to fundamental rights, but the epistemology of caste system shuns access to them, which leads to a situation of missing entitlements. Therefore Ambedkar urged that it is essential to link political democracy with economic and social democracy. The political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social or economic democracy. According to him, “Social and economic democracy are the tissues and the fibre of a political democracy”.



 Arun P, I am a MPhil student in Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. I would like to show my gratitude to Prof N Sukumar for discussing Ambedkar’s economic ideas and thoughts. 

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