The peculiar feature of Indian society in which Jati (caste) system was the fundamental modal of socioeconomic organisation, its sustenance in the rural areas could only be ensured by Yajmani (also spelled Jajmani) system which was intricately intertwined with Jati system. In Yajmani system, the Jatis which were engaged in providing different services and products were integrated with the Jatis which were primarily agriculture producers or performed administrative activities. The discussion in subsequent paragraphs of Yajmani system will be restricted to rural areas where it is still in existence to some extent.
To understand the Yajmani system, we will start with the most common example of how the system works for someone who belongs to a Jati engaged in agriculture. A person engaged in agriculture needs different kind of services for religious and secular activities – iron ploughs for ploughing the land, bullock cart for carrying loads, leather straps for tying oxen to specific wooden implants during ploughing, service of Brahmans for conducting a wedding or any another samskara, pitchers for storing water in summer, service of barbers for regular and specific events such as death or wedding etc. In the Jati system, each of these products and services were provided by specific Jatis who specialized in their own domains.
In Yajmani system, each of the required products and services to a household was provided by the designated members of different Jatis. For example, if A needs iron ploughs, B from Luhar (blacksmith) Jati will provide the required product. The interesting thing to note here is that B has traditionally inherited A as his patron, which he is not allowed to change nor A has the option of going to a different vendor. When B passes away, his offsprings will inherit the same business relationship with the offsprings of A. It was a patron-client model in which the relationship was transmitted across generations where both the parties had guarantee of the relationship.
In this model, the mode of payment for the services and products varied on multiple factors. It was dependent on the geography, occupation of the patron and the nature of service. If the patron belonged to agricultural Jati, the payment was made after the main season of harvest in form of grains. In Eastern India, the payment was usually done using rice as it was the main cereal for the region. The amount of payment varied on the basis of nature of services rendered. Jatis which provided products used to calculate their expected payment on the basis of kind of products which they had delivered in a specific year while Jatis which provided services had a fixed payment and additional payments for specific activities. For example, a barber was given fixed amount of grains every year irrespective of the volume of services provided, but if he had also provided his services for a wedding during the year, he received an additional payment for that service.
The Yajmani system which we have described above differs greatly from the employer-employee model of the industrial world. Unlike employer-employee model, Yajmani system adopted a hereditary model in which the business relationship was carried forward across generations. In this system, if a patron was not happy with the quality of services or products rendered, he didn’t have the easier option of changing the vendor. If he wished to change the vendor, no other vendor would be ready to provide him the services as it will create a conflict amongst the members of their own Jati and violate the fundamental norm of not encroaching in the territory of fellow members of the community.
In the employer-employee model, the employer is free to terminate the employment of the employees based on the terms and conditions associated with the employment as opposed to the Yajmani system. While in pre-industrial world, the system ensured stability of the socioeconomic order as economic transactions were intimately connected with the social relationships, it took away the incentive to be entrepreneurial and innovative. As the producers or service providers were assured of definite base of patrons, they had no incentive to innovate as there was no additional reward associated with it. The chances of gaining an additional patron were slim owing to the social norms and the potential patron already having their own service providers. Having said that, Yajmani system was a functional social institution in a world where there was no clear difference between economic and social relationships and they often converged.