While exploring India a few years ago I had the opportunity to visit some extremely isolated rural areas throughout the country. There, I encountered what I considered to be an alarming term in regards to the people living in these secluded, economically marginal regions. "Other Backward Classes (OBC's)."
This along with a similar classification "Scheduled Castes and Tribes," is used by the Indian government to denote socially and educationally "backward" — historically disadvantaged peoples, what the British Raj called the "Depressed Classes." In a modern context, these culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse groups are sometimes referred to as the "Untouchables" or Dalits. Additionally, within are many Adivasi groups who make up the ancient pre-Aryan, pre-Hindu inhabitants of the Subcontinent. The combined total of all these peoples make up the lowest parts of Indian society, possibly as much as 40% of the entire population.
This term "backward" to my western ears sounds horribly pejorative but this language is actually enshrined in the Indian Constitution in order to "ensure the social and educational development of the backward classes." It is obligatory for the government to promote the welfare of the Scheduled Tribes and OCB's, as much as 27% of public sector jobs being reserved for them. Be it in the developed or developing world, as is usually the case legislation aimed at leveling the social playing field often falls painfully short.
Generally speaking, urban or rural, poverty across India is appalling. I'm by no means an expert on any of this, all I have to base my opinions are a few months traveling around the country. Nonetheless, in the case of the rural hinterland, it was eye opening to see so many people completely cut off from any semblance of a modern existence. In many of these villages there isn't much more than dust, livestock, and a few trickling water pumps. This is especially bleak considering India's booming economy, sprawling tech industry, growing middle class, and a handful of impressively modern urban centers.
In this country of 1.2 billion people, despite legal protections, for many in the rural underclass any promise of a better life seems a long way off. Is it possible that by classifying these communities as "backwards" it's only further stigmatizes and isolates them? The challenges this fascinating country faces in the 21st Century and beyond are vast.
Here are a few impressions.