The changes are huge. In Bulandshahr district, less than 4 percent of Dalits said that non-Dalits would eat in their households in 1990, but nearly half said that they would today. In 1990, 73 percent of respondents suggested that only Dalits handled dead animals; that fraction in 2007 was one in 20. The proportion of the surveyed Dalit population that said most or all girls in the household went to school in 1990 was 7 percent. In 2007 it had climbed to 57 percent.
Economically, while Dalits are still worse off than other castes, they are considerably less so than they were in 1990. The proportion with a television in Bulandshahr climbed from seven in 1,000 to nearly one-half, and bicycle ownership leaped from around one-third to over four-fifths. Nonetheless, the researchers suggest that the transformation is far too dramatic to be accounted for by income changes alone -- the shift is a cultural one, too. "This is not to suggest," they caution, "that caste has disappeared as a social construct. It is very much alive." Nonetheless, Dalits today are experiencing not just far greater prosperity, but also greater social acceptance.
It isn't just castes in India, of course. You can't explain the increase in female secondary enrollment in low- and middle-income countries from 42 to 50 percent over the past decade, or the halving in the average number of kids a woman has in the developing world from 5.4 to 2.7 between 1970 and today, without talking about rapidly, dramatically shifting values.
For all that culture might have a role in determining relative attitudes and perhaps even relative levels of development, then, it isn't a dead hand blocking all progress. In fact, cultural change appears to be part of a global and historically unprecedented virtuous cycle of improving quality of life that encompasses growing incomes but spreads far beyond to things like lower crime and violence, more widespread education, improved health, and the increasing ubiquity of democratic values and respect for civil rights.
Indeed, to return to the 21st century phenomenon of same-sex marriage, discrimination against homosexuals is yet one more area where we are seeing signs of progress. Even while a married lesbian couple in India had to flee threats of honor killings in India last month, World Values Survey results find that the proportion of Indians saying homosexuality is "never justifiable" has halved in less than 20 years, from 89 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2008.
That discriminatory culture appears on the wane suggests two things. First, quality of life is heading in the right direction for minority groups worldwide. And, second, this change will be to the world's great benefit in terms of improved development outcomes. It is not just Dalits and gays who should be happy about the way things are headed -- it is all of us.