The Tragic Truth About India's Caste System

Untouchables cling to it because they have few other choices.

My American friends frequently ask me why India’s caste system, a pre-feudalistic division of labor that assigns one’s line of work at birth, has persisted into the 21st century in defiance of every civilized notion of justice and equality. I thought I knew the answer: The need of the privileged upper castes for cheap labor to do their dirty work. But there is an even more tragic explanation that I discovered during a recent visit to New Delhi while talking to Maya, the dalit or untouchable—the lowest of the four castes—who has serviced my family for 35 years. Maya herself clings to her caste because it offers her the best possible life, even in modern India.

The puzzling thing about the caste system is that it has endured without any legal force backing it. Unlike slavery, under which whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution that has resisted half-a-century worth of (ham-handed) government efforts to eradicate it.

How? Consider Maya’s story.

Maya assigned herself to our house in a small, gated community in West Delhi in 1977. We had no choice in the matter. If we wanted our trash picked, bathrooms scrubbed, and yards cleaned, Maya was it. Indians find dealing with other people’s refuse not just unpleasant, but polluting. Hence only dalits, whose caste impels them to do this work, are willing to do it, something that both stigmatizes them and gives them a stranglehold on the market. And they have transformed this stranglehold into an ironclad cartel that closes the door on all alternatives for their customers.

When Maya got married at the age of 16, her father-in-law paid another dalit $20 for her wedding gift:  the “rights” to service 10 houses in our neighborhood, including ours. Maya has no formal deed to these “rights” and no court would ever enforce them. Yet they are more inviolable than holy writ. Maya’s fellow dalits, who own the “rights” to other houses, can’t work in hers, just as she can’t work in theirs.

Doing so, Maya insists, would be tantamount to theft that would invite a well-deserved beating and ostracism by the dalit community. No one would lift a finger to help a “poacher” in distress or attend her family functions like births, weddings, or funerals. She would become a pariah among pariahs.

This arrangement has given Maya a guaranteed monthly income of about $100 that, along with her husband’s job as a “gofer” at a government lab, has helped her raise three children and build a modest house with a private bathroom, a prized feature among India’s poor, in one of New Delhi’s slums. But Maya’s monopoly doesn’t give her just money. It also hands her— and her fellow jamadarnis or sweepers— clout to resist the upper caste power structure, not always for noble reasons.

None of Maya’s 10 employers dare challenge her work. Maya takes more days off for funerals every year than there are members in her extended family. Complaining, however, is not only pointless but perilous. It would result in stinking piles of garbage outside the complainer’s home for days. Every time my mother, a stickler for spotlessness, has gotten into spats with Maya over her sketchy scrubbing habits, she has lost. One harsh word, and Maya simply boycotts our house until my mother goes, head hanging, to cajole her back. Nor is Maya the only jamadarni with an attitude. Nearly all of Delhi is carved up among Maya-style sweeper cartels and it is a rare house whose jamadarni is not a “big problem.”

But Maya’s clout comes at a huge personal price: It shuts the door on inter-caste acceptability. Segregation has loosened considerably among the first three castes. Intermingling and intermarriage, even among the highest brahmin and the relatively lower baniya (business) castes, is now common, especially in cities.

But dalits are allowed to socialize normally with other castes only if they give up trash-related work, although marriage remains taboo regardless. Otherwise, they are regarded as polluted and every interaction with upper caste folks becomes subject to an apartheid-like code.

Some of the homes where Maya works, for example, have separate entrances that allow her to access their bathrooms and collect their trash without having to set foot in the main house. Although the families have formed a genuine bond with her and treat her generously, plying her with lavish gifts on festivals, there are limits. They give her breakfast and lunch everyday, but in separate dishes reserved just for her. Sitting at their table and sharing a meal is out of the question. Not even my mother’s driver who, though poorer than Maya, belongs to a higher caste (higher than my family’s), would visit her home and accept a glass of water.

Maya is resigned to such discrimination, but not her oldest son, 36. He holds a government job and works as a sales representative for an Amway-style company and dreams big. He is embarrassed by his mother and often lies about her work to his customers for fear of being shunned. He claims he makes enough money to support Maya and wants her to quit, but she will have none of it. She fears destitution and poverty more, she says, than she craves social respectability. Her caste might be her shame, but it is also her safety net.

But the choice may not be hers much longer.

Upon retirement, she had planned to either pass her “business” to her children or sell it to another dalit for about $1,000. But about six months ago, local municipal authorities started dispatching vans, Western-style, to pick up trash from neighborhoods—the one service that had protected Maya from obsolescence in an age of sophisticated home-cleaning gadgetry.

Maya and her fellow dalits held demonstrations outside the municipal commissioner’s office to stop the vans. The commissioner finally agreed to a compromise that lets Maya and her pals collect trash from individual homes and deposit it at one central spot from where the vans take it for disposal. But Maya realizes that this is a stopgap measure that won’t last. “I got branded as polluted and became unfit for other jobs, for what?” she wept. “To build a business that has now turned to dust?”

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  • ||

    I found it far easier to think of the caste system as racism than some religious or social system. The lower castes are not viewed as fellow Indians or even fellow Tamils, Hindis, etc... - more like a different race.

  • Suki||

    For Americans from big cities, this is a very easy analogy to understand.

  • sams||

    Americans don't seem to understand that there is such a thing has world outside the USA.

    Not every social problem in the globe is similar to American race relations.

  • ||

    I lived in Sri Lanka for 6 months and witnessed their somewhat more underground caste system first hand.

  • ||

    Between left-wing welfare statism and right-wing crony capitalism this country's creating its own caste of untouchables. No more Land of Opportunity.

  • Mr Saveloy||

    Hmm-it's always easier to think of systems of stratification that bind individuals to a certain kind of work as belonging to pre-industrial (agricultural) societies such that industrialization (bringing with it specialization) opens up opportunities for individuals to improve their lot. As Shikha demonstrates this is perhaps not always the case. It would seem that in this example, the lower caste has adopted a particular type of specialization that provides them with a comfortable living. Hopefully the worldview of Maya's son will gain traction and the peculiar social arrangement will begin to die out.

  • Suki||

    Backwards countries stay backwards a lot longer than many prefer.

  • ||

    Dammit, now I want to watch Outsourced and stupid fucking NBC cancelled it.

  • Moe Ron||

    Now that was entertainment!

  • Chatroom Crank||

    If only you Easterners had taken Western civilization when the Brits tried to give it to you.

  • ||

    Hey - they took some of it. You can get by speaking English anywhere in India and Sri Lanka. They also brew passable beers thanks to the Brits.

    How many Brits out there named Cooper, Baker, and Smith from there caste days?

  • ||

    The Brits were the worst exploiters of the caste system, Chatroom Crank. On board with it a hundred percent while super-imposing one based on skin color on top of the work-related one that already existed.

    And, Suki, your glib thoughtlessness is astounding!

  • ||

    What a bunch of hooey. What Shikha describes is just organized crime. "Nice little household you have here. Be a pity if nobody cleaned it."

    But for the vast majority, as Maya says, opportunities are better within the caste system than outside it.

    Collecting protection money for half-assed labor is not an "opportunity". Government garbage collection might be a step in the right direction, but what India really needs is Molly Maid. If Indians wont do the work, there's plenty of Mexicans that will.

  • Moe Ron||

    Government garbage collection might be a step in the right direction

    Don't you know that government is bad, Warren?

  • ||

    Shikha,

    Thanks for the window into a part of Indian life that I hadn't heard about.

    In the free market ideal that everyone here knows something about, theory calls for some better performing worker to come along and perform this work. Why aren't there at least a few people willing to buck the current system? Someone who will do the work and doesn't care if no one shows at his mother's funeral. Someone in your mother's position willing to take out her own garbage?

    The situation has something in common with the black experience in the USA between 1870 and 1960. But social sanctions were insufficient. We needed laws and fairly regular lynchings to enforce the differences.

    Are there physical attacks on any worker who tries to break this system?

    Do you know the Isaac Asimov short story Strikebreaker? I wonder if it was based on this part of Indian society.

  • ||

    I think the attempt to find a modern western analogy is futile. When have criminals/labor unions ever organized to force employers to pay workers near poverty wages to do lowly work? I'm guessing this is something that will eventually die out as the Indian economy continues to provide better opportunities.

  • ||

    you thought it was organized crime while I was thinking this is exactly what Unions do to companies. I guess they are similar.

  • ||

    All good questions, Thom. There was much that this piece didn't cover given space constraints. The price for bucking the system is not just ostracism, but also violence. You would get "buckers" if law enforcement protected them from the violence, but it doesn't have the resources or the will to deal with petty crime in a segment of society no one cares about. As for my mom taking out her own garbage, the problem is, take it where? The garbage disposal site is a great distance away and it would be simply impossible for her to make the trek on a near-daily basis. Professional cleaning services like Molly Maids can't establish themselves because they would need government licenses and the dalit community has enough political influence to thwart that. Hence, if any entity was going to take on the dalit cartel, it is the government(and I have mixed feelings about it doing so since it's not like the dalits have it good. They are only trying to eke out a little power and dignity in a system where they have been historically thoroughly disenfranchised). The long term solution to ending the caste system is ongoing modernization through liberalization that puts other opportunities before dalits that they simply can't refuse. India, depressingly, has a long way to go before that happens. Incidentally, on a separate note, the dalit cartels suggest that a bottom-up, spontaneous system of law of the kind that anarchists dream about might not always produce good results.
    I haven't read The Strikebreaker..

  • ||

    Professional cleaning services like Molly Maids can't establish themselves because they would need government licenses

    This was the key point that would have completed your otherwise very interesting piece.

  • ||

    Shikha,

    I know very little about India and found your piece interesting. I promptly emailed it to an Indian friend of mine.

    He says that he's never heard of anything like this in Mumbai (where he is from).

    Is what you describe common in all of India?

  • ||

    I had no idea about the dalit control of the trash market in Delhi till I started poking around for this article and neither did most of my Indian friends in America. Tell your friend to ask some questions of his trash guy. Bombay might be different because it has more high-rise buildings and fewer single-family homes that are easier to cartelize. But I would be very surprised if Bombay dalits didn't have some equivalent arrangement to control the trash market there.

  • ||

    Thank you, Shikha. The high rise issue occurred to me after I posted the comment. Great article! I'll certainly ask around.

  • ||

    There have been efforts for lower-caste Indians to break out of the religious side of the caste system with mass conversions from Hinduism to Buddhism.

  • 4thaugust1932||

    Ambedkar demanded Independence, not Reservations to Untouchables in 4th August 1932 Round Table Conference Resolution (Communal Award).

  • ||

    thanks to the elite castes, India is the most polluted place on the planet (try to find a clean glass of tap water or public restroom, clean or otherwise) and corruption is the rule more than the exception. given the sorry state of affairs, the administrative higher classes are not the self-anointed 'chosen ones' but evidently inferior in thought and hearts.
    as Robert (above states)
    "This is a chilling apology for an an indefensible caste system...
    The caste system is good for untouchables? Spare me."

  • ||

    This is a chilling apology for an an indefensible caste system. The Brahmin who wrote the article sounds like the plantation overseer extolling the virtues of slavery: What would these, poor savage, Negroes ever do without us.

    The caste system is good for untouchables? Spare me.

  • *||

    What would happen if your family paid her, say $2,000, for the right to select the successor she chooses?

  • ||

    "...gives them a stranglehold on the market."

    Bravo! I am in sheer awe of how you libertarians manage to create a fantasy-fueled victim mentality to again bemoan the ruthless oppression of the top by the bottom yet again.

  • ||

    "The puzzling thing about the caste system is that it has endured without any legal force backing it."

    The authors romantic assertion is not true caste or any social segregation system is enforced. A lower cast person taking water from main village well will be beaten up by the upper class people.

    Today slavery is implemented through the economic system of - fictional reserve banking. Like mafia who had their laws of silence like omerta modern bankster family run secret societies like Free Masonary has their own laws of secrecy

  • ||

    I am just struck by the idea that Shikha's mother and her friends would simply let garbage pile up and rot in the absence of a slave to carry it off.

    And make no mistake--that is what the dalits are--slaves. Their 'status' has altered as India pretends towards a liberalism it does not really believe in, but their place is ingrained in them--as it is ingrained in Shikha's mother. They clean up trash.

    How messed up is a society when cleaning up after oneself has been outsourced so totally?

  • ||

    Good god, the whole system is idiotic if the upper castes think that carrying out their own garbage or cleaning a toilet amounts to "self-pollution".

    Some years ago, I invited one of my Indian colleagues by my house for a short visit, and he was appalled to hear that I did my own carpentry and masonry work on my 1939 home.

    "We have people to do that!"

    Yes, and the dismal state of affairs for billions of people throughout the region is a testament to that idiocy.

  • ||

    Weird to be in a middle-class house with servants - isn't it? I never really got used to it.

  • ||

    “I got branded as polluted and became unfit for other jobs, for what?” she wept. “To build a business that has now turned to dust?”

    Thus is the eventual lot of all monopolists. No tears are shed by me.

    If she did a good job, rather than depend her livelihood on market protection, legal as well as illegal, she wouldn't be in the circumstance she is in.

    If Maya was a good worker, Shikha's mom, and her 9 other customers would never replace her. As is, she will remember all those times being extorted by Maya when the time comes.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  • ||

    Did you even read the article?

    Maya is being replaced by a tax funded, city run monopoly that is destroying her chance to earn a living in private business.

  • ||

    Did you even read the article?

    Yes.

    Maya is being replaced by a tax funded, city run monopoly that is destroying her chance to earn a living in private business.

    No, she is the beneficiary of market protection, de jure and de facto, and that has led to the idea that government might be more efficient.

    Of course it won't be, but like physicians seeking government cartelization and using coercion to protect their markets they reap what they sow.

    As the OP said, no real free market competition has been allowed due to the political clout of the dalit, and where that failed they employ intimidation and violence to protect their 'turf'.

    It is this very protection which has made them uncompetitive and led to 'progressive' 'innovations' such as public waste disposal to be considered.

    This is a government failure, which will be painted as a market failure, which will excuse more government.

    But they brought this on themselves.

    You see this same thing over and over in markets in the US as well. Taxis seek 'protection' by medallion laws, which lead to demands for better public transport. Physicians got protections which drove up health care prices which will likely as Milton Friedman pointed out, result in their entire profession being socialized. More generally, tariffs and regulation, intended to 'support' US markets simply make them increasingly uncompetitive. Etc etc.

    Market protection leads to increased price, reduced quality and in turn leads to government regulation or socialization of the market.

  • thirtyandseven||

    India has castles?

  • ||

    Yes, high castles and low castles and untouchable castles due to the moats.

  • Sven||

    I am always laughing when I hear people talking about India surpassing China soon. There are so many things that are completely fucked up in India, it makes China's brutal state run pseudo capitalism look awesome in comparison.

  • protefeed||

    India's big cities are much more free than those of communist China, despite stuff like this caste system. It's the Indian countryside that is holding back GDP per capita.

    Right now China's officially stated (i.e., untrustworthy) GDP per capita is about 250% that of India's, about $4,400 versus $1,700 or so.

    I think the higher level of political freedom in India, along with migration to the cities and the erosion of the caste system, will likely result in an explosion in Indian GDP per capita soon surpassing that of China, unless China's government allows more freedom.

  • ||

    My money is on India too.

  • ||

    And let's be honest: although China's GDP growth is higher, unlike India's it includes totally useless ghost cities. My money's on India in the long run.

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