How is the caste system in India affected by economic reforms? Which p...

  Dec 1, 2016

How is the caste system in India affected by economic reforms? Which part of India is still resisting change? Why?

Economic reforms are diluting caste rigidities due to education, urbanisation and globalization. Caste is crumbling as India urbanises and gets educated. Nearly a third of Indians now live in cities or towns. The village heads who enforce caste rules have less power than they did.

On dalits: Since 1991, a growing number of dalits are working and operating businesses in agriculture, retail, hospitality, manufacturing and many other sectors where it was previously unheard of. There is a growing dalit entrepreneur class who actually hire upper caste workers. There are even over 3,000 dalit millionaires. The proportion of dalits in the halwaha system (bonded labour) in eastern UP has fallen from 32.1 per cent to 1.1 per cent. As  licensing and permit system for occupations dropped, competition meant that upper caste business owners choose suppliers based on cost effectiveness, quality and efficiency rather than caste allegiance — even if the supplier is a dalit. Social status also improved as there is a significant increase in dalit ownership of status symbols such as mobile phones, brick houses and motorcycles as key markers of progress. The proportion of upper caste members accepting food and drink from dalits rose .This transformation is in keeping with the Enlightenment tradition which views free trade and exchange between different groups as fostering trust, co-operation, co-dependence and respect. But  dalits still face considerable discrimination. The area where the caste system still wields the most influence — rural India — also happens to be the area where liberalisation has proven the most difficult.

Although caste is still powerful in many rural pockets, it is gradually giving way to the money motive. Job security and prosperity matter more than caste.