Creamy Layer, The

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Creamy Layer, The


The affirmative action program in India (the reservation, or quota, system) has shown substantial redistributive effects, in that access to education and jobs is spread wider in the spectrum of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs) than it had been previously. This redistribution is not spread evenly throughout the beneficiary groups, however. There is evidence of clustering, and the benefits of the program appear to be confined to a narrow, privileged section of the SCs and STs. This elite section is referred to, in popular discourse, as the creamy layer. The existence of this layer is one of the arguments used to oppose the affirmative action program. However, this tendency toward clustering is not unique to this program, and it probably reflects structural factors, for the better-off sections enjoy a disproportionate share of benefits in every government program in India.

One of the critiques of the reservation system argues that the vast majority of Dalits are rural and poor. Dalit, literally the oppressed, is a term of pride referring to the SCs and STs, the latter a product of official terminology. Because the reservation of jobs and seats in institutions of higher education is meaningful mainly in urban areas, the benefits are cornered by the creamy layer, leaving the vast majority of Dalits untouched. However, even the limited reservation of jobs has brought a many-fold increase in the number of families liberated from subservient roles. In addition, the reservation of jobs, even if confined to urban areas, offers a potential avenue of employment that even rural Dalits can aspire to.

One of the concerns about the quota system is that, in the short run, beneficiaries might get singled out and experience social rejection in offices, college hostels, and other places where they are introduced through affirmative action. (There is no explicit affirmative action in college hostels, however, and affirmative action in colleges leads to the entry of SC/ST students into college hostels.) In the long run, however, education and jobs weaken the stigmatizing association of Dalits with ignorance and incompetence. Thus, the existence of the creamy layer can perhaps play a positive role, for successful members of the Dalit community demonstrate that, when given equal opportunity over a few generations, they can be just as successful as non-Dalits and are not intrinsically inferior.

The existence of the creamy layer or the Dalit middle class has kept the beneficiary groups and their problems visible to the educated public. Thus, it is no longer possible for any political party to publicly oppose affirmative action. However, given the pro-upper-caste and anti-affirmative-action bias of the political and social elite, this has not translated into motivated widespread concern for the inclusion of Dalits beyond what is mandated by government policy.

One of the objectives of the affirmative action program is to achieve upward social mobility of the Dalits. However, while this mobility is limited and ought to be viewed positively, it is pejoratively described as a creamy layer within the Dalit community. Concerns about intragroup inequality are not invalid, but estimates indicate that intragroup inequality is much more significant among the non-Dalits than among the Dalits. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, if groups need to worry about their own creamy layer, the concern should be far greater for the non-Dalits than for the Dalits.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Caste; Dalits


Deshpande, Ashwini. 2004. Decomposing Inequality: Significance of Caste. In The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice, ed. Bibek Debroy and D. Shyam Babu, 3352. New Delhi: Globus Books.

Galanter, Marc. 1984. Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ashwini Deshpande