DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This past week, some 10 million people in one of the world largest cities, New Delhi, saw their water taps go dry. Many schools and businesses were closed and the government was forced to truck water into the city. India's capital receives much of its water from a canal which was damaged by rioters. Water is expected to be restored soon, but the underlying cause of all of this is still a major concern. We spoke with NPR's Julie McCarthy in Delhi. She said the reasons behind this crisis, like so many things in India, are complicated.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: This whole thing was tripped by unrest that occurred in the state next-door. Rioters damaged this water canal and cut off the flow, and on top of that, these protesters were torching railroads, they were blocking highways. They cut a broad swath of destruction in Haryana state. Nineteen people were killed. The army was called in. And what they were rampaging over, David, is affirmative action and who's entitled to it. One community, the Jat community, historically farmers, fought these pitched battles in the streets to secure government benefits. They view quotas for government jobs, for example, as the only tangible way to get any kind of influence to better themselves economically because they say, look, we're down on our knees.
GREENE: Well, how exactly do you qualify for affirmative action in India and why do these farmers not qualify at this point?
MCCARTHY: Well, you have to be deemed a socially and educationally disadvantaged group. It's long settled that caste is the greatest determinant of whether you are or not. And under the social hierarchy of the Hindu caste system, the lowest castes, like the Dalits, also known as Untouchables - once known as Untouchables - have for centuries been discriminated against. So the government comes along and says, to overcome this historical injustice we will set affirmative action quotas. And, David, more than 40 percent of India qualifies, but what's fascinating is that you have these more advantaged castes who now want to be treated as disadvantaged.
GREENE: These are people who are saying, we're disadvantaged as well and we deserve to be part of this affirmative action program.
MCCARTHY: Yeah, they want to be classified, as the constitution calls it, as other backwards classes. That's the word - backwards. And that entitles them to benefits to make a more equal society. And this phenomenon is spreading. This isn't the first time this has happened. This is the second time this has happened in the second major group in four months.
GREENE: What does it say about India right now, Julie? I mean, you hear about aspirational India and things improving economically, but it sounds like there are people who, you know, are fighting to be considered disadvantaged. That doesn't sound like a good sign.
MCCARTHY: Well, but ironically, you could also say it is part of aspiration. A guaranteed government job is seen by lower castes as a thing of power, prestige. Resentment is also driving these demands, David - my son, my daughter, lost out because a lower caste student got a quota, a slot in a college, I want that.
These people feel they're not beneficiaries of this rising India story, and they're mad. And it's a huge challenge for India, a caste-conscious country trying to figure out how to be more equitable and not be destabilized in the process.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Julie McCarthy talking to us from New Delhi, which has been a city without water because of unrest in recent days.
Julie, thanks a lot.
MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.