On counting and marrying out of caste

Most measurements of caste dynamics are flawed by a lack of good numbers, but that’s a good thing.

A few months ago, my fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar had looked at how inter-caste marriages are happening in India. He had visualised the results of an interesting paper out of European Population conference hosted on the Princeton university website, which looked at how people were marrying outside their own caste. Researchers had used data from two consecutive National Family Health Surveys (NFHS), the researchers tried to identify the proportion of people who marry someone from an ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ caste, and how this varies across gender and across states.

While theirs was a valiant effort, they end up dramatically undercounting marriages outside caste, to the extent of near-complete irrelevance of the paper. This happened due the nature of the dataset. There are only four caste groupings listed in the questionnaire: General, OBC, SC and ST. Both the husband and the wife’s caste grouping is recorded, and the researchers ranked these groupings in the same order listed, and ran their comparisons.

It is obvious that this in no way comes close to what might be the true amount of cross-caste marriage taking place in India. We still have little robust evidence of whether intercaste marriage is increasing or decreasing — whether subcastes are weakening, or castes are weakening, or if they show different trends in different parts of the country. The remainder of the paper’s analysis on the correlation of intercaste marriage with education, media consumption etc can all be similarly discarded.

While we don’t know any of these (fascinating) details about caste dynamics in India with any degree of robustness, this is arguably a great thing.

What got me started on this is that the idea of marrying someone of a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ caste is not a commutative property. Think of a couple, each from two subcastes within the same caste. An external observer might classify both subcastes of being at an ‘equal’ level. However, each spouse might feel that they are marrying ‘lower’ by marrying outside their subcaste. Thus it becomes rather subjective. Further, I was curious about how many castes and subcastes got captured in the NFHS survey, given the survey’s focus on family health. The devil is in the details, and this study captures none of it.

It’s probably for the best that we don’t know exactly how caste dynamics are changing. The Indian government’s efforts at doing a caste census (and more recently, Karnataka’s interest in the same) is deeply troubling.

Counting is often political, as Deborah Stone explains in her wonderful book, Policy Paradox. Counting can affirm and reinforce certain identities over others, and can also engender a sense of common-ness among those counted and binned together. For example, the notion that 44% of India’s children are malnourished competes with the number of children who aren’t in school, or are in poverty, or the number who live in villages. While the children overlap, each label competes for mind space, and by extension, for policy prescriptions.

Deborah Stone - Counting Political

Counting caste can only strengthen it, while migration, modernity and education just may be slowly breaking them down.

One hypothesis I offer is that sub-castes were weakening in the 1980s and 1990s in some parts of India, because migration and smaller families were leading to higher search costs for arranged marriages. But with the internet and a plethora of matrimonial sites springing up in the 2000s, the search cost of someone of the same sub-caste might have dramatically reduced, strengthening castes in turn. However, the hypothesis is not testable with extant data – the flux in caste in India today remains unknown, and should probably stay that way.

PS. Chapters from Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox are essential readings in Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy programme. I will be teaching the CP101 Introductory Public Policy Analysis course for it in the February 2015 term.

PPS. Read Saurabh Chandra’s take from 2013 on weakening the mechanisms of caste.

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A Tale of Two Cities

The tale of Bangalore and Chennai’s growth is also the story of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s urbanisation.

The Indian growth story has included two actors in the past two decades, Bangalore and Chennai. Along with their parent states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, they have been the face of Indian progress, on everything from software to manufacturing to higher education.

Bangalore and Chennai are quite distinct from one another, and this post traces the differences in their urbanisation and their respective roles in their states. Chennai (formerly Madras) was designated as one of four ‘metro’ cities in India from independence, having been the capital of a British presidency before then. Bangalore was a more modest state capital. Till the mid-1980s, Bangalore was almost  two decades behind Chennai in its total population size*. Bangalore has since seen more rapid growth, and in 2011 the city was only a couple of lakh people smaller than Chennai.


It is tempting to view population growth as a competition between two cities, but cities urbanise within the context of their states. While both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are among India’s more urbanised states, but it is here that Tamil Nadu leaves Karnataka far behind. Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised large state in India, with almost half its population living in cities. For context, the Indian average of urbanisation is just one third. In Karnataka, about 38 per cent of its population lives in cities and towns.

Urbanisation and the successful movement of large numbers of people out of agriculture is key to prosperity for Indians, so it pays to examine what Tamil Nadu got right.

One feature of Tamil Nadu’s success is its lack of dependence on Chennai for all its urban growth. In 1991, Chennai was about 30 per cent of urban Tamil Nadu. The state’s largest spurt of urbanisation came between 1991 and 2001, increasing by over 10 percentage points. Most of this growth came from outside Chennai, with Chennai’s share of the state’s urban population steadily declining since 1991.


Much of the urban growth in Tamil Naducame from the reclassification of land and the setting up of town panchayats after the 74th amendment to the constitution was enacted. A lot of it also came from other large cities springing up. Today, Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy and likely Tiruppur all house million+ people each.

Karnataka’s urbanisation, on the other hand, continues to be led by Bangalore. The primacy of Bangalore in the state is paramount, with Hubli-Dharwad and Mysore having a population of barely a million each. Bangalore was over 35 per cent of urban Karnataka in 2011.

Not just that, but almost half of the urban growth in Karnataka came from Bangalore’s growth between 2001 and 2011. In comparison, only about a fifth of Tamil Nadu’s urban growth came from Chennai in the same decade.


This stark difference can perhaps be explained by extensive industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, which is conspicuous in its absence in its neighbouring state. From the city of Hosur giving competition to areas on the far side of the TN-Karnataka border to bustling ports trying to compete with Sri Lanka’s, Tamil Nadu has been more successful in providing an alternative to agriculture for large numbers of its people. Kerala’s urban spurt last decade appears to be similar, with habitations becoming larger and denser, as well as more people leaving agriculture as a profession. When and whether this can happen in Karnataka is an open question.

For now, Karnataka and its politics are still frequently dominated by agrarian concerns. The Western Ghats continue to pose a formidable barrier to the development of the state’s ports, with its largest port Mangalore competing with larger ports at Mumbai, Kochi and Goa. Connectivity – perhaps in the form of all-weather roads and tracks across the Western Ghats and high volume ports – may be just be the most potent driver of urbanisation in the state.

As the Karnataka government is trying to figure out how to split the Bangalore city corporation into more manageable pieces, more people should start reflecting on how to get more centres of urban growth going in the state.


*This is the population of the entire urban agglomeration. Since the Bangalore Municipal Corporation became the Bruhat Bangalore Municipal Corporation in 2006, all urban areas around Bangalore (with the exception of small census towns and Electronic City) have been governed under one municipal authority. Chennai, on the other hand has a metropolitan corporation that is co-terminal with the Chennai district and houses a little over half of the people in the Chennai urban agglomeration. Several other city councils and town councils govern the rest of it.

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INI9: 9 minute conversation with Rohini Nilekani

I discuss sanitation, malnutrition and dams with Rohini Nilekani in the latest INI9: 9 minute conversations on strategy, policy and politics.

The conversation happened on the sidelines of the Takshashila-Hudson conference, Shaping India’s New Growth Agenda: Implications for the World, Bangalore 2014.

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Purnaiah and Talleyrand

Two statesmen and survivors lived curiously similar lives around the same time and in far sides of the world.

In high school, we learnt of the attempts at collaboration between Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Mysore’s Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Both powers were implacable enemies of an expansionist British empire near the end of the 18th century, and tried to coordinate their efforts against the British in different parts of the world. Napolean tried to conquer Egypt and capture the Suez, in part because he wanted access to the Red Sea and India.

Many British individuals ended up playing significant roles in both theatres of conflict, including a young Arthur Wellesley, who participated in the final siege of Srirangapatna. Wellesley became a governor of Mysore and won a decisive victory against the Marathas at Assaye, before being spotted back home and pulled to the campaign in Europe against Napoleon. His military successes eventually led him to become the first Duke of Wellington.

Tipu, Hyder Ali and Napoleon were strong personalities in their own way, and some comparisons have been drawn between them both back then and later on. The novelist Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe fame) allegedly* had this to say, at the abdication of Napoleon in 1814:

Although I never supposed that [Napoleon] possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Hyder Ally, yet I did think he might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tippoo Sahib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand. [Wikipedia*]

However, the most astonishing duo were not the heads of state, but the Mysorean and French ministers Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

Talleyrand and Purnaiah

Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was a French politician and diplomat, who grew up and trained as a clergyman during the last years of the Ancien Régime. Early in his diplomatic career, Talleyrand was unsuccessfully sent to Britain to prevent war. This was just a year before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in the French revolution. Though he had to seek exile during the tumultuous early years of the French revolution, he managed to make it back and become the Foreign Minister. In this time he also started working alongside Napoleon Bonaparte and continued as foreign minister under him.

Talleyrand had a significant role to play in improving peace at stability through treaties between Napoleonic France and other European powers – complementing the emperor’s conquering zeal. Like Purnaiah, Talleyrand made it back again as the foreign minister when Louis XVIII was restored to power after Napoleon.

Purnaiah had an uncanny ability to be found indispensable, no matter who was ruling Mysore. A realist and a statesman in his own right, he managed to continually save his own fortunes as well as promote the public interest. As Vikram Sampath notes,

After Tipu was vanquished, when the British forces traced [Purnaiah] and compelled him to surrender he supposedly declared ‘How can I hesitate to surrender to a nation who is the protector of my tribe from Kashi to Rameshwaram?’ Of course the alternate view point has been that it was Tipu himself who urged his Prime Minister to flee and serve the next ruler of the Kingdom. [Statesman and a survivor, Deccan Herald, 2011]

The case was not very different with Talleyrand. Both Purnaiah and Talleyrand had conflicted relationships with their longest patrons – Tipu and Napoleon respectively. Both fell out of favour at times, and acted on their own interests when they had to, but remained important and impossible to ignore or completely sideline.

Here’s to two statesmen and survivors, from far sides of the world. Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

PS. I first heard of Talleyrand through a quote of his. “The one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit on it.”

Photo: Crops of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), Metropolitan Museum of Art & Purnaiya, Chief Minister of MysorYale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

*I say allegedly because I can find this on Wikipedia but am unable to find the original source.

Update, November 17: froginthewell shares the link for the original Walter Scott quote. It’s from “Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Walter Scott to Robert Southey, 17 Jun 1814” on Page 119. My thanks for the same.

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The Unhistoric US-China Climate Deal

China and the United States of America inked a climate pact this month and this has been lauded by various corners as landmark and historic. Vasudevan Mukunth quoted me in his article for Scroll.

Here is the full text of my comments to Scroll.

The history of the global negotiations on climate change negotiations has so far shown two things:

One, big emitters have typically employed salami slicing tactics, where they inch up the emission levels they are willing to go down to. Changing the base years and letting the reduction targets slide are commonplace.

Two, any penalty measures used to enforce emission reduction targets have been repeatedly flouted – including by countries like Canada – with no direct consequences.

I remain skeptical of this deal because the size of the Chinese emissions ‘peak’ remains unknown. That gives a lot of wiggle room for China. Secondly, there is no tangible enforcement mechanism presented, nor does one seem feasible. At best, this is a gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and China, and there are no gentlemen in international relations.

Implications for India and other developing countries:

India has routinely done a poor job of defending its record in global climate change negotiations, though it has done far better in substance than the likes of China. There is a risk that India will be painted into a corner, in spite of being a low carbon emitter on a per capita basis, and in spite of significant efforts at home to promote renewables.

Further, India’s more immediate focus must be on climate adaptation, but international financing and promotion of mitigation efforts serve to distract domestic policy. For India to get back to high economic growth, India must be willing and able to use all forms of energy — from coal to natural gas to nuclear power and renewables, and use the growth to provide better public goods and build resilient infrastructure.

This deal and its seeming historicity makes it a harder challenge for India to make its case convincing for a global audience.

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A Long Overdue Hike in Bangalore’s Water Prices

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) recently hiked its water tariff, a move that was long overdue.  I am quoted in Citizen Matters on why this hike is a good move.

The hike in BWSSB’s water tariff is a welcome development that was long overdue. BWSBB has been a national leader in the professional delivery of water supply and sewerage services, and it is no accident that Bangalore has the largest number of metered water connections in the country.

Water is an increasingly scarce resource in the 21st century, and pricing it at its highest marginal cost is essential to conserving this vanishing resource. While we talk about excessive or misdirected LPG and petrol subsidies, the water subsidy that even the most prosperous Bangalore receives is much higher.

The higher price of water will also spur more people to do rainwater harvesting and efficient use of water. We must also recognise that people pay many times more for water tankers – a small increase in BWSSB tariffs could in fact reduce overall water cost for the city’s residents.
[Citizen Matters: Should Bengalureans be grateful for BWSSB’s water rates? 11 November 2014]

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Liberalising Medical Education in India

I spoke on liberalising medical education in India, on the health panel at the Takshashila-Hudson conference on ‘Shaping India’s Growth Agenda: Implications for the World.’

We need a lot more doctors in India than we are currently producing and the stranglehold of the Medical Council of India on college education needs to be done away with.

A companion opinion piece to this video will be published soon.

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In Times of India: No Room for Jugaad on Mars

I write in the Sunday Times of India on how India must pursue high excellence like reaching Mars and get rid of the culture of jugaad.

Think of numbers about Mars. One jumps out at you. Rs 450 crore (approx $75 million). India crossed a technological milestone this week by successfully injecting a spacecraft into Martian orbit. While celebrating the fact that India has been able to achieve an elusive goal, we also want to celebrate the idea that ours is the cheapest mission to make it to Mars. A successful series of ads from Maruti Suzuki in 2010 showcases our love for the “low-cost” like no other. In one ad that was spooky in its foresight, a NASA tour guide is showing off a top-notch new spaceship meant for Jupiter. The first question that an Indian visitor asks is, “Kitna deti hai?”

ISRO did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

[Full Article: No Room for Jugaad on Mars, September 28, 2014]

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In Business Standard: Setting our sights beyond Mars

On the day after India’s successful Mars orbiter insertion, I write in Business Standard that India and ISRO must now focus on achieving human spaceflight, and that we have to do things differently in order to achieve it:

The target of human spaceflight is necessary because successful space programmes need visible goals to orient themselves and not get lost along the way. They also need public confidence and steady government support since the development cycles are long.

Space exploration is primarily a pursuit of excellence: of exploring the unexplored, doing the impossible and pushing the frontiers of knowledge and human ability. As India has seen in the last decade, having ambitious plans to get to Mars and the moon inspired ISRO to step up its game.

Clear targets like human spaceflight breed innovation and spark creativity. For the Mars mission to succeed, various ISRO wings had to align their objectives and work at their best, as a complex mission requires flawless execution. ISRO needed to figure out deep space communication, precision orbital planning for such a long and complex journey, as well as mechanics and electronics that leave little room for error – and they had to do all of this within a tight deadline.

Similarly, human spaceflight will require ISRO to develop technologies for more powerful launch vehicles capable of transporting larger capsules to space. It will need the ability to re-enter the atmosphere and reach back to earth safely. It will also need all the trappings necessary for humans to survive and thrive while in space, and more. These skills and technologies are transferable, and will eventually aid ISRO’s other efforts and the economy at large.
[Full Article: Setting our Sights Beyond Mars, September 24, 2014]

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In Business Standard: Indian Cities, New and Improved

I write in Business Standard today on the 100 smart cities plan announced by Venkaiah Naidu and the lessons they must learn from JNNURM almost a decade of centrally-sponsored urban development schemes:

JNNURM had a tantalising premise when it was first launched: the Union government will give cities money for infrastructure as an incentive for states to devolve power to cities, and for these cities to reform. The Union government was a third party in the state-city equation, hoping to tip the scales in favour of cities and true decentralisation.

The promise of JNNURM was lost for two broad reasons. One, the ministry of urban development had to perform two conflicting functions: it had to spend money by disbursing it to states, but it also had to audit and verify the reforms process. The outlays were conditional on meeting reform targets. Though the ministry did a lot in checking whether cities had completed enough reforms, the spending mandate usually won through, and poor reformers were rarely punished. This made it a weak incentive for genuine urban reform. Some cities like New Delhi also received large infrastructure funds from sources such as the Commonwealth Games, making JNNURM irrelevant as an impetus for reform.

Two, the Union ministries demanded an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and control for the projects approved. For example, if a town in Karnataka wanted to finance a water supply project under JNNURM that improved the lives of its residents, often the project had to meet extremely trying norms such as 24/7 water supply or complete metering of connections, which were enforced by Union ministries and attached bodies. While these are desirable, the lack of state-level decision-making led to the projects losing local relevance, apart from being subjected to an excruciatingly long and difficult process of approval. If the intent of the Union government was to incentivise reform, then perhaps it should not have controlled the type of infrastructure projects beyond setting broad norms.
[Full Article: Building Blocks to Smart Indian Cities, June 3, 2014]

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