India’s increasingly prosperous middle class is eroding the caste system

14.10.2013
During its period of intense economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s, India experienced a dramatic but unequal increase in prosperity. The gulf between the middle class and the approximately 500 million Indians living below the poverty line has only widened over the past decade.

According to Päivi Mattila, director of the Finnish League for Human Rights, the increasingly wealthy middle class has begun to undermine the caste system which is still prevalent despite being banned decades ago.

“Parts of the West Bengali countryside are so poor that even brahmins, representatives of the highest caste, have left the area to clean the houses of wealthier people of lower castes who live on the other side of the country,” recounts Mattila.

“This is unheard of, but the brahmins make a better living as cleaners than they do as poor farmers.”

Middle class more desirable than caste

Becoming a member of the English-speaking middle class is becoming more important in India than caste.

“Money is beginning to supplant the old Indian order based on castes and family lines. Society has become more consumer focused.”

Dowry traditions still going strong

In order to promote economic equality and break the circle of poverty affecting millions of people, India should look to its families. The powerful culture of dowries should be banished, believes Mattila.

“As long as it is the duty of the boys to ensure that the parents are taken care of in their old age, and as long as girls represent a massive financial burden in the form of an expensive dowry, outrageous human rights violations against girls and the circle of poverty will continue.”

Social security would support equality

If dowries and the financial responsibility of boys are to be eradicated, the country would have to establish some form of social security for its people, complete with pensions. This would most likely be a prudent action in general and would also make economic growth more sustainable.

“Globally, the most equal countries are also the wealthiest, with a few exceptions such as Saudi Arabia.”

In any case, India’s global power is likely to increase in the near future. What can the giant country bring to the West? Gurus and yoga?

“Indians are aware of their reputation as a country of serene meditation, and they find it funny. In reality, Indians are accustomed to extremely harsh competition, so they would be more likely to increase the competitive spirit in the world instead of decreasing it,” muses Mattila.

India at Think Corner

With its population in excess of one billion, its numerous languages and religions, is it possible for us to understand India, a country that seems more like a continent than a single nation state? How do caste, gender, ethnic background and religion define a person’s position in Indian society? These are just some of the questions addressed at Think Corner on 14.-25. October. Some of the Think Corner panel discussions will also be available as live webcasts at helsinki.fi/thinkcorner.