Poverty and Public Celebrations in Rural India

26 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2016

See all articles by Vijayendra Rao

Vijayendra Rao

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG)

Date Written: January 2001


Very poor households spend large sums on celebrations. To the extent that these expenditures are central to maintaining the networks essential for social relationships and coping with poverty, these are reasonable expenses. To the extent that they are status competitions, they may merely increase conspicuous consumption.

Rao examines the paradox of very poor households spending large sums on celebrations. Using qualitative and quantitative data from South India, Rao demonstrates that spending on weddings and festivals can be explained by integrating an anthropological understanding of how identity is shaped in Indian society with an economic analysis of decisionmaking under conditions of extreme poverty and risk.

Rao argues that publicly observable celebrations have two functions: they provide a space for maintaining social reputations and webs of obligation, and they serve as arenas for status-making competitions.

The first role is central to maintaining the networks essential for social relationships and coping with poverty. The second is a correlate of mobility that may become more prevalent as incomes rise.

Development policies that favor individual over collective action reduce the incentives for the networking function and increase the incentives for status- enhancing functions - thus reducing social cohesion and increasing conspicuous consumption.

Market-driven improvements in urban employment, for example, could reduce a family's dependence on its traditional networks, could reduce incentives to maintain these networks, and could reduce social cohesion within a village and thus its capacity for collective action. In contrast, microfinance programs and social funds try to retain and even build a community's capacity for collective action.

This paper - a product of Poverty and Human Resources, Development Research Group - is part of a larger effort in the group to study the relationship between poverty and collective action. The author may be contacted at vrao@worldbank.org.

Suggested Citation

Rao, Vijayendra, Poverty and Public Celebrations in Rural India (January 2001). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2528. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=632598

Vijayendra Rao (Contact Author)

World Bank - Development Research Group (DECRG) ( email )

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