Indian political economists must strive to convert `caste skills' into business opportunities, leveraging their salability rather than casting them away.

Sudhansu R. Das

Poverty in India is in part a legacy of long colonial exploitation and the rest a lack of understanding of the `caste skills' by the Indian political class.

The effect of the British action of denigrating anything Indian was so lasting that even in the post-colonial period, many people failed to recognise the fabric of the Indian economy, finely inter-weaving the broad spectrum of our way of life that respected a person's skill more than his caste.

A unifying factor

Had Indian political class recognised this great assimilator, there would perhaps not have been any caste proliferation in India.

Indeed, people with similar, traditional skills became a caste. So, today's IT professionals could become tomorrow's IT caste.

Specialised skills

India's villagers belonging to different castes, or with different skills, contributed to the phenomenal economic growth of the country.

Economic historian Angus Maddison notes that India had the world's largest economy between 1st and 15th Century A.D a 32.9 per cent share of world GDP in the 1st Century to 24.5 per cent in 1500 A.D.

The village rope-maker, blacksmith, potter, gold smith, farmer, milkman, artisan community and so on contributed to creating a society based on mutual cooperation, and by fulfilling one another's demands.

If the blacksmith sold farm and household implements to the farmer, he surely got back some agricultural produce.

So the chain went on, and the village was quite an economically self-sufficient unit. Indian artisans used to make the finest of clothes and handicrafts, which were most sought across the world.

In the First Century A.D, Indian handloom was so popular among Roman women that the Roman Senate took a decision to ban its entry. Roman chronicler Pliny noted in the early Second Century AD that Indian handicraft traders depleted the Roman treasury.

The gifted artisans, branded as backward castes in the later centuries, indeed wrote the glorious chapter of India's economic history.

Indian political economists need to look at ways to convert caste skills, which still linger, into business opportunities.

For example, traditional sweet makers can create hundreds of varieties of exotic sweets from milk, of which India is the largest producer but with a negligible global share of products.

Indian goldsmiths make ornaments worth $70 billion. The skill of the Indian goldsmith caste can give India a monopoly over the global ornament market.

The US imports a huge quantity of incense sticks from Bangalore, Mysore and Pondichery.

Waiting for a chance

The Indian `caste skill' is waiting to make an entry into the global market. Anything from an Indian village: folk dance, folk music, folk art, village cuisine, handicrafts... everything can be turned into a business proposition.

The USP of India's self-reliant retail sector is, in fact, its age-old `caste skill', which cannot be pirated easily.

If the villagers are provided with the much-needed marketing chain supported by a reliable and fast transportation facility, they will prosper.

It no doubt agonises political economists that even vegetables and fruits from Rural India reach the nearest urban market through layers of middlemen. India must integrate trade, agriculture, domestic industries and manufacturing sector. Only a harmonious economic growth will make `caste skill' thrive and sink caste divide.

(The author is a Pune-based freelance writer.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 19, 2006)
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