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Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty
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Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty

discussion period: : 12 Nov 2001 to 2 Dec 2001
category: Related Topics - Theme 1: A historical review of TSA and the poor



Official Respondants

Lalngaihawmi Laurence Hay

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Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty
A paper for The Salvation Army's International Summit on Poverty
Major Lalngaihawmi
Associate Executive Secretary for Social Development
Salvation Army Health and Social Services Advisory Council , India


Poverty is a socio-economic phenomenon which defies any precise definition; its concept and content varies from country to country depending upon what the particular society accepts as a reasonably good living standard for its people. Thus, in California, U.S.A, it would not be sursprising if a family owning less than two cars may be dubbed as poor. But in India, poverty manifests in its starkest form: as a visual of semi-starved, ill-clad, deprived millions of countrymen, thousands of them dying everyday from malnutrition, ill health, lack of basic amenities; this is a picture which is both appalling and agonising from any standards of human existence.

Socio-cultural rigidities have been an immense socio-economic hurdle to rapid economic development in India. Rapid economic growth requires a particular attitude of mind and highly elastic institutional pattern. A sharp desire for material betterment, a willingness to work hard and in a regular and punctual manner, an awareness of the future benefit of present sacrifices are pre-requisite to economic growth. But they are largely absent in India and for many of these to take root a social and cultural revolution is required. Notable economist Prof. Nurske feels that economic development has much to do with human endowments, social attitudes, political conditions and historical accidents. The socio-cultural patterns and the institutional structures in India are not conducive to change. There has been little or no time for institutions and value systems to adapt themselves to modern economic changes.

Values effect economic life. Indians by and large are fatalists. They believe in Karma. The poor man reconciles himself to his poverty and his rich neighbour may show him all the sympathy he can but feels that nothing can be done to relieve him of his poverty, because he believes that he is condemned to poverty by his previous Karma. In the past, therefore, the Indian Society has learned to live with poverty and there the matter ended.

Within the context of Christianity, the writers of Scripture do not blame people who are poor for their poverty or see them as inferior and lazy. Rather they are people whom God loves in a particular way because they have been crushed (Deuteronomy 24:14, 19-22; James 2: 1-7; 5: 1-6 )

Our goal in ministry is not simply to help poor people to meet their daily needs, we must also see them as people of dignity and worth in society. Our ministry must help them find transformation by the power of God and the empowerment to experience this dignity and worth. We may need to begin with food, clothing and shelter, but we must move on to the transformation of people and social structures. If we do not, our ministry can exacerbate the cycle of poverty.


Caste is a social group to which a person belongs by birth. Within a caste, most people share the same culture and occupation, belong to the same religious sect (group) and enjoy a similar level of wealth. Castes are ethnic groups, which, while they are integrated into the larger society, retain their distinguishing identities.

Caste may have existed in India before the arrival of Aryan from Central Asia in about 1500 B.C. Eventually, Aryan leaders and scholars called Brahmins developed a system for ranking the castes. The system consists of four ranked categories called Varnas (colours). In other words, they are organised along a hierarchy of status and power.

There are as many as 3000 castes, or Jatis, in India. However, each caste has its own customs and rituals. To maintain ritual purity, members of each caste neither marry nor dine with members of other castes, thus becoming a distinct ethnic group.

Hierarchy regulates relationships between people of different castes. Each caste has a rank based on its ritual purity. At the top are the priestly castes or Brahmins. Beneath these are Kshatriya castes, which once were the rulers and warriors; the Vaishya castes, which handled banking and trade; and a great many Sudra castes, such as farmers, craftsmen (weavers, potters, ironsmiths, carpenters, rocksmiths, goldsmiths) and service people (barbers and laundrymen, to name two). At the bottom of the social scale are 'Untouchable' castes (sweepers, leather workers), which keep the village clean.

Castes are integrated into the single economic system by this specialization in occupation, and the members are valued accordingly. Many castes have monopolies on certain essential occupations like blacksmith, goldsmith, carpenter, fishermen, tanner etc. At the same time, not all castes in India have occupational monopolies and not all work belongs to certain castes. Day labor, farming, general trade and other tasks are open to everyone. So also are modern occupations such as tailoring using modern sewing machines, aluminum workers, taxi drivers, and factory workers.

The structural caste system is the primary barrier that prevents the person from moving to the next stage of development in society, whether it is in economic terms, position and status in the society, or occupation. Since it is based on birth, it is directly linked to Karma and limits the mobility of individuals and family groups. This contributes directly to the lack of the attitudes and values that are needed to help people break free of poverty.

While people are not unaware of their economic situation, whether it be wealth or poverty, they may feel helpless to change. Within the caste system, poverty is experienced as a range of perceptions, from fatalistic acceptance of punishment from the gods ('who can resist the gods?'), to grinding injustice, sometimes leading to violent attempts to obtain emancipation and justice.

Many attempts have been made to eliminate the system, but all have failed. India's 1950's constitution outlaws untouchability and grants equality to all peoples, but people remain locked into their caste identity, their very names often proclaiming their caste. Laws and modern urban life have weakened the system only somewhat. Caste prejudice remains an important factor interfering with India's social integration and economic progress.

Tribe and Clan

In anthropology, a tribe is a monoethnic society occupying a given territory and having one language and culture. Tribal peoples traditionally live by hunting and gathering food, by horticulture, or by herding. Their technology may be simple, but that does not mean they are backward. They often have rich, complex social systems, philosophies, and religions, as well as beautiful music and art.
Life in a tribe is based on families and local communities. Clans are groups of related of families within the tribe, so a tribe can be seen as a family of families, or even a family of families of families.

A similar pattern is reflected in the role of associations of people, not necessarily related by kinship, which also have an important place in everyday life in most tribes. Women join to form work teams and women's societies. Men organize hunting and military associations and male societies.

The group, not the individual, is the primary building block of tribal societies. Kinship ties remain the center of life and are used to perform the major functions of social life. Social relationships are the heart of tribal life. A person exists only as he or she is part of a group. Boganjolo Goba writes,

Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole community to which he belongs, whatever happens to the community happens to him as well. His life and that of the community is one and cannot be separated for it transcends life and death. Hence he can say, 'I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am.'

One expression of this interdependence is usually a strong spiritual faith. This is often animism, and in some cases, such as the Mizo people of North Eastern India, this is Christianity. The values expressed in their interdependence are also expressed in their dependence upon God to provide their needs. These same values tend to keep them from giving very much thought to storing up wealth for the future.

In tribal societies maintaining harmonious relationships with other living beings is essential to life. Building relationships is more important than completing tasks, and visiting more important than getting somewhere on time. For them a world of relationships is a moral world. Sin has to do with a break in relationships between humans, gods, spirits, ancestors, animals and earth. The consequence is a loss of peace and the breakdown of the community. Reconciliation is the restoration of relationships and harmony.

In a relational world, a high value is placed on sharing and taking responsibility for those in one's group. Great people are not those who keep what they have for themselves but those who share freely with those in need.

For the Mizo tribe, whenever they gather fresh vegetables from their farms, it is a duty for any family to share their own fresh vegetables with their neighbours. If there is a family in the community who cannot take care of cultivating their jhum (farm) due to ill health in a year, the people in that community together voluntarily take care of cultivating the jhum for that family, without expecting any returns. It is the responsibility of the people in that community to help the neighbour not to go hungry as far as possible. Otherwise it will be a shame for them eat while the neighbour is starving.

In this situation, the concept of poverty is very limited. At the risk of over simplification, one could express it as, 'Our neighbour who lacks food or shelter is poor, and we who have are responsible to share so that the neighbour will not be hungry and will have shelter.' The solution to poverty is immediate local action to meet immediate need.

But the fabric of tribal interdependence can be easily torn. It depends on individual surrender to the inter-linkage of relationships and obligations that are the heart of this interdependence. In the past this was a given for almost all members of the tribe. But, with modern ideas, images and even material culture flooding in via media and merchants, people are becoming aware of alternative values and lifestyles, and some are selecting to leave interdependency for what they perceive as independence. The result is rapid change in material culture with an emphasis on accumulation of goods, comfort and wealth on one hand, and, especially visible in some of the youth, involvement in unhealthy behaviours and addictions, leading to real degradation of quality of life and even hunger on the other. Both of these manifestations are leading to a new perception of, and entrapment in poverty.

The interdependence which is characteristic of tribal societies is a strength that has allowed tribes to survive in even harsh conditions, and to find satisfaction in what could be called minimally comfortable subsistence. Anyone who wishes to work on poverty alleviation or economic development in the tribal society needs to believe in this strength and deliberately allow it to work, even strategically facilitate its expression, in the community's response.


(1) World Book 1999 and 2000. IVID Communications.
(2) Population Growth and Human Development- Anthony D.Souza and Alfred D'Souza
(3) Economic Development of India... A.N Sachdeva and Dr. G.D Awasthi
(4) Challenge of Poverty in India... A.J Fonseca
(5) Economic History of India.. Vol -1 Romesh Dutt, CIE
(6) Incarnational Ministry (Planting Churches In Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies - Paul G. Hiebert and Eloise Hiebert Meneses (Published by Baker Books, August 2000)

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[Previous Main Document]

Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (Karl Larsson)
. . re: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (Gracia Matondo)
. . . . RE: re: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (India Social Development)
. . re: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (Alison Rader)
. . re: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (James E Read)
. . RE: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (Laurence Hay)
. . . . re: RE: Impact of Casteism, tribalism and clan on poverty (Karen H Hoeft)

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