How has India’s caste system lasted for so many centuries?

Caste system continues even after losing its raison d’etre, but the scramble for development has destroyed the ancient sustainable and shared patterns of resource-use it had taught for centuries

By Madhav Gadgil, Kailash Malhotra
Last Updated: Monday 01 August 2016 | 13:45:29 PM
Each caste used to be aware that resources in its hereditary territory have sustained it for generations, and will sustain its descendants for years to come
Each caste used to be aware that resources in its hereditary territory have sustained it for generations, and will sustain its descendants for years to come Each caste used to be aware that resources in its hereditary territory have sustained it for generations, and will sustain its descendants for years to come

Caste and Environment

Madhav Gadgil, an ecologist, and anthropologist Kailash Malhotra trace the history of India’s caste system that had enforced discipline in the use of natural resources and played a crucial role in preserving India’s natural riches. Their 12-year study documents how the pastoral and nomadic castes developed traditions of prudence in the use of resources and how resource depletion and environment degradation marginalised several communities.

At a time when social tensions are on the rise with people fighting over scarce natural resources, it is important to remember how the caste system taught ‘genuine cultural adjustment’ and sustainable and shared patterns of resource-use over centuries.

Caste and Environment

The question has troubled sociologists for years. How has India’s caste system, so elaborate — an estimated 40,000 castes —rigid, hereditarily determined, hierarchical and oppressive a social structure lasted for so many centuries? Madhav Gadgil, an ecologist, and anthropologist Kailash Malhotra feel that the answer probably lies in the discipline that the caste system brought to the use of natural resources. It was a system which, on the one hand, forced its members to share natural resources and on the other created the right social milieu in which sustainable patterns of resource use were encouraged to emerge. In other words, it was a social system which both forced and cajoled the social being right from birth to adopt sustainable cultural mores.

Within the caste system, birth determined a human being’s occupation. An ‘ecological space’ and its natural resources could only be used by a definite occupational group. This ‘resource partitioning’ helped to reduce competition and, hence, conflict among human beings over scarce natural resources, and to create the right psychological environment: the allottees of an ecological space developed sustainable patterns because they had no worry that their resources would be snatched away from them and probably also because they knew that if they exhausted the resources in their own space, they would not be allowed to use any other.

Malhotra and Gadgil are quick to point out that even though the caste system lasts till today, it has stopped ‘resource partitioning’. The growing monetisation of the Indian economy, first encouraged by the invading British, then by independent India in the name of development, has destroyed the ancient sustainable and shared patterns of resource-use evolved over centuries. Social tensions are increasing as people fight over scarce natural resources, and because the caste system continues even after losing its raison d’etre, it has become a source of social power and oppression.

These conclusions emerge from a 12-year study of rural society in western Maharashtra. Here, the Western Ghats rise abruptly some 50 km inland from the Arabian Sea to an altitude of 1,000 m to 1,500 m. Their 15 km to 20 km-wide crest line is marked by heavy rainfall, more than 3,000 mm a year, and it supports low but stable agricultural and pastoral productivity. The simple society here, mostly marked by single clan settlements, consists of a few sedentary castes of cultivators, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, which include Gavils who are mainly cultivators, and Kunbis who are buffalo herders and shifting cultivators.

Further eastward, the Western Ghats merge with the Deccan plateau through a series of broken hills, and the rainfall in this tract falls to about 1,500 mm to 1,000 mm near the edge of the plateau. This tract supports rich agriculture and harbours a complex rural society with a number of artisans and service castes. Still further east, the rainfall decreases further to less than 600 mm in a semi-arid tract of 100 km to 150km width. Agriculture, here, is practised only in the river valleys. Pastoralists and hunter-gatherers use large tracts of uncultivated land. Because the terrain favours sedentary existence during the four monsoon months, and uncultivated lands are available for grazing, several pastoral as well as non-pastoral nomadic castes have established their base villages in this semi-arid tract. They migrate to the higher rainfall tracts, both to the east and west of the semi-arid tract, for the eight dry months of the year. Among those who have their base villages in this tract are Hatkars, Tirumal Nandiwallas, Fulmali Nandiwallas, Vaidus and Phasepardhis.

Niche diversification

The first example of ‘ecological niche diversification’ is exhibited by the Kunbis and Gavli Dhangars living on the crest line of the Western Ghats. The Kunbis cultivate paddy in the river valleys, practise shifting cultivation on the lower hill slopes and hunt extensively. They barter their cereals for butter—produced by the Gavlis—and other goods. The only cattle they keep are for draught purposes.

The Gavlis, on the other hand, live on the upper hill terraces: although they practise some shifting cultivation, their main occupation is keeping buffaloes and cattle. They curdle the milk, consume the buttermilk locally and barter the butter for cereals from the Kunbis. As they get their protein supply from butter-milk, they do not need to hunt. Thus, the cultivation of valleys and lower hill slopes is restricted to the Kunbis and of hill terraces to the Gavlis. Maintenance of domesticated animals and exploitation of all fodder and grazing is restricted to the Gavlis and the hunting of wild animals to the Kunbis.

Another instance of niche diversification is provided by the three nomadic hunting communities of the semi-arid tracts of western Maharashtra: Tirumal Nandiwallas, Phasepardhis and Vaidus. The primary occupation of the Nandiwallas is entertainment and fortune telling, that of the Vaidus dispensation of herbal medicines, while the Phasepardhis are specialist hunter-gatherers. Unlike the settled castes, the Tirumal Nandiwallas and Vaidus also hunt in addition to their primary occupations. But the three castes use distinctly different hunting techniques and specialise in different prey species.

The Tirumal Nandiwallas use dogs to hunt wild pigs, large carnivorous mammals (leopard cat, hyena and fox) and aquatic animals (fish, crab, turtle). Vaidus use baited traps for smaller carnivores (mongoose, civet, jackal and cat), monitor lizards and aquatic animals. The Phasepardhis specialise in blackbuck, wild pig and birds such as doves, quails, partridges and peafowl.

Wild meat means a lot to these castes. Gadgil and Malhotra studied the Tirumal Nandiwallas in greater detail and found that the medium annual biomass of hunted animal is 2,180 kg per family of Tirumal Nandiwallas, who are thorough in their use of the hunted animals. They even eat portions like the brain and the viscera, normally rejected by other people. Almost two-thirds of the live weight of the prey is consumed. In terms of per capita daily consumption, the median works out to 57 gm of protein and 850 calories from hunted wild meat. For the Tirumal Nandiwallas, the hunted meat provides a more than adequate level of protein and over one-third of the calorific requirements of an average person.

What is striking is that while the hunting techniques used by the three groups are significantly different, none of them are so sophisticated that they cannot be adopted by another caste. For example, the Phasepardhis could have easily added the Vaidus’ baited traps to their own shares. But they don’t, which points to a genuine cultural adjustment.

This division of labour has two important consequences. First, the pressure of exploitation is evenly dispersed over the exploited plant and animal populations. Second, each group is aware that resources in its hereditary territory have sustained it for generations, and will sustain its descendants for generations to come.


The question of territoriality becomes ecologically significant in the case of pastoral nomads. A study of the shepherd caste of Hatkars, who number 500,000 and are distributed over 19 districts of Maharashtra in the drier tracts reveals a remarkable pattern. Although a large percentage have now taken to settled cultivation, about 18 per cent still have nomadic sheep-keeping as their sole occupation.  

The shepherds spend the rainy season in their base villages and fan out from there to graze their flocks for the dry period. Shepherds from one village operate in a specified territory which does not overlap with that of other villages. The composite territory of a small group of shepherd families is hereditarily determined and may be encroached upon only with special permission in times of serious distress by other shepherd families: even intra-caste competition is reduced.

For instance, village Dhawalpuri of Ahmednagar district comprises four different settlements within a kilometre of each other. While setting out on their migration after the rains, each settlement leaves as a single band moving in a traditionally predetermined direction. As the band moves it continues to split along kinship lines into progressively smaller groups, each moving in its own direction, till the group of families constituting the ultimate unit of the flock reaches its own territory.

This intra-caste territoriality also applies to non-pastoral nomads of the region. Both Tirumal Nandiwallas and Fulmali Nandiwallas make a living by parading the sacred bull, selling trinkets and hunting. Their areas do not overlap. The base village of Tirumal Nandiwallas is Wadapuri in Pune district, while the 32 base villages of Fulmali Nandiwallas are distributed over the districts of Ahmednagar, Bhir, Aurangabad and Nasik. Both castes spend the monsoon months in their base villages and spread out during the dry season. Every Tirumal Nandiwalla family had, and even today has exclusive rights to visit certain villages. This right is respected by all other families of their caste, and heavy punishment is levied by the caste council for any transgression. The rights are hereditary and may be sold, but only to another family of the same clan within the caste. The Nandiwallas have a similar, if less well-defined system.

Over the years, these pastoral and nomadic castes have developed traditions of prudence in the use of resources. For instance, the Phasepardhis do not kill a pregnant doe or a fawn caught in their snares, which is considered an investment for a future generation. Another example comes from the upper Yamuna valley near Nainital where villagers poison the river upstream with herb-derived poison which kills fish. This is done just once a year at the time of a communal festival when this fish is fed to the entire community. At other times of the year fish can only be caught with nets; anybody caught poisoning the river is excommunicated. Similarly, a number of groups traditionally consider entire groves and ponds sacred: no plant or animal life in these is allowed to be touched. Some species of plants and animals have survived till today because of such traditions.

Impact of modernisation

The traditional rulers of India made minimal demands on wild plants and animals, mainly because they got what they needed from collecting the agricultural surplus from rural areas as tax. Only items of special value like cardamom, sandalwood, musk and ivory came from the wild. An edict of the Maratha king Shivaji dated around 1660 AD forbids the cutting of fruit-bearing trees such as mango and jackfruit for use in building ships for his navy, on the grounds that this would result in considerable suffering for the peasantry in his kingdom. Under such rulers, the basic unity of the system survived.

With the advent of British rule, however, greater demands were made on the natural resources of the country — for raw materials for their industrial economy. To avoid having to pay for these resources, vast areas of communal land were declared government property. These resources were rapidly depleted through commercial exploitation, a trend that has accelerated since independence and has led to considerable impoverishment and often a complete collapse of the natural resource base. The cash economy, which is replacing the traditional barter trade, is destroying traditional relationships between various castes and increasing competition and tension amongst them for limited natural resources. Population growth in the Western Ghats has also been an important factor in increasing the pressure on land, especially after the 1920s with the control of epidemic diseases such as influenza and plague.


The consequent deforestation and soil erosion in recent years have destroyed the fodder base of Gavli animals. The Gavlis, have been forced to reduce their animal holdings and take increasingly to cultivating more land on hill slopes. This has prompted them to try and purchase land from peasants and become more sedentary. In the process, they have also changed their lifestyle. While earlier their houses were made of bamboo and thatch, compatible with frequent shifts, now they build more durable large timber beams and poles, metal or tile roofing.

In earlier times, the Gavlis mostly kept buffaloes because there was an adequate fodder base and shade provided by thick forests. In recent decades they have turned to keeping cattle and now, goats. Goat-keeping is phenomenon of the last two decades, indicating the accelerating rate of deterioration of tree growth and fodder base. The forest is being cut for a variety of commercial purposes, including charcoal for urban areas. Even the trees that were traditionally conserved by the Gavlis in the tracts where they practised shifting cultivation have now been cut.

The resulting degradation of the environment cannot support animal husbandry as practised traditionally by the Gavlis. These people curdled and converted the milk from their cattle to butter mainly because they lived away from villages and did not have the means to transport and sell milk to the settled population further afield. They could get grain by bartering their butter. Today, however, the Gavlis market their milk through cooperative societies set up to supply milk to urban areas. The thrust of the dairy development schemes is to tap milk from rural areas and deliver it to urban areas. The infrastructure of truck routes, chilling plants and power plants is geared to this end; no consideration has been given to improving the fodder base, health or genetic quality of the milk-producing animals.

Furthermore, the Gavlis have started to market all their milk, denying themselves the protein in their diet provided by buttermilk. The 150 per cent increase in their cash income is not being used to supplement their diet. Instead, it is being used to meet entirely new wants of expensive clothing, housing and so on that have arisen from being part of the market economy and from contact with urban culture. To meet their nutritional needs, the Gavlis are cultivating more land, even steep slopes that were kept for fodder. While marketing the milk, the calves are not allowed to suckle as before, thereby stunting their growth, delaying the age of reproduction and worsening the fodder-to-milk conversion ratio. The changeover to goat-keeping is also accelerating the degradation of the vegetation.

Many Kunbis, too, have lost their fertile paddy fields to river valley projects and have been pushed up the hills. Their prey has also dwindled with deforestation. Where they used to get a deer or wild pig every week, they now barely get a black-naped hare once a month. The urban milk schemes have lured Kunbis into keeping milch animals and, therefore, they are no longer willing to let Gavli animals graze in their fields after harvest as they did before. All of this has led to serious conflicts between Kunbis and Gavlis, often forcing the numerically weaker Gavlis to abandon their traditional occupation and locality.

The Gavlis have experienced a drastic shrinkage of available territory. At first they began to intensify the shifting cultivation of the hill plateaus and upper hill slopes. Because they had traditionally not established ownership rights over land, this meant encroachment on government-owned forest land and conflict with government officials. When this option had run its course, the Gavlis began to move out of the area. With the control of malaria in the still forested areas of the Western Ghats of Karnataka, an estimated 15,000 Gavlis moved there between 1945 and 1960. Many others began to accept other non-traditional occupations in nearby areas, such as gardening, tailoring and bicycle repairing, especially near the hill resort of Mahabaleshwar in Satara district. Finally, an estimated 8,000 Gavlis migrated to cities like Bombay and began work as unskilled workers, visiting their families once or twice a year. Several hundreds have joined the army.

Another example of a group marginalised by the degraded environment is the Phasepardhis. This hunting-gathering tribe generally stayed aloof from settled villages; sometimes farmers asked them to snare a black buck, deer or any other animal raiding their fields. In recent decades the main prey of the Phasepardhis have either been decimated, or hunting them has been declared illegal as in the case of the black buck. The Phasepardhis have taken increasingly to theft, prostitution and begging, and now live in a tense relationship with the settled community.

The Vaidus, too, have witnessed major changes because of modernisation. Over half of them have given up their traditional occupations, moving to cities like Bombay, Pune and Kolhapur to work as wage labourers, or to take up petty manufacture, mend tin boxes, sell trinkets, and catch and sell snakes. The major reason for their social decline has been the primary healthcare centres and the spread of allopathic medicines, resulting in a drop in demand for Vaidu medicine. Those that continue to practise their traditional occupation have started keeping some allopathic medicines, and are labelled by modern doctors as quacks.

Conservative community

In the deserts of Rajasthan a compact little community practises a religion which can only be called conservation. The Bishnois, as they are called, believe that cutting down any tree or killing any animal is blasphemy. For more than 500 years now, therefore, protecting the environment has been an act of the profoundest piety for them.

These wise people are descendants of Guru Maharaj Jambaji or Jameshwar who was born in 1451 AD in Pipasar village in Marwar. When Jambaji was 21 years old, the village went through a severe drought. It continued for three consecutive years, and as the grass disappeared, villagers cut down the remaining trees to feed their animals. Children starved, cattle started dying and in desperation and villagers left their homes in search of water.

Jambaji drew profound lessons from the tragedy: he realised that in the past when there had been a larger number of trees the land had been able to withstand the ravages of drought for a longer period. Because the trees that sustained life had been felled, the people had been destroyed. If life was to flourish again, Jambaji felt that the people would have to recognise the value of their environment — and its importance for their own survival—and adapt their lifestyle to nature.

Jambaji distilled his thoughts into 29 tenets, which gave his followers their name: Bishnois or twenty-niners. The principal precepts were a ban on the felling of any green tree and another on the killing of any animal or bird. The ideas of the conservationist were taken to heart by large number of people in Rajasthan and his basic ethic of respect for all life spread to entire village communities.

Almost 300 years after Jambaji preached his message; the faith of his followers was tested. The king of neighbouring Jodhpur, in search for wood to build his new palace, ordered the trees in the Bishnoi village of Khejadali to be cut. The Bishnois protested. When the soldiers paid no heed, the villagers galvanised into action by a woman, Amritdevi, hugged the trees to protect them with their bodies. The king’s soldiers attacked and killed Amritdevi, but more and more Bishnois came from surrounding villages to clasp the trees and die. The massacre continued until 363 corpses littered the ground. When the king heard of this, he was appalled, and impressed by the devotion and resoluteness of the people, he gave their religion state sanction and ordered that the wishes of this community be respected.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the 200-year old legend of the Bishnoi martyrs finds its echo in the current Chipko movement in the Himalaya. To protect the trees from the forest department’s contractors, the Chipko volunteers hug them tightly. Also, as in the Bishnoi story, the crusade involves women.

Today, two-and-a-half centuries and many generations later, the Bishnoi community is intact. The Bishnois continue to protect trees and animals with as much fervour as during the days of Jambaji. Their villages remain green, easily distinguished from others by the abundance of trees, and animals wander around unharmed. Wildlife authorities report that the population of the black buck is noticeably higher near Bishnoi settlements. Says wildlife expert M Krishnan: “If only official protection was half as efficient and keen-eyed as are these Bishnoi settlements, half our conservation problems would be solved.”

Every year, five days before full moon in the month of Bhadrapada, the Bishnois gather at the village of Khejadali for a religious fair. Some years ago they planted 363 trees around that village in memory of their martyrs. There could be no better memorial to their faith.

Dying craft

Deforestation has many victims. Among the most helpless are all kinds of artisans from basket-weavers to potters who, faced with acute shortages of fuel and raw materials, are being forced to become agricultural labourers or migrate to the towns looking for menial work.

Thousands of villagers, mainly Harijans and tribals, try to eke out a living by making bamboo baskets, boxes, brooms and mats. But the denudation of bamboo forests caused by paper mills is leading to an acute shortage of bamboo, high prices in the market and severe restrictions on cutting what was earlier a free resource in the forest.

Poor tribal bamboo artisans in Palamau district in Bihar spend much more time now collecting bamboo than before, and also have to do this by stealth and through an organised system of bribery. Middlemen further exploit these unorganised artisans. A local tribal in Palamau who tried to organise the artisans provoked the local forest staff so much that they had him beaten up mercilessly in full view of the village and a police complaint was registered against him for manhandling a forest official.

The plight of Saharanpur’s baan makers — nearly 40,000 families— is equally pitiable. Baan, a kind of rope, is used in charpoys, (rope beds) and is twisted and woven from bhabhar grass (Eulaliopsis binata) which grows naturally in the forests of the Shivalik foothills. For generations the bann makers collected the grass themselves. But in 1951, the government brought all forests under its control and only contractors were allowed to cut the grass, jacking up the price.

The entry of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Development Corporation in 1982 as the sole seller of forest products, a step supposed to squeeze out the contractors, only introduced yet another middleman. The quality of raw materials deteriorated, prices shot up even though paper mills continue to get bhabhar at extremely low rates. Today, thousands of baan makers are being forced to sell firewood as headloaders, work on gangs breaking stones for road-building or keep animals. Vikalp, a social action group, is trying to organise them into a cooperative.

India’s 15 lakh potters face a similar crisis in raw materials. The cost of clay and firewood has shot up. Given the inroads made by glass and aluminium products, potters are being completely squeezed out. Earlier, many potters would have jajmani relationships with peasants, blacksmiths and carpenters: the peasants would give clay, blacksmiths would repair the iron implements, and the barber would shave freely in exchange for earthen vessels. In many villages, the first right to wayside dung would traditionally be that of the potter.

But now land had become a valuable commodity and clay is no longer easy to get. With the firewood shortage, dung is extensively used as fuel. The owners of clay and dung now prefer to be paid in cash. Modern utensils are preferred to traditional earthen pots: for instance, with milk being increasingly sold to milk cooperatives, milk producers no longer use earthenware. A majority of potter households in Gujarat villages have taken to non-agricultural occupations in towns and to some extent in villages.

Potters in towns and cities are faced with equally daunting prospects, especially as deposits of clay get covered with concrete housing structures. The famous mud toy makers of Lucknow told India. Today that housing authorities have made no attempt to protect deposits of kali matti (black soil) from which they make their toys. Says Chhotey Lal, a well-known clay bird-maker: “Even when we all get together, the four members of my family cannot make more than 200 birds a day, which will sell for a mere 10 paise to 12 paise each. This leaves us with a profit of not more than Rs 8 a day, no matter how hard we work.”

The locality of Talkatora has a good deposit of black soil, and despite repeated pleas by the Uttar Pradesh Prajapati Navyug Sabha not to encroach on this area, the housing authorities bash on regardless. The rising land rent of the Talkatora plot is squeezing out the toy makers. In the last 10 years, the number of craftspeople has gone down from 1,200 to 800 in Lucknow.

The famous clay modellers of Kumartuli in Calcutta, well known for their magnificent Durga idols, live herded in small, cramped rooms, but are not prepared to leave Kumartuli because clay, their principal raw material, can be collected in abundance from the nearby Ganga. The state government had proposed that they move to Salt Lake City and better conditions. But the artisans feared that transport costs of their raw material would go up and so would the prices of their Durga idols, which already sell for between Rs 700 and Rs 3,000 each.

Many ancient crafts are already dead. In Palamau, tribals used to collect wild cocoons from trees and tribal women would roll silk yarn out of these cocoons on their thighs. The yarn, called ghicha, was in appreciable demand in silk centres such as Bhagalpur and Varanasi. But wild cocoons are now rare and this practice has died. Unless something is done, other crafts will soon meet the same fate — India will be a country of many dead craft.

The articles were originally published in the Second Citizens' Report on the State of Environment


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