The Caste System: Effects on Poverty in
India, Nepal and Sri Lanka
Though mostly outlawed, the caste system continues to be one of the key drivers of poverty and inequality in South Asia. This article reviews the linkage between poverty and the caste system in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It also discusses the situation of the so-called Dalits (untouchables), which are typically considered to fall outside of the caste system. In addition to secondary evidence based on recent literature analyzing the relevance and impact of the caste system on poverty, the article is also based on an interview with a young male Indian, who experienced the impact of the caste system as well as the impact of the recently adopted reservation system for India’s Dalits.
In India, as well as other countries in South Asia like Nepal and Sri Lanka, the caste system has been a large part of society and still remains, though to a lesser extent, to be a part of society. This may be in an official or unofficial sense because most South Asian countries have either outlawed the caste system or are trying to move away from it. The caste system is basically a way of dividing people into different social classes, beginning with Brahmins as the highest (Priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (farmers, merchants, and artisans), and Sudras (laborers); see Figure 1. Untouchables, also known as Harijans or Dalits, fall outside of the caste system all together. These were the original caste groupings as made clear by one Hindu Holy Scripture called the Bhagvad Gita.
Initially, the system was created ―to promote the harmonious workings of society‖, but eventually, it has—mostly through corruption—reached the prejudice and discriminationfilled system it is today (Kar, 2007). This corruption began with Colonialism and has had a profound impact on the modern day caste system. It is thought that ―Indian society was highly fragmented into communal groupings that served as centers for social identity. In trying to make sense of these groupings, the Portuguese first suggested caste identities. The British expanded on that idea to promote order in Indian society‖ (Pye, 2002, p. 97
177). The caste system seems to have played a large part in creating poverty in India as well as in Nepal and—to a lower extent—in Sri Lanka.
Figure 1: The Caste System
Source: Kumar (2006)
This article is structured as follows. The next section provides a brief review of the literature. The third section provides some empirical background on poverty in South Asia and especially India. The subsequent three sections (IV-VI) review the linkage between poverty and the caste system, in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, respectively. The last section provides some conclusion.
Brief Literature Review
There is a large amount of literature on poverty and the caste system in India. The sources often describe the link between the two. There are also many sources solely focused on poverty and solely focused on the caste system in India without linking them. However, there is not much literature about the effects of the caste system on Sout h Asia as a whole. Information is also scarce when dealing with the caste system’s effects in specific South Asian countries other than India. There are a few sources that focus on the caste system’s effects in Nepal and Sri Lanka, though they do not contain a lot of empirical data.
Edited by Chaudhary (2005), there is a set of five volumes on Human Rights and Poverty in India, addressing a variety of theoretical issues and empirical evidences. The 94 papers in these five volumes analyze the interface between human rights and poverty, with particular reference to India. Dealing with conceptual theoretical and philosophical dimensions of poverty and human rights, they address a wide range of issues pertaining...