I am, like many other liberals in India, a critic of its caste system. In my view, it continues to play a debilitating role in the development of the country. It works against `schooling for all’ in two ways. First, the mindset of the upper caste (which has been indifferent to the needs of the majority, intentionally or unintentionally) has shaped the policies of education in the country since its independence. Secondly, those who have been marginalized historically from formal education through the caste system are yet to participate fully in schooling – by being in school regularly and learning adequately.  The urge to restrict sexual and marital relationships within the caste works against the mobility of single girls and this could be a major factor against their participation in paid employment.

Though there are these disabling features, there must be certain important benefits from this mechanism, to some powerful section of the society. It may have a few interesting features as an institution. In the absence of these, it cannot have such a lasting and deep influence on Indian society. What are these features?

The major challenge that any primitive society encounters is possible instability. Let us think about a society, where anyone (who can exert some violent force) can attack, and extract whatever that they can from, others. Such a society cannot be stable or it may disappear soon. Or such a competition to establish dominance and extract resources from the other can lead to anarchy and instability.

Hence all societies want to establish some `order’. Usually this is the concern of elites who have some power or control over resources in a society. They have to come together or have some communication and bargaining to establish certain kind of order. How do they establish an order?

In order to understand this, one can think about a place where multiple mafia gangs fight. The continuation of such a fight may not be good even for mafia leaders. This may lead to a situation where one of them establishing a `rule’ by suppressing other gangs or they may enter into an informal arrangement. One such arrangement is a territorial division of power: `you should not enter my area, and I will not get into yours’. Here each gang establishes a monopoly of control in one territory where they can collect the `rent’. Or the avoidance of competition and the establishment of monopoly control, give benefits to each of these competing forces of power/elites, and hence maintaining such an `order’ is in their interest. This is called a `limited access order’[i]. (Order is ensured by limiting the access).

Such a territorial division of power is only one way to establish a `limited access order’. Instead, there can be a monopoly in an economic/social activity. In that sense, Indian caste system was a highly sophisticated strategy to establish the `limited access order’. Here activities that were highly valued in society got divided between different sections of elites, or each was accorded a monopoly in a particular aspect of social life. Hence three key activities – the expansion and maintenance of state, priesthood, and trade – were allocated to different sections of elites, and norms which discouraged the crossing of boundaries were put in place.  Non-elites – the majority – were also put in a category in such a way that they cannot aspire to carry out any of these highly `valued’ activities.

In fact, such a limited access order has superior advantages compared to a territorial division of power, if the purpose is `stability’. When territories are divided and given to different elites, one of them may gradually become more capable in the exercise of coercive power. When different people do the same job, it is possible for one of them to have a higher proficiency, and that may enhance his power over competitors. That person may establish his superiority over other territories. Or the territorial division of power as a limited access order need not be a long-lasting one. A higher level of force may have to be used to maintain such an order.

One the other hand, when each of these elite sections, concentrate on one activity, and when they are discouraged normatively from carrying out other activities, each may attain greater proficiency in ones’ own activity, and become more and more incapable in other activities over time. Or the chance of one section acquiring higher proficiency in the activity of the other is remote. Hence such an order (the one that limited access to activities) could be long-lasting. If we take the sustainable effectiveness as a criteria of success, then the caste system is one of the most successful institutional innovations in human history.

Though priesthood, trade and political/state control were carried out by elites in other societies, none of them was prevented normatively from carrying out any activity.  Hence it was not rare to see a merger of religious and political power, or the emergence of long-distance traders as rulers, in such societies.

However a `successful’ institution in one context can turn out to be a curse in another context. The `successful’ institutions will continue to persist even when the underlying socioeconomic conditions change, or it may become very difficult to change the institution to suit the needs of the changing reality. This is the case of Indian caste system. Even if the caste system is abolished legally, each group may continue to have advantages on the activities that they have been carrying out over generations and disadvantages in doing others. Hence there would be entry barriers in economic/social activities even when there are no legal or normative sanctions against the entry. These barriers may persist over a long time.

To a great extent, the caste system continues to shape occupational choices of Indians. A student of mine – Indervir Singh – has looked at migrants from Punjab to Canada – and he has seen that those who are involved in trade or farming in the destination country are more likely to come from the respective occupational group within India.  This is valid to some extent about the occupational choices within India too. Though a set of new entrepreneurs has emerged in knowledge economy from Brahmins, they are more likely to be in jobs which require education. Trading castes too show a higher stickiness in terms of occupational change.

Given that the impacts of education persist over generations, entry barriers related to this could be more formidable. Students who are first generation learners may face severe constraints. Or they may underestimate the possible gains from education and this may encourage some of them to get out of education and take up work which is available for the less- or non-educated.

There is also a political economy reason for the persistence of the caste system. Upper-caste men have been the main beneficiary of this system. (That is not the case of upper-caste women. There is an excessive control over their sexuality, mobility, and other choices for the preservation of caste purity).

The legacy of the caste system (or the historical advantages which it has accorded on upper-caste men) and the suppression of women, enable higher-caste families to accumulate assets/capital including higher levels of education. Or intra-caste marriage is seen as an institutional mechanism to facilitate inter-generational accumulation and transfer of assets  (in the absence other enabling institutions.)  Lesser turbulence within marriage – since women accept or are forced to accept the `bad deals’ within the marriage – facilitates such a capital/asset accumulation. Given the possible increase in family welfare due to this capital accumulation, and the uncertainties associated with alternative routes, sections of upper-caste women also feel that their current status is better (even though the division of welfare within the household is biased against them). Given this situation, there is hardly any strong constituency among the upper-castes that stands against the caste system. That is another reason for its persistence.

It is not clear whether lower-castes want to abolish the system or not. One response of them to resist the control of upper-castes is to mobilize along the identity of caste. When the caste becomes an identity to mobilize, it becomes a feature to be preserved (and not to be abolished). I don’t see many lower-caste mobilizations that are interested in creating a caste-less society in India.

The success of the upper-caste in the accumulation of capital encourages sections of middle and lower caste to emulate the former – by sticking to intra-caste marriages and controlling female sexuality and mobility. That is evident from the caste-regimentation that is happening among the middle and lower-castes, say, in states like Tamilnadu. For all these reasons, one cannot see a strong interest to change the Indian caste-system despite its ill-effects on the majority and that is an interesting character of an institutional mechanism. There may have to be other ways to bring people out of the hold of the caste and one of these is discussed here.

[i]This is a concept put forward by North, D. C., William Summerhill and Barry Weingast (1998) Order, Disorder and Economic Change: Latin America vs North America,” Unpublished Manuscript, Hoover Institution, Stanford Universityhttp://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/IW3P/IB/2007/09/19/000158349_20070919115851/Rendered/PDF/WPS4359.pdf