Social Capital and Caste

Conventional wisdom is that social capitalin India is low because of our historical caste system. By placing people in a rigid hierarchy, and giving some people privileges over others just because of the families they were born into, the caste system prevented people from cooperating as well as they would in a more equitable society – that is what conventional wisdom says.

However, a point that we cannot miss is that despite the caste system placing a hierarchy on people, people from different castes did regularly cooperate and trade with each other. In fact, with caste being tied to hereditary professions, people had little choice but to regularly interact and trade with people from other castes. And this inevitably created social capital.

Putting it differently, the result of the caste system was an unequal but stable society, and this stability led to reasonably good social capital (history might be biased given it was written by people from certain castes, but we don’t see many instances of caste riots or clashes from over 200 years ago). You can think of it as a stable society with “handicaps”, where some people were privileged over others (in fact, there was a hierarchy of privilege), to the extent that it was okay for some people to abuse others in various ways.

Over the last 150 years or so, the caste system has been (rightly) challenged, and we are seeing various movements towards a more equal society. One side effect of this has been that the (unequal) equilibrium that had existed has been disturbed, leading to caste-based antagonism and a fall in social capital.

We are in the process of moving from one (unequal) equilibrium to another (more equal) equilibrium, but until we get there, existing beliefs and biases will continue to be challenged, which means some sets of people will continue to be suspicious of others, and there will be mistrust and thus low social capital.

Originally posted at Pragati Express

Getting counted

So I got counted yesterday. And my caste was also noted. This was part of the caste census that is being currently conducted by the state government. I had a few pertinent observations on the questions and procedure, so thought I should write them down here.

  • The survey team consisted of a man and a woman. I wonder if the gender combination of the surveyors was chosen deliberately, in order to avoid awkwardness in either direction depending upon who opens the doorbell.
  • Anyway, the man seemed to be the senior person and didn’t speak much. The woman had an extraordinarily large “exam pad” (of A2 size if I’m not wrong), with a sheaf of papers where she would note down the answers.
  • So after “normal details” such as names and address, the survey proceeded directly to the caste. “Do I have to answer that?”, I asked. They said I didn’t have a choice. I told them and the lady noted it down. Then I was asked about my subcaste. I again asked if I should answer. The woman said yes, but the man overruled and they moved on.
  • There were other demographic questions involved, which I don’t remember answering during the “general census” four years ago. Stuff like the age at which we got married and the age at which we joined school.

    Anyone who can get their hands on the raw data can have a field day looking at the correlations. Like – what is the distribution of age of marriage by caste? etc.

  • The questionnaire was a pretty long one. A cursory search indicates there are a total of 55 questions. I was also asked about household assets. “How many TVs?” “One” “How many computers?” “Hmm.. Five”. “Laptops?” “I already counted them among computers” and so on.
  • I got asked about my family income also. Now you can see that all this data along with caste can be used to form some interesting correlations.
  • And it doesn’t stop there. This is the first time in a census that I’ve been asked for an identity proof. “We want both voter ID card and Aadhaar”, the lady said. I showed our voter IDs, and she noted down the number. Remember that this is a “caste census”? You know where this might be going now. I told them I couldn’t find my Aadhaar, and they said it was okay.
  • As the lady ploughed through the multiple pages of the extra-large form, I couldn’t help wondering as to why the surveyors couldn’t have been given tablets instead – in terms of the repeated efforts of first filling up the forms and then having to enter the data into the database. Given the size of the form and difficulty of carrying, it would have done the surveyors a huge favour.
  • Finally, the form was filled with pencil. Ostensibly this was so that if they made any errors in entry, they could correct immediately. I’m assuming there are no “convenient alterations” made.

Thinking about it now (I didn’t think yesterday) I’ve perhaps given away more information than I should have (voter ID number, etc.), and might have compromised on my privacy. I hope, however, that I’m one of those people who gets access to the raw database once it’s compiled (obviously much much easier said than done), given the kind of data that has been collected and the insights that can be drawn from it.

If you are a politician who gets your hands on this data, and want to use that to build your election strategy, you should hire me. There is a wealth of information in this data!

Why Bharadwajs are so numerous

This morning I was at the faculty lounge at IIMB, drinking coffee and conversing with a few professors. Soon, the discussion moved to Bharadwaj gotra and related stuff. And something a professor (who is a Bharadwaj) said explained very well as to why the gotra is so prolific.

So he said that the Bharadwaj ashram was quite well known in its ancient times for the quality of its food. Another professor related an anecdote about how Rama, on his flight back from Lanka made a detour to eat at the Bharadwaj ashram, even as his subjects back in Ayodhya were waiting fervently for him. Food at the Bharadwaj ashram was so good, he said.

Now there are two ways in which this explains why Bharadwajs are so numerous. Firstly, the quality of the food in the ashram meant that Bharadwaj’s children and grandchildren and other descendants were all very well fed. Now, considering that these were times much before the industrial revolution and there was generally a shortage of food, this meant that infant and child mortality rates were generally high. But not in the Bharadwaj ashram, thanks to the food there!

So that meant that the Bharadwajs grew up fitter and healthier than descendants of other rishis, and thus lived longer and were able to procreate more. The bullwhip effect caused due to enhanced longevity and fitness of the early Bharadwajs has resulted in the proliferation of Bharadwajs today.

The other explanation is that the superior quality of food at the Bharadwaj ashram attracted more people into the ashram, and these people would yearn to become part of the “family” (I’ll spare you the gory details here). That meant that Bharadwaj and his immediate male descendants had much more access to furthering their lineage compared to competing gotras. And hence you have so many Bharadwajs today.

In fact we might have had several more Bharadwajs but for the fact that the gotra system is designed such that no one gotra ever gets to big. That two people from the same gotra are not allowed to marry each other naturally keeps the size of a particular gotra in check.

Let’s say for example that more than half the Brahmins were Bharadwajs. Considering that a Bharadwaj can only marry a non-Bharadwaj, that would leave a number of Bharadwajs being unable to marry, which means that the number of Bharadwajs in the next generation would be lower!

It is interesting, though, that everything can be explained through food!

Marrying out of caste – 1

This is the first in what is going to hopefully be a long series of posts on inter-caste marriages. As you might have figured out, I’ve stumbled upon a nice data set with lots of data on this topic (Hat tip: Nitin Pai and Rohit Pradhan), and there are some beautiful insights in the data.

The data is based on a National Family Health Survey which was conducted in 2005-06. The sample size of the survey itself was massive – close to a lakh respondents for the entire survey, and about 43,000 women who were surveyed on the inter-caste marriage question alone. So the survey, which was carried out in all states in India, asked “ever-married” women whether they were married to someone from the same caste, or to someone from a higher caste, or to someone from a lower caste. There was also some demographic data collected which leads to some interesting cross-tabs we can explore in either this post or one other of the series.

If there is one single piece of information that can summarise the survey, it is that the national average for the percentage of women who are married to someone of their own caste is 89%, and this number doesn’t vary by much across demographics or region or any other socio-economic indicators.

Of course, there are differences, and some regional differences are vast. For example, 97% of women surveyed in Tamil Nadu were married to someone from the same caste, while the corresponding figure in Punjab is only 80%. Figure 1 here shows the distribution across states of the percentage of women married to men of the same caste.

intercaste1

 

Different colours here represent different regions of India, and considering that the data in the above graph has been sorted by the value, the reasonably random distribution of colour in this graph (anyone notice a pattern anywhere?) shows that there is no real regional trend. But the inter-state differences represented in this graph are stark (80% to 97%). It raises the question regarding the homogeneity of castes and possibly differing definitions of castes in different states.

For example, some people might define caste as their “varna”, while some might go deeper into the family’s traditional occupation. Others might go further deeper – there is no end to the level you can reach in the caste hierarchy. Might it be possible that the stark regional differences can be explained by the varying definitions of caste?

Another interesting piece of data given is the percentage of women in each state married to either men of a higher or a lower caste. Now, in the interest of natural balance and matching, these two numbers ought to be equal (the paper notices a surprise that these two numbers are equal in most states – but there is no reason to be surprised). Actually we can create an “imbalance index” for each state – the difference between the percentage of women married to men of a higher caste and the percentage of women married to men of a lower caste.

A positive index indicates that women in the state prefer to “marry up” (men of higher caste) than “marry down”. It also indicates that in the absence of inter-state “trade” of marital partners, there will be large numbers of unmarried men of the lowest caste and women of the highest caste in that state! A negative index implies an excess of single men of the highest caste and single women of the lowest caste (both these calculations assume, of course, that the sex ratio is the same across castes). The second figure here plots this index across states. The  colouring scheme is the same.

intercaste2

This shows that there are states with massive imbalances – Maharashtra, for example will end up having a large number of single men of the lowest caste and single women of the highest caste unless they get “cleared” in “trade” with other states. Kerala has the opposite problem. It is interesting to notice that Punjab, which has the highest percentage of inter-caste marriages, also has a reasonably balanced market.

So should we explore if there exists a relationship between the proportion of women married to men of the same caste and how balanced the marriage market is in the state with respect to caste? The hypothesis, based on the example of Punjab in the above two graphs, is that the greater the incidence of inter-caste marriage in a state, the smaller the imbalance in terms of caste in the market. Let’s do a scatter plot which includes the above two bar plots and see for ourselves:

intercaste3

On the X axis we have the percentage of women married to men of the same caste. On the Y axis, we have the absolute value of the imbalance index (in other words, we don’t care which way it is imbalanced, we only want to know how imbalanced the caste dynamics in marriage is in each state). The blue line is the line of best fit. Notice that it slopes downward. In other words, the greater the number of same caste marriages, the smaller is the imbalance between women marrying above and below their own caste, which is interesting. Notice that Punjab sits all alone as an outlier at the bottom left of the above graph! Kerala is an outlier at the top left corner!

Now you might posit that if fewer people are available for inter-caste marriage, the difference between those “marrying up” and those “marrying down” is bound to be lower, since the sum is lower. However, if we normalise the index for each state by the proportion of inter-caste marriages in that state, the above graph will still look pretty much the same!

Caste and marriage are more complicated than we think!

Basavanagudi

Recently the Deccan Herald carried an article on how Basavanagudi was an extremely well-planned area. It showed the original plan of Basavanagudi (drawn up in the late 1890s in the wake of the plague that hit the Pete area), and showed how well planned it was – demarcating public spaces, market areas, clubs, schools and residential areas. What is remarkable to me is that an area that was drawn up in the late 1890s has roads that are mostly wide enough to take even today’s traffic (a contrast in Malleswaram, built in the same area, but with extremely narrow roads by today’s standards).

On Thursday, I had to go someplace in Gandhi Bazaar (in Basavanagudi) from my grandmother’s place in Jayanagar, and that was when it struck me how small Basavaanagudi is. South End Circle and South End Road actually demarcated the southern end of Basavanagudi, while the so-called “North Road” (also called Vani Vilas Road) marked the northen end of this area. And I ended up walking from my grandmother’s house (about half a kilometer south-east of South End Circle) to National College in about fifteen minutes – and if you go by the map shown in the article linked above, it is the entire span of Basavanagudi! If this was one of the “major” planned extensions of Bangalore in that era, it goes to indicate the city’s population at that time.

It is interesting to note in the plan (as published by Deccan Herald) that the area that is now MN Krishna Rao park was demarcated as a “public square”. While the area is still being put to public use nowadays I couldn’t help but think of New York’s Union Square, which is build on an area much smaller than Krishna Rao park, but which has multiple uses to different sections of the population. Krishna Rao Park, on the other hand, is now a typical example of a “Jairaj Park” (nomenclature I’ve come up with after the former BBMP Commissioner, who was responsible for populating the city with a certain kind of park). I wonder if people still play cricket inside the park.

Until I saw the plan of Basavanagudi I hadn’t realized the symmetry in design. If you notice, at each corner of the public square there is a large roundabout which is somewhat off-centre (Armugam Circle, Netkallappa Circle, Tagore Circle and Dewan Madhava Rao circle). Of these, Tagore “Circle” is actually a square which doesn’t particularly serve the purpose of the roundabout thanks to which an ungainly underpass had to be built recently. And if you notice in the map, beyond each of these roundabouts is a “diagonal” road. The symmetry in design is remarkable. As an aside, while I was walking back to Jayanagar from Gandhi Bazaar on Thursday, I realized that large roundabouts are pedestrian-unfriendly! Unless they allow the pedestrian to cut across them (like in New York’s squares), of course.

For a long time I used to wonder why there is a Muslim Ghetto in the south-eastern quadrant of Basavanagudi (area between RV Road, Patalamma Street and the extension of BP Wadia road towards “teachers college”). The plan explains this. In line with the sensibilities of those times, Basavanagudi had dedicated areas for different castes and communities, and this sector was probably the area “reserved” for Muslims. It is the same with other areas developed in that time – for example Malleswaram also has a “Mohammedan block”. What is interesting, though, is that even Jayanagar, which was planned post-independence, when secularism was in vogue, has its pockets of Muslim Ghettos. I wonder if they grew organically or were by design. Also, read the map carefully. You will see that different parts of Basavanagudi have been earmarked for different castes!

It would be interesting if someone were to dig up the original masterplans for different localities in Bangalore, and also in other cities. It would be instructive to see how cities were developed at different points in time (for example, immediately after independence came the massive localities of Jayanagar and Rajajinagar – neither of which can be walked across in fifteen minutes). Also, this plan for Basavanagudi indicates that there were no villages in the area where it came up – which was not the case with areas such as Jayanagar which were planned around such villages. Again it would be interesting to see how villages were co-opted into the city.

I can go on but will stop here. I encourage you to also take a close look at the map and make your own inferences, and share them in the comments section.

 

Importance of candidate’s caste in voting

Not-for-profit Daksh recently conducted a massive survey in Karnataka which tried to understand voter preferences, evaluate MLA performance, etc. This was a comprehensive survey covering over 12000 voters across all districts in Karnataka. Apart from capturing demographic information, the survey asks questions on what candidates look for in a candidate and what issues they think are important for an MLA.

One of the questions asked was the importance of a candidate’s caste when it comes to voting. Voters were asked to indicate if it was “very important”, “important” or “not important”. For purpose of my analysis I’ve given a score of 1 for “very important” and 0.5 for “important” and 0 for “not important”. The relationship between a voter’s annual family income with his perception on the importance of caste is extremely interesting, as this graph indicates.

Data Source: Daksh Survey on Perceptions about Karnataka MLAs. Thanks to Harish Narasappa of Daksh for sharing data with me
Data Source: Daksh Survey on Perceptions about Karnataka MLAs. Thanks to Harish Narasappa of Daksh for sharing data with me

Home food culture

We Indians have a “home food” culture. Most people consider it immoral and “bad” to eat out, and more so to eat out on a regular basis. People who don’t cook food at home are termed as being lazy. I remember this story I’d read in Tinkle back when I was a kid. It was called “kaLLa giriyaNNa” (it was a translation of a Kannada story). In this story, the thief (kaLLa) GiriyaNNa is scolded by his wife for his “dirty habits of smoking beedis and eating in hotels”. Yes, traditional Indian homes look down upon eating out that much!

Till very recently, this was a result of caste taboos. People would refuse to eat food that was prepared by someone by another caste, and that led to a delay in the growth of the restaurant industry. When people traveled (even on business, and you need to remember that in India even today, a lot of business happens due to caste networks), they would try and stay with a relative, or a friend who belonged to the same caste, and would eat in their house. When I was a kid, outstation holidays were mostly restricted to towns and cities where we had relatives, and in case we didn’t have any, durable foodstuff such as bread (from our “usual” Iyengar’s bakery), biscuits and fruits would be carried, so that we could avoid eating out.

Thanks to this cultural preference, and the taboos associated with eating out, we have turned out to be a “home food” society. Most people cook in their homes on a daily basis, or at least attempt to do so. In my mind, this is clearly inefficient. Back when I was in Gurgaon when I lived alone and would cook for myself, I discovered the beauty that is economies of scale in cooking food. The incremental time and effort in making (say) three liters of Sambar compared to making (say) half a liter was small, and consequently, every time I made sambar, I would make it in large quantities, and keep it in the fridge and repeatedly re-heat. While this may not be particularly healthy (the wife blames some of my lifestyle diseases to prolonged exposure to this unhealthy habit of eating stale food), there was little else I could do in order to achieve said economies of scale.

There is, however, a better method of ensuring economies of scale, and on a much larger scale – restaurants, and this is the practice followed in most places elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the taboo against eating out means that for most people, visits to restaurants are “treats”, and restaurants have adapted themselves to accommodate this. When people eat in order to treat themselves, their primary criterion is taste. When you eat something once in a while, you don’t really care about the calories or sugar or triglycerides it contains. Consequently, food in a large number of restaurants in India is tailored for this kind of an audience, and hence is not particularly healthy. The main complaint that people have against restaurant food – that it is not healthy, and that one cannot eat that every day, does have its merits, but has a background in the culture of eating out only for treats.

From a national efficiency standpoint, this needs to change. People are spending way too much time and effort in cooking their own meals. It is ok to cook once in a while, but spending an hour of your day every day in front of the stove is a colossal waste of time. The answer lies in good quality restaurants that serve food that is similar to “home-cooked” food, in terms of health factor and taste. If there is a good number of restaurants that start doing that, it will drive a number of people to stop cooking at home (the early adopters are likely to be DINK Yuppies).

In some ways, this reminds me of the Chennai auto-rickshaw problem that I’ve described here and here. Restaurants don’t want to give up on tasty food and go the “healthy way” because they’re not sure there’s enough of a demand for the latter. People are not willing to give up home food in favour of restaurants because the food is not healthy enough! Again, this needs a nudge. And you can see some efforts in this direction. Back when I was in IIMB, I remember having dinner once at this place called Bangliana, which served “traditional” Bengali food at a reasonable price (a Bong friend who accompanied me confirmed that the food was quite authentic and “homely”). In primarily immigrant-dominated localities (such as Koramangala), you see more such restaurants coming up, and that is a good thing. If only it can spread and we move to becoming a restaurant-based culture, precious man-hours (and woman-hours) are bound to be saved.

PS: If the provisions of the Food Security Bill imply that we move to a “ration” model again, it would mean a step backwards, where everyone would be forced to cook at home. Or maybe the act could be implemented differently.. Say you could partly pay at hotels using your “entitlement points”.. Anyway, that is an aside.