Harness the caste system

Last week I talked of the concept of social capital–the social glue that enables cohesive communities to pull together, help distressed members, mediate conflicts, penalise deviant behaviour and reward desirable behaviour, far more efficiently and cheaply than government mechanisms. Successful governments harness social capital by providing funds and authority to communities. This process also expands social capital by creating stronger incentives for people to bond together in community action.

This has happened very little in India. Why? Partly because community development has been sabotaged by politicians in state capitals. More important, we have a terribly muddled idea of what a community really is. Panchayati raj creates local governments at the zila (district) and mandal levels. A zila parishad can cover two million people, a mandal more than two lakh. To call such huge conglomerations communities is simply wrong. They are decentralised political entities, not communities, and cannot always harness social capital.

Some idealists think the answer is to devolve power to gram panchayats, in the belief that a villages constitutes a community. In fact, a village is typically a battleground of conflicting castes. Dr BR Ambedkar strongly resisted devolving power to villages, saying they were cesspools of prejudice and cruelty. He knew what he was talking about.

Now, in some cases, like single- caste villages, the village may indeed be a community. For some purposes that benefit all villagers, like a village road, even warring castes may pull together. Yet that often does not happen because the dominant castes capture all benefits. Vulnerable social groups–women, minorities, the poorest of the poor are traditionally excluded from the decision-making process within villages.

What is the way out? Experience in India and abroad shows that the answer is to focus development funds on self-selecting groups of users or beneficiaries, not just local governments. Some examples:

  • The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a magnificent success that enhances voice, dignity and income opportunities for traditionally powerless female workers. No law or constitution has defined this community. It is not a geographical entity or local government structure. It is a voluntary association of 217,000 women, who pull together for common aims. That has created a powerful social glue which helps SEWA deliver far more to its members than panchayati raj institutions typically can.
  • Micro-credit to groups of poor people has been a big success the world over. The groups guarantee loans to individual members, and have a 95 per cent repayment record without subsidies. Why? Because the group is self-selecting, and can keep out villagers who do not share their sense of community. This is crucial to creating social capital.
  • Water Users Associations (notably Andhra Pradesh) have been a success. These bypass the panchayat structure, and put together farmers with a powerful common interest, getting reliable canal water through proper maintenance and distribution.
  • The successful Swajal rural water project in Bundelkhand, UP, has bypassed the panchayat structure, where “elected” leaders are typically those best able to capture polling booths. Instead, Swajal covers households willing to contribute to water supply schemes. This bonds together those who are really interested, and keeps out political thieves.
  • The UP Sodic Soils project has been very successful in reclaiming and planting large stretches of saline land. Here again the scheme is run not by panchayats, but by those owning the reclaimed land.

I am for panchayati raj. I know that panchayats are often captured by rural elites, yet some decentralisation is better than none. But social capital is an enormous asset that is atrophying because it is often bypassed by panchayats as well as top-down planners. Empowerment needs to go beyond local governments directly to self-selecting communities. Our 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments do not provide for this, our intellectual debates rarely make the distinction between communities and panchayats. Instead, we stumble into occasional successes like SEWA, micro-credit or Swajal without realising that they represent the success of self-selecting communities.

Now, there is indeed one way in which the government has long supported self-selecting groups: It has encouraged cooperatives. Gujarat’s dairy cooperatives or Maharashtra’s sugar ones have achieved a lot. In these cases the government has helped create new communities with a common interest.

This fresh social capital creation is laudable. But it is not the same thing as harnessing social capital in communities as defined by villagers themselves. How do villagers define communities? Mainly by caste. The urban elite prefers to discuss community development in terms of panchayat structures, class struggle, the green revolution and other caste-free approaches. To some limited extent, villagers also see themselves as part of these wider structures. But caste loyalty is often the strongest of all community loyalties.

What does this imply for social capital? When I worked out the answer, I was stunned for a minute. So perhaps readers will be stunned too. It seems to me that if social capital lies mainly in caste groups in villages, we must encourage self-help groups based on caste and provide these with financial and technical resources. In effect, we need caste-based development schemes.

Critics will accuse me of wanting to strengthen the caste system. I was myself agonised over this issue for sometime. I concluded that the caste system is a mix of positive and negative social capital. The positive side is self-help within castes, the negative side is domination by elite castes (and now also by the creamy layer of lower castes). We need to devise new systems which discourage the negative part, but encourage the positive one.

That subject merits an entire Swaminomics: Watch for it next week.

What do you think?