Can social media be the great equalizer in India?

Look inside any college classroom in the United States and you may very well find a student from India. The second most populous country in the world ranks number one in the number of international students in the United States. The most recent study by the International Institute of Education found that India sends nearly 95,000 students to the U.S. to study.

Nearly 95,000 Indians study at U.S. colleges

Nearly 95,000 Indians study at U.S. colleges

In America, the opportunity to pursue a college degree cuts across all boundaries—racial, social, and cultural. Community colleges are open access, allowing anyone who wants to learn to have the opportunity to earn a college degree. Federal financial aid helps put college within reach of the most needy. Historically black colleges and universities offer greater opportunities for African American students.

Despite India’s great strides in technology and innovation, a college education is not a given. The separation between the haves and the have-nots often times comes down to a person’s caste. For Americans, the caste system is complicated and confusing. I personally have quizzed my Indian friends to try and understand the system, but I still can’t fathom why this seemingly outdated classification continues to persist even in these modern times.

The statistics are startling. As recent as 2000, the fifth class known as the Dalits (or “untouchables”) had only 5 percent of its male population as college graduates. For women, the percentage of college graduates was 1.67.

Stories abound about the discrimination Dalits and other lower castes face in schools and in society, but the country’s own Constitution outlaws such treatment and the courts have backed it up.

The caste system still exists in India

The caste system still exists in India

Hope may be on the horizon for social media and technology to become the “great equalizer.” Cell phones are becoming commonplace in India with tens of millions of people from all classes paying hard earned money for the chance to communicate. While Internet use is strongest in the cities, the country’s overall usage continues to grow and the cell phones provide an affordable tool for accessing social media.

Blogger and writer Gadi Amit sees mobile phones (don’t call them cell phones, he says) as the tool that could literally connect the entire world. As he sees it,

“for roughly $100-200B, we could guarantee that all of humanity is connected, accounted for, and enjoying digital life, regardless of gender, race or national origin.”

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By giving everyone a mobile phone, regardless of their caste or their income, Amit believes seven areas would greatly benefit:
• Government
• Social policy
• Emergency
• Medical
• Education
• Commerce
• Global economic recovery

Brahmin community on Orkut

Brahmin community on Orkut

But before you get out your checkbook to buy the world mobile phones, blogger
Gaurav Mishra gives some thoughtful considerations about the caste system inside of social media. Orkut, the top social media site in India and conveniently available on a mobile phone, has a large number of caste-based groups, allowing Indians to perpetuate their caste society and stratification.

I went into my research on India believing that social media could provide the country’s citizens with an opportunity to develop friendships beyond societal boundaries, but it seems that social media will only go so far. It will take each citizen’s own actions online and in-person to truly dissolve the centuries-old system and build a caste-less society. For any company headed to India, romantic notions of their brand crossing caste lines must be tempered with reality. It can be done… just look at the mobile phones… but there is no guarantee.

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5 Responses to Can social media be the great equalizer in India?

  1. Nice job seeing the real potential of social media without being overly optimistic about what it can and cannot do. You address the issue of caste well in this post, not necessarily positing the ideal solution, but rather sharing a point of view that is candid about the challenges but rightly points out the potential of social media to help address some of them in a logical and useful way. You also use links well to support your point of view in this post. (4)

  2. jtitus15 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I approached my post on India with the thought that the use of social media, specifically a mobile phone can improve the lives of rural Indians and in some ways it can. However you raise a great point that the caste system is still very much alive and actually adapted to the online world. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this system as well but you have allowed me to learn a little more. ^JT

  3. Quentin says:

    I wonder if social media can help attract and recruit the needed technical and engineering talent that is slowly shrinking in the U.S. As you point out India has made great strides in technology and innovation and a very high number of Indian students are coming to the U.S. for a college education and yet the need for students with technical degrees continues to drop. With 10 times more college campuses than any other country in the world, the United States easily lends itself to growing the development of innovators and maybe social media networking between the U.S and India can help promote engineering degrees for Indian students.

  4. juliaccartwright says:

    I too found your post very interesting. Social media puts the consumer in control and does not differentiate so the caste system has no role there. Social networks therefore level the playing field in a way that is truly unique to India.

  5. Heather Lovett says:

    I like your suggestions about using mobile phones to penetrate the caste systems. I wonder how likely the people of India would engage people of other castes. As an American the idea of a caste system makes me cringe, but from what I read they seem content for the most part.

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