Business Class Rises in Ashes of Caste System
CHENNAI, India — Chezi K. Ganesan looks every inch the high-tech entrepreneur, dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of denim shirt and khaki trousers, slick smartphone close at hand. He splits his time between San Jose and this booming coastal metropolis, running his $6 million a year computer chip-making company.
His family has come a long way. His grandfather was not allowed to enter Hindu temples, or even to stand too close to upper-caste people, and women of his Nadar caste, who stood one notch above untouchables in India’s ancient caste hierarchy, were once forced to bare their breasts before upper caste men as a reminder of their low station.
“Caste has no impact on life today,” Mr. Ganesan said in an interview at one of Chennai’s exclusive social clubs, the kind of place where a generation ago someone of his caste would not have been welcome. “It is no longer a barrier.”
The Nadars’ spectacular rise from despised manual laborers who made a mildly alcoholic palm wine to business leaders in one of India’s most prosperous states offers significant clues to India’s caste conundrum and how it has impeded economic progress in many parts of the country.
India is enjoying an extended economic boom, with near double-digit growth. But the benefits have not been equally shared, and southern India has rocketed far ahead of much of the rest of the country on virtually every score — people here earn more money, are better educated, live longer lives and have fewer children.
A crucial factor is the collapse of the caste system over the last half century, a factor that undergirds many of the other reasons that the south has prospered — more stable governments, better infrastructure and a geographic position that gives it closer connections to the global economy.
“The breakdown of caste hierarchy has broken the traditional links between caste and profession, and released enormous entrepreneurial energies in the south,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University who has studied the role of caste in southern India’s development. This breakdown, he said, goes a long way to explaining “why the south has taken such a lead over the north in the last three decades.”
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