July 24, 2018

Hierarchy and castes in India

Countries and regions

This case study illustrates the recurring problems faced by many foreign companies in India.

Hierarchy and castes in India

Central decision vs. local dynamics in India

This case study aims to illustrate the recurrent problems encountered by many foreign companies in India in adjusting their economic strategies to the realities on the ground. Although it is set in a rural context, this case study illustrates the frequent discrepancies observed between centralized management, guided by the imperatives of optimization and efficiency, and endogenous perspectives anchored in a network of solidarity and social relations that are often primary and underground. From there, it will allow us to glimpse ways of integrating local cultural logics into major managerial policies.

In this respect, an intercultural approach conducted in the spirit of compromise will be useful to obtain the support of the actors concerned and create synergy effects along the way.


In the early 1970s, the government of Indira Gandhi launched an ambitious program of food independence. This policy of transforming the countryside had two objectives:

  • Introduce the principles and techniques of the Green Revolution on medium and large farms (irrigation, mechanization, use of high yielding varieties, inputs and pesticides).
  • To financially assist small landowners, mostly from the lower castes, in order to provide them with draft animals and ploughs to cultivate the fields that the land reform had granted them after independence.

For the small landowners, the objective is to promote the emancipation of the most fragile by reducing their traditional dependence on the dominant castes1 in the villages where the latter control access to the resources and products of the land. Indeed, land rights and the caste system discourage the emergence of subordinate groups through the reproduction of local elites, who find their interest in the economic exploitation of the former (notably by lending them money). The lower castes, for their part, borrow from their masters the money necessary to live and cultivate their lands while performing all useful tasks for their care, including socially and ritually infamous activities (e.g., garbage collectors, sweepers, funeral priests, grinders, etc.)2.

Thanks to this voluntary state program, many peasants are becoming farmers who can make a living from their own crops and can free themselves financially from the dominant castes. In theory, at least...

After a few years, when the government agents returned to the field, and while the beginnings of this great rural development plan seemed promising, the results turned out to be mixed. Against all odds, many of these small farmers gave up their animals and their ploughs, apparently of their own free will, to return to the care of their former "masters. As a result, they also lost the power to cultivate their fields except to borrow their production tools from their masters, when their land was not pledged to usurers or sold.


  1. What mechanisms worked against this government initiative? In particular, what role did the institution of caste play?

  2. About rural populations, what to think about this "failure"?

    1. Impervious to change?

    2. Lack of "common sense", of economic rationality?

  3. What lessons can be learned from such an experience to better take into account the social dynamics and contextual logics at work in change processes and to acculturate global policies to endogenous perspectives?


1For a caste to be dominant, it must possess a substantial share of the locally available arable land, be numerically important and occupy a fairly high position in the local hierarchy.

2In India, the notions of permanent and transient impurity are linked to the irruption of certain organic materials in daily life. Contact with all bodily fluids and decomposing bodies is considered physically and above all symbolically polluting. Hence, the professional specialization (in the principle of the caste system) in activities whose characteristic is to put the worker in repeated presence of sources of soiling charges the condition of the person concerned with a strong social stigma. Because of the traditional character of the profession, the massive impurity contracted in the exercise of polluting tasks is considered intrinsic to the castes that perform them.

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