Urban Disparities: How Caste Shapes Cities

Built environments reflect the social order and dynamic ideals that society has. Cities and neighborhoods are cultural relics that have been shaped by diverse communities. Some voices are more prominent than others. Indian cities have seen rapid urbanization over the past decade. Spatial inequality is what keeps cities from becoming utopian hubs for growth. Caste systems can help you understand the residential segregation that has shaped the Indian cities. However, the issue is often interconnected. The country’s social landscape is also shaped by forces that are rooted in religion, class, and gender.

Caste in India is a social hierarchy that is based on hereditary occupation. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (warriors) were the main categories of early society. The Dalits are at the bottom of the hierarchy. They were previously deemed “untouchable” for their “unclean” work such as cleaning toilets or handling leather. Based on their religion and views of purity or pollution, Shudras and the Dalits were designated “lower castes”, while the rest were referred to as “upper castes”.

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Caste has had an impact on the near-perfect segregation residential spaces in rural India. Settlements reflect the hierarchical order of caste groups in society. The spread of so-called lower and upper castes in society was historically due to occupational proximity, kinship ties and religious beliefs. Priests lived in areas around a central temple. The village’s core was also home to other “upper” castes. They were surrounded by laborer and artisans castes, while the “untouchable” Dalits were confined to the fringes of the village. The temple and religious activities were farthest away from Dalits. This social stratification eventually led to discriminatory practices, inequal access for public infrastructure.

Rural Indian homes have a unique feature: the toilet is located farthest from the house, and separate from the house. Toilets were considered “polluted” and were placed at the lowest level of a spatial caste’ system. Separate access would be granted to “untouchable” sanitation workers who could clean and empty the toilets. These workers were also not allowed to enter “upper caste” households. Dr. Raes Muhammed is the founder and researcher of Dalit Camera. He believes that such’social permits” into places like toilets or temples is what causes caste oppression. In conversation with ArchDaily, he mentioned that “not only people but also spaces are delineated as pure and polluted”.

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B.R. Ambedkar- a Dalit social reformer and the author of India’s Constitution-believed that the migration of marginalized castes to urban areas would help them escape discrimination and even caste identity. This expectation is moderately fulfilled today by cities. Even the most populated metropolitan areas have high levels of residential segregation based on caste. The extent of division is the same regardless of the size of the city.

Urbanization has led to castes being divided between elite enclaves or slums. One state has a housing society that is exclusively for Brahmins. Others have poorly maintained Dalit ghettos. Residential segregation crosses spatial scales. Neighborhoods are also subject to intense sub-grouping, even if they are at the city level. This division is also evident within the hierarchy of “polluting occupations”, in “lower” caste communities.An Indian rural priest settlement. Image courtesy of Sekharipuram Agraharam

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Casteist practices have made their way into cities. Separate access, elevators and toilets for Dalits are still a common feature in residential areas. Usually, live-in domestic workers are housed in “servants’ quarters” within bungalow communities. Visitors stay in nearby ghettos and slums. The 1990s saw the rise of ‘apartmentization’ in urban settings. Domestic workers now have a small bedroom, a toilet and a place to sleep in the corner. Separate entryways are often maintained whenever possible.

While urbanization has helped to eliminate some discrimination, the institution of caste in urban India is still very much alive. Complex reasons exist for caste-based segregation. Vidyasagar Sharma (a researcher on belonging in India) says that caste is a lens through the which one can see residential segregation. There are many lenses.Castes were separated based on occupational proximity. Image by Steve Evans, CC BY -NC 2.0 license

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Considering that stratification in villages is tied to occupation, it was suggested that cities could offer anonymity and job opportunities that would erase prejudice. Individuals’ social identities are not visible. Their surname, their locality, and their occupation are all indicators of who they are. Urban migrants should be able drop their “caste baggage”, at least in theory, when they arrive at cities. This is difficult because caste is a systemic and rigid structure. Urban segregation is perpetuated by caste-influenced issues like economic inequality and property relationships. Renters are also subject to discrimination by marginalized groups.”Upper” castes remained away from “polluted spaces and acitivites. Image (c) Meena Kadri under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

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Dr. Muhammed says that “Caste doesn’t have any meaning without discriminatory spaces.” The researcher felt included and welcomed during his international travels. He didn’t need to feel the burden of his identity. Accessibility and fair usage of public space are key factors in the promotion of belonging among the marginalized. Spatial identity is a fundamental aspect of human life. It must play an integral role in the creation of urban space.

It is difficult to democratically transform a city. This challenge faces all countries around the globe. Social structures that are inflexible will continue to dominate the urban environment. These systems must be destroyed before policies for change can mould the built environment. Only the collective mind of its citizens can make a city.