The breaking down of caste system occurs only when people marry or have sexual relationships and have children with, those who are outside their caste. Otherwise people would continue to carry the caste attribute whether they reject it explicitly or not.

Hence the caste continues to be a factor differentiating individuals in India due to the persistence of intra-caste marriages. Based on the latest data available, around 90 percent of marriages in India happen within the caste even during 21st century.

Hence the question of how to break the caste system in India needs to be changed to the following: How do we see more and more inter-caste marriages in India?

We may be able to analyse this issue by looking at those people who marry outside their caste. Or who are more likely to marry outside the caste, following the correct statistical formulation?

A study[i] that looked at this issue based on a nation-wide data-set gives certain indications. A girl who has received higher education, lives in an urban area and who has delayed the marriage (remains single in the age group of 25-30), is more likely to marry a person who does not belong to her caste. That does not mean that each and every girl of this type would marry outside the caste. The probability of having such an inter-caste marriage is higher for such girls. On the other hand, neither the urban residence nor higher education per se is likely to encourage a boy to have an inter-caste marriage.

If higher educated girls who live in urban areas and who delay their marriage are more likely to marry outside their caste, it is easy to understand why India has fewer inter-caste marriages.

Under-achievements in education: As I have been repeating in almost every essay, nearly half of Indian girls do not complete different levels of schooling even today. This share was much higher a decade ago.  It is obvious that they don’t get any higher education. Though the average age at marriage for girls has increased in India over time, it is only around 22 years currently.  Hence the overwhelming majority of girls in the country are encouraged or compelled to marry or married off before reaching the age of 25.

Urbanisation is happening at a slower pace in India. It is well known that only less than one-third of Indian population lives in urban areas.  Only a small proportion of Indian girls migrate to cities in search of employment. One reason is the under-achievements in schooling that we have discussed. But the other issue is the lower level of female work-participation in the country. Nearly three out of four women do not work outside home or take up paid employment. These may include the educated ones too. In fact, moderately educated girls are likely to withdraw from paid employment.

When girls migrate within or to outside India, they are more likely do so as spouses, and not as single woman in search of employment. (This is different from the migration pattern in a number of Asian countries including Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Philippines, etc.) All these features of India make the size of unmarried educated girls in the age group of 25-30 in its urban spaces – potential candidates for inter-caste marriage – a very small share of the female population in the country. (This is true even for those states where the majority of girls complete schooling as in Kerala or Tamilnadu. These states also follow the national pattern in terms of (low) female work-participation.)

I am not projecting a simplistic causal relationship that the non-availability of such girls in India leads to the persistence of the caste system. There could be a reverse link as well. The urge to preserve the caste may be reducing the availability of schooled and educated girls who continue to be single in the age group of 25-30 and seek, or participate in, employment in urban areas. However those social practices which work against the education and employment of girls prevail in certain Muslim-majority countries which are located in the west of India too, and these do not have the caste system.

Whatever be the direction of this relationship (or whether this is a vicious cycle or not), this situation may tell us something about possible interventions to break it: Educate girls and see that they not only complete schooling but also get different levels of higher education; But that alone is not sufficient as evident from the experience of Kerala. Strongly encourage girls to be in urban spaces participating in employment; and encourage them to delay their marriage.

There are examples from different parts of the world where the education and migration of girls to cities have led to the breaking down of repressive social practices. A notable case is from China. The completion of schooling and migration of girls from rural areas to cities to take up industrial work (along with China’s one-child policy) have weakened the dowry system there and it is being replaced in certain areas by the bride-price.

Hence an important social transformation that has to take place in India is the education of girls and their migration to cities for work. These are beneficial directly but there could be an indirect benefit – and that may be the gradual breaking down of the caste system. Though successive Indian governments talk about manufacturing development and employment creation (through SEZs and other inducements to `make in India’) we have not seen these as strategies to encourage girls to get out of their stifling familial and community contexts. There is a possibility to do so. On the other hand, if conscious attempts are not made in this direction, the vicious cycle mentioned here would persist. Persistence of this vicious cycle would also mean the persistence of caste system.

What is wrong with the caste system? Let us not be bothered about the political correctness for the time being. Isn’t it good for the upper caste? Their children marry within their caste, retains (the already accumulated) physical, financial, human and social capital within the caste and that facilitates the further accumulation of capital (of all these types) and its transfer to future generations?

There are two issues – serious ones – for the society as a whole with the persistence of the caste system. First, the burden of preserving the caste falls heavily on women. Their education has to be moderated, their participation in work to be limited, the expression of their sexuality to be muffled and ultimately their freedoms (including that to select a marital/sexual partner and to migrate or move out as an individual) is to be restricted if the caste is to be preserved.

Secondly, the persistence of caste system makes social and economic mobility of the under-class and lower-caste much slower in India. It limits severely their access to all forms of capital which are needed to facilitate their mobility. Nearly 50 percent of the children of agricultural workers, become such workers[ii] in India and that is the reflection of an unusually tardy pace of social mobility. Poverty and underdevelopment in the country continue to be linked to the social identity.

As noted by Spolaore and Wacziarg, (2013)[iii], it is not that meaningful to talk about the under-development of countries or regions (such as states in India). Instead we should think about the development indicators of different population groups. South Indian Brahmins do reasonably well whether they live in Tirunelveli, Mumbai or San Francisco. On the other hand, the life of the majority of scheduled castes in India is precarious whether they live in the interior parts of Gulbarga district or in the city of Bangalore or Delhi.

The difference in development indicators between different population groups is linked to the `distance’ (in a metaphorical sense or in all dimensions) between them. One important determinant of this `distance’ in the Indian context is the persistence of caste. This distance will not disappear due to the abolition of untouchability. It will continue to work against the flow of tacit information and the dispersion or widening of networks and social capital.

[i] Srinivas, G. Singh, D. and Shekar T.V. (2013). Exploring the Myth of Mixed Marriages in India: Evidence from a Nation-wide Survey. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 44 No.2

[ii] Singh, A. and Motiram, S. (2012) How Close Does the Apple Fall to the Tree? Some Evidence from India on Intergenerational Occupational Mobility, Vol. 47, Issue No. 40, 06 Oct, 2012

[iii] Spolaore, E. and Wacziarg, R. (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development? Journal of Economic Literature 2013, 51(2), 325–369