Alternative Economics: India's Jajmani System

For some time, I have used this website as a platform to explore alternative economic models. Long time readers will remember explorations into the functioning of agricultural cooperatives in the former East German state as a hedge against unemployment and (a bit closer to home) the Ithaca Hour local currency project. I would like to once again move beyond our everyday economic systems to explore an entirely different way of life and what we can learn from it and possibly bring back to improve our communities back here in Upstate New York: the Hindu Jajmani system.

In her recent book on South Indian caste and religion, Fierce Gods, Diane Mines describes the ‘Jajmani System’:
In 1936, William Wiser first coined the term ‘jajmani system’ to describe a pattern of nonmonetary, nonmarket exchange he found at work in a North Indian village. He found that the non-Brahman landholders (called jajmān) in this village gave shares of their grain harvest as well as cooked food and other goods to other occupational jātis [castes] such as Barbers, Potters, Washermen, Carpenters, and Blacksmiths in return for long-term service. Wiser characterized these exchanges as ‘mutual’ or ‘symmetrical.’ That is, Wiser saw the jajmāni system as a division of labor where landholding castes exchanged grain for the services of the other jātis tit for tat… [1]
In the idealized jajmani system, all of the castes, “the priest, bard, accountant, goldsmith, florist vegetable grower, etc.etc, are served by all the other castes. They are the jajmans of these other castes. In turn each of these castes has a form of service to perform for the others. Each in turn is master. Each in turn is servant.”[2] Mines describes (in 1990) the continuation of this system in some economic areas: blacksmiths still came around to repair plows and wheels, barbers cut hair, washermen washed clothes and garland makers rode through town on bicycles every morning, throwing flowers (used for decoration of home altars) on front stoops. None of these people were typically paid in cash for their services[3]; however, during harvest, they were able to come to all of their traditional jajman—whether their services had been called upon or not—for a small share of grain (she describes as roughly 3 kg per household). Kumar reports that recompense could take the form of rent-free land, butter, milk, clothing and use of fruit trees. Miner describes one case where the landlord castes had set aside a field for the use of the potter caste, which they either rented or used for their own crops. The specialized castes also enjoyed other privileges on particular holy days: ritual meals, uncooked ceremonial foods and small gifts (candy, small amounts of cash, garlands and wooden spoons). They were, though, also expected to provide certain services on holy days and for life rituals, for example the washermen provide the wicks for oil lamps at weddings and the potters created special jars for ritual uses on holy days.

What separates the jajmani system from a contractual one is: (1) that it is an inheritable one, one generation of farmers has a relationship with the children of the specialized caste members that their parents had relationships with, (2) it is exclusive, in that a jajman family cannot receive specialized services from anyone except their traditional family clients and (3) finally, it is more than economic transaction, but assumes a ritual character and a supposed relationship of ‘affection.’ One’s traditional interlocutors in the jajmani system were viewed, in a way, as extended portions of the family.

This is not, however, to say that the Jajmani system is without its drawbacks. This system was embedded in a broader caste system and served to protect the rights and privileges of the dominant castes. Kumar writes that, “prior to 1843, many were in the position of serfs, i.e. subject to punishment if they tried to run away, or to change masters without permission of their patron.”[4] At it’s height, it was a form of feudalism, with patrons protecting the legal rights of their clients and clients serving (if necessary) as muscle to protect their patrons. In particular, clients served as ritual sinks for their patron’s bad karma, removing impurities and evil from the higher castes.

Although there is no doubt that the Jajmani System always had exploitative elements [5], many participants saw (and still see, as it does continue in rural India), it as one of mutual reciprocity and ‘affection.’ Those jajman relationships that remain today are ones of choice and are typically used to augment work for wages.

To return back to Upstate New York—a world away from rural India—there are certain elements that remain interesting and useful to us. For one, it shows that a complex civilization can function quite smoothly in a situation where a majority of economic transactions are neither based upon the Market nor upon the control of a centralized State. That South Asian civilization has produced fantastic works of art, music, poetry, philosophy and theology is undeniable—what most Western observers do not realize was that this was done largely upon a Jajmani foundation. Despite the claims of radical Objectivists and Libertarians, it is possible to have a decentralized civilization without a ‘Market.’

Furthermore, it points to a more human-centered form of economics. What is to say that our oil changes, haircuts, floral arrangements (such as on holidays and birthdays), dry cleaning, shoe repair, tailoring, plumbing and carpentry repairs (as opposed to construction) have to be on-the-spot monetary transactions? Would plumbers, dry cleaners, etc, benefit from having guaranteed yearly incomes? I’m not sure, though I know for certain that their clients would benefit greatly from being able to budget in a regular small retainer expenditure instead of large one-time fees. Though most likely most of these would be cash exchanges (perhaps a single large payment once a year or smaller ones throughout the year), the Hindu example shows that the exchange of food, goods and services on ritual occasions can help to forge powerful inter-personal bonds. Can we imagine a world where an elderly woman worked out a system with her plumber to give him garden vegetables in the summer and baked goods around Christmas in return for the peace of mind that comes with the knowledge that she won’t be saddled with a devastatingly huge bill in a plumbing emergency [6]?

By removing cash from the exchange, it becomes a far more personal event, necessitating the building of deeper ties… which become the foundation of viable, healthy communities. Some of the uncertainties and worries that inevitably come with our modern Capitalist system would be alleviated. Cash would—like in India—never disappear, but we would no longer need to view the world as entirely within its bounds.


Interesting Articles:
Is the Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism?
Changing Inter-Caste Relationships
A view of the modern, adapted Jajmani System
[1] Mines, Diane P. Fierce Gods: Inequality, Ritual and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2002.
[2] Kumar, D.S.V.Siddhardha. “
The Jajmani System in India
[3] Though she reports that sometimes, probably for large jobs, they were given a wage in addition to traditional reciprocity.
[4] Kumar
[5] And also never ‘perfect’ or ‘self-contained.’ Miner describes how market and cash forces came into play and that the system was always more flexible and fluid than simple feudalism would allow.
[6] Of course, for the time being at least, some cash would have to exchange hands… the plumber has bills to pay after all. But as interrelationships like these grew, the need for cash would decrease as well.


Anonymous said...

I like ideas of a communal, reciprocal local economy. But working within a caste system can be a nightmare. I used to work for a large municipal agency. It was a hierarchical bureacracy (of course), but the rigidity of that form was compounded by the fact that the director, who had been raised in India, regarded herself as a member of the priest ruling caste and ran the office accordingly. "Affection" had much to do with a**-kissing which was rewarded by her bestowment of small favors. She was ruthless - if she perceived (rightly or wrongly) that you were stepping out of bounds, punishment was swift (e.g., tongue-lashings in the privacy of her office; the withholding of small favors). On "high holy days" (commission hearing days) she favored formal, flowing designer suits that evoked priestly vestments. Oh yes - we were paid every two weeks - that's how that economy worked! ;-) I'm too much of an individualist, and I chafed under such a brutalistic, top-down regime - it was utterly foreign to my ethos. (Even at the agency, I worked very well in small-team settings - problem-solving, democratic, relaxed, focused on tasks at hand, not obsessed with rankings and "control".) It wasn't long before she cast me as an "untouchable." Eventually I quit. One has to be a conformist to work within a caste system. Oh well - interesting post - thanks for the memories (yikes!).

York Staters said...

That's quite a story, I guess there are pretentious people everywhere. Doesn't help when they mix in a belief in their own sacred status.

I'm certainly not calling for the creation of a caste system in America! It seems to me that most economic systems that we look at in history- whether they be Jajmani, Capitalist, State Socialist, etc- have oppressive elements that we don't want to emulate. I would also, however, put forward the thesis that there is something to be learned from most of them as well. The idea of reciprocity, communal thought and ritual-economics are--at least to me--captivating ones that deserve a second look.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting post, I finally got around to reading it...

Some random thoughts of my own, not exactly directed at the issue of this article, well in a round about way is that - bosses suck!

Not only does Upstate, NY have a problem with bosses, but I would say the entire USA, along with other countries throughout the world.

Capitalism kills and bosses often suck... People take their jobs way to seriously, and many have often forgotten the joy of life.

Work sucks,,, that is why I love snow days!

Here is an economic idea that is rather interesting...
Parecon: Life After Capitalism

Fred said...

I like the idea of a communal economy as well but I think you are forgetting one of the most important elements of this; there is a history in the community of this kind of reciprocal behavior. People in the community don't feel like they are being taken advantage of because they have a history of this tradition. I doubt that any American brought up in a market economy would feel the same. As far as paying for things in advance, I thought there was an increase in services that offer reduced yearly plans like insurance for people. I know I have seen law services that can be bought at a discount (although they seem sort of shady to me). I don't know why plumbers or others couldn't start something similar, although there is the notion of motivation. As the capitalist ethos is about money, if you already have my money, how fast are you going to come fix my leaking sink? But interesting idea.

York Staters said...

Thanks for the comments. One response that I want to make: it is true that an economic system based off of reciprocity would probably be easier for Indians to comprehend and implement because of their past. However, the Jajmani system is not somehow encoded in the genes or minds of Indians at birth, all human systems are created things... once upon a time the people of India, consciously or unconciously, created a reciprocal economic system where before there had been none. Human minds and cultures are incredibly flexible, creative phenomena.

Fred said...

I agree with you completely, society is not genetic. I guess its my belief that most changes in society are not consciously made nor are they quick to take place. I'm a cynic, I guess, but I don't think social movements really change things that often.