Caste: Impact on economic mobility – UPSC GS1

Caste System
  • The caste system is the most distinctive feature of Indian society.
  • The Indian population is divided into four hierarchical classes, or varnas, with a large sub-population of untouchables excluded entirely from the system.
  • Within each of these classes, and among the untouchables, are thousands of castes, or jatis.
How caste system supports occupational and spatial mobility?
  • The exploitation, prejudice, and discrimination that are associated with the hierarchical aspect of the caste system have stifled mobility among the lower castes.
  • Lower castes remained locked in unskilled, low-paying occupations for centuries in the traditional economy.
  • There is also evidence of continuing discrimination in the labour market
Convergence between upper and lower castes in education and jobs. Reasons:
  • Affirmative action policy : It has been in place since Independence, reserving seats in institutions of higher education and the central government for former untouchables and other disadvantaged groups
  • Caste-based networks: It facilitate economic activity and support the mobility of their members in an economy where markets function imperfectly.
  • Particular castes : They found particular niches in the urban labour market, and once networks in the city were established, they supported the movement of fresh migrants from the hinterland
  • Structural change has created new economic opportunities over the past 25 years
  • There is a movement of castes from agriculture and administrative occupations into business in recent decades.
  • Once caste networks form, they will strengthen relatively rapidly in historically disadvantaged castes.
Caste networks can also be a hindrance to mobility? How?
  • The same networks that can be so effective in supporting the movement of groups of individuals across space and occupations can also restrict the mobility of individual members once they are established
  • Example:
    Schooling choice is a strong predictor of future occupations.Particular castes historically occupied niches in Mumbai’s mills and factories with the support of their networks.
  • When the Indian economy restructured in the early 1990s, economic activity in Mumbai shifted from manufacturing to services
  • But in the schooling choices of the children, that these blue-collar networks turned out to be a hindrance in this economy, keeping their members in the traditional (now less remunerative) occupations and preventing them from taking advantage of the new opportunities that became available.
Community based networks-Features
  • It is active in all developing countries where markets are functioning imperfectly.
  • These networks are exceptional with respect to their size and scope in India, because of the special caste-based structure of its society.
  • Caste networks thus play an unusually important role in shaping economic mobility in the Indian economy
  • Whether these networks support or hinder mobility will depend on the circumstances
  • Networks are effective in supporting the movement of groups, but they can restrict the mobility of individuals trying to follow a path of their own.
  • The caste networks will disappear when the market economy starts to function efficiently.
Way forward
Policies aimed at fostering growth would be more effective if they took account of the underlying caste networks that continue to shape educational, occupational, and locational choices in the Indian economy.