Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Caste, Marriage and Poverty Reduction: A Letter to a Friend

RECENTLY AN economist friend from an academic institution sent me a copy of his new article which argues that there is direct cause-and-effect relationship between the caste system and the entrenched marriages within the caste hierarchy with the persistence of extreme levels of poverty in India. India has had record growth levels in the past few years but the growth has had no impact on the life of the majority of people. A serious study conducted by the Planning Commission, done by Dr Arjun Sengupta, Dr K P Kannan and others, found that even after the massive efforts at ensuring a more equitable distribution, almost 75 percent remain at levels of extreme poverty with less than Rs.20 a day.

I thought the article which called for changes in marriage practices and a more liberated family atmosphere, urging the government to design policies that would promote vertical and horizontal integration at the community level was interesting, though I suspect whether it would have any real impact on the issue of poverty reduction in India.

Here is my brief comment on the article in the form of a letter:

Your primary argument, in proposing changing marriage norms, seems to be that they cause persistent economic inequality and poverty. Hence for a smoother and freer flow of social and economic capital across the spectrum, we need to destroy caste walls and rewrite the rules of marriage as a social institution.

I have no quarrel with any effort for destroying caste walls. They ought to be destroyed for a variety of reasons, though I doubt that it would have any real impact on our poverty issue.

First, when we speak of poverty in Indian context, we speak of a section of our people who live at a daily income of Rs. 20 or below. They seem to constitute almost 75 per cent of the population.

These sections, going by the recent EPW paper by Arjun Sengupta, Kannan, et al, mainly constitute Dalits, Muslims and the OBCs, in that order. So if you look at the harsh reality, our poor, the extremely poor, are people from these sections. Those who are relatively well off, those who constitute the middle class and above, are substantially from the upper castes, though there is a small elite creamy layer, from the OBCs, Muslims and Dalits, to a lesser extent.

You will agree when we think of changes in marriage system, we cannot think about anything but monogamy these days. That is one woman, one man in a legal sense. Here comes the conundrum: You don't have sufficient number of eligible match for upper caste woman/man from lower caste/Muslims/Dalits (and vice versa) even if we bring down all the social and cultural barriers.

So the problem, especially, is economic and not cultural or historical as you seem to argue. We have a caste-controlled and intra-caste marriage system not because we were not short of social reformers or revolutionaries who argued for vertical and horizontal integration, but because our society was economically divided and stratified on the basis of caste. Hence caste and class are synonymous in India in many ways.

That would mean, once we are able to destroy the economic stratification, we will automatically destroy the caste stratification too. It is not the other way around, as you seem to argue in your note.

Such social inter-mingling is actually taking place, among the middle class who were able to lift themselves up economically in the past few decades. Instead of a Dalit boy marrying a Brahmin girl (which is also taking place), what is actually happening is an aggregation or consolidation of smaller castes with bigger ones with more or less similar features. You will notice that some of the small groups like Ezhuthassans, Warriers, Nambiars, Kurups, Panikkars, etc etc, are slowly merging themselves with bigger caste formations making them large social/caste groups. Earlier, there were variety of Nairs, but today no one takes such a deep look at what kind of Nairs are they when one goes hunting for a match. Same is the case with others.

But that does not help the poor, or those 75 per cent. For them a match from the upper caste is a near impossibility, not (mainly) because of caste but primarily owing to lack of resources.

And, what to do about it? Here I am as clueless as any other in this country.

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