[lg policy] India: Business Class Rises in Ashes of Caste System
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Sat Sep 11 20:00:06 UTC 2010
September 10, 2010
India: Business Class Rises in Ashes of Caste System
By LYDIA POLGREEN
CHENNAI, India — Chezi K. Ganesan looks every inch the high-tech
entrepreneur, dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of denim shirt and
khaki trousers, slick smartphone close at hand. He splits his time
between San Jose and this booming coastal metropolis, running his $6
million a year computer chip-making company. His family has come a
long way. His grandfather was not allowed to enter Hindu temples, or
even to stand too close to upper-caste people, and women of his Nadar
caste, who stood one notch above untouchables in India’s ancient caste
hierarchy, were once forced to bare their breasts before upper caste
men as a reminder of their low station.
“Caste has no impact on life today,” Mr. Ganesan said in an interview
at one of Chennai’s exclusive social clubs, the kind of place where a
generation ago someone of his caste would not have been welcome. “It
is no longer a barrier.” The Nadars’ spectacular rise from despised
manual laborers who made a mildly alcoholic palm wine to business
leaders in one of India’s most prosperous states offers significant
clues to India’s caste conundrum and how it has impeded economic
progress in many parts of the country.
India is enjoying an extended economic boom, with near double-digit
growth. But the benefits have not been equally shared, and southern
India has rocketed far ahead of much of the rest of the country on
virtually every score — people here earn more money, are better
educated, live longer lives and have fewer children.
A crucial factor is the collapse of the caste system over the last
half century, a factor that undergirds many of the other reasons that
the south has prospered — more stable governments, better
infrastructure and a geographic position that gives it closer
connections to the global economy.
“The breakdown of caste hierarchy has broken the traditional links
between caste and profession, and released enormous entrepreneurial
energies in the south,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown
University who has studied the role of caste in southern India’s
development. This breakdown, he said, goes a long way to explaining
“why the south has taken such a lead over the north in the last three
India’s Constitution abolished caste, the social hierarchy that has
ordered Indian life for millenniums, and instituted a system of quotas
to help those at the bottom rise up. But caste divisions persist
nonetheless, with upper castes dominating many spheres of life despite
their relatively small numbers.
While in the south lower caste members concentrated on economic
development and education as a route to prosperity, in the north the
chief aim of caste-based groups has been political power and its
spoils. As a result India’s northern lower castes tend to be less
educated and less prosperous than their southern counterparts.
Charismatic leaders in the north from lower castes have used caste
identity as a way to mobilize voters, winning control over several
large north Indian states. Caste so thoroughly permeates politics in
the northern half of the world’s largest democracy that it is often
said that people don’t cast their vote; they vote their caste.
Caste is so crucial to northern politics that caste-based parties have
demanded that caste be included in India’s census, and the government,
bowing to pressure, agreed to collect data on caste for the first time
since independence. They hope that by showing their large numbers,
caste-based parties can force government to set aside more jobs for
Tamil Nadu’s Nadars belong to a community in the middle of India’s
caste system, occupying a place barely above the untouchables, now
called Dalits. Academics and analysts have closely watched the rise of
the Nadar caste for clues about the role caste barriers play in
holding back India’s economic progress.
Unlike northern India, where caste-based political movements are a
fairly recent phenomenon, lower castes in southern India began
agitating against upper-caste domination at the beginning of the 20th
century. Because these movements arose before independence and the
possibility of elected political power, they focused on issues like
dignity, education, and self-reliance, Mr. Varshney said.
Nadars created business associations to provide entrepreneurs with
credit they could not get from banks. They started charities to pay
for education for poor children. They built their own temples and
marriage halls to avoid upper caste discrimination.
“Our community focused on education, not politics,” said R.
Chandramogan, a Nadar entrepreneur who built India’s largest privately
owned dairy company from scratch. “We knew that with education, we
could accomplish anything.”
As a result, when independence came the southern lower castes, who had
already broken the upper caste monopoly on economic power, enjoyed
political power almost right from the start. Tamil Nadu set aside 69
percent of government jobs and seats in higher education for
downtrodden castes, which helped rapidly move lower caste people into
the mainstream. The north put in place affirmative action policies,
but because education was widely embraced, southern people from lower
castes were better able to take advantage of these opportunities than
When India’s economy liberalized in the 1990s, the south was far more
prepared to take advantage of globalization, said Samuel Paul of the
Public Affairs Center, a research institution that has looked closely
at the growing divide between north and south India. “The south was
ready,” Mr. Paul said.
Nadar businessmen like C. Manickavel have skillfully ridden the waves
of prosperity that have crashed over India since liberalization,
making small fortunes. Mr. Manickavel’s father had started a small
printing business in Chennai, which at its peak made $40,000 a year.
But he sent his son to one of the best engineering schools in India,
and Mr. Manickavel has turned that modest business into a $1
million-a-year operation that designs e-books for big American
“We are supposed to be a backward community but we don’t think of
ourselves that way,” he said in an interview in his state-of-the-art
paperless e-publishing facility here. “I make sure my daughter studies
at the best school in Chennai. We are as good as anybody else.”
It remains to be seen if the political agitation around caste in
northern India will produce prosperity for lower caste people there,
experts say. In India’s liberalizing economy these communities must
prepare themselves to compete, not simply demand a bigger slice of the
shrinking government cake, said Rajeev Ranjan, the chief bureaucrat in
charge of industrial development in Tamil Nadu.
He is originally from Bihar, a northern state thoroughly in the grip
of caste politics, but he has been stationed in the south for 25
years. He said northern states must heed the southern example.
“Without that kind of social change it is very hard to do economic
development,” he said. “One depends on the other.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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