The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Fall 2001.

Jan Breman, Karin Kapadia, Jonathan Parry, eds., The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Contributions to Indian Sociology, Occassional Studies 9). New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Marking both a renewal of interest in labour studies and an important disciplinary shift, the publication of this anthology is a significant event. Introduced by Jonathan Parry, the fourteen essays by sociologists, anthropologists and historians in the volume include two “book-ends” introductory and concluding reviews of the respective literatures on the “organised” and “informal” sectors of the industrial economy in India, both by Jan Breman. These chart the shifts in labour studies from the narrow emphasis on the tiny formal sector of the economy — about workers’ “commitment” to the industrial setting, measures of productivity, the social profile of formal sector workers, and trade union strategies — to the much larger and unwieldy “informal” sector of the economy, incredibly neglected by research scholars. While questioning this dualism in the study of economic activity in India, Breman raises questions about the formation and coherence of the working-class or proletariat as an identity and analytical category, the diversity of forms of wage labour and industrial production — from home-based to small workshops to large factories — and the multiplicity of workers’ identities in both formal and informal occupations.

The essays are as follows. Dilip Simeon offers a history of the coal industry in Jharia, South Bihar, and the changing relations of capital, labour and state in the context of working class and tribal movements. Chistropher Pinney locates a pessimistic discourse on industrial modernity as Kaliyuga for the managers of a large plant in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, while for the local workers — the subject of these constructions of rural rusticity and traditionalism — there is a less nostalgic feeling towards the exploitation from which the factory has liberated them. Jonathan Parry examines the Bhilai Steel Plant and takes issue with E.P. Thompson’s thesis on the transformation brought about by industrial work discipline, arguing this effaces the variability of rhythms of industrial production.

Two pieces explore memory and the construction of the past. Douglas Haynes, in a piece on the textile industries of Surat and Bhiwandi, discusses the idioms of industrial relations and their inflection by languages of morality, caste and kinship, in different ways deployed by both employers and workers to articulate contemporary concerns. Chitra Joshi, writing on the crisis-striken textile mills of Kanpur — today mostly closed — explores the narratives of industrial decline of a decimated workforce with a memory of the labour militancy in the 1930s.

Raj Chandavarkar, in a rich meditation on labour historiography — with material on the Bombay textile strikes of 1928-9 offers a critique of mechantistic narratives of industrialisation and proletarian consciousness, and their insufficient treatment of the contingencies in the formation of class identity. Samita Sen, in a history of the Calcutta jute mill industry, foregrounds the position of women in the urban industrial workforce, documenting how their labour and lives were marginalised and domesticated by colonial capitalism and patriarchy.

Several pieces directly address the “informal” sector. One of the weaker contributions is Arjan de Haan’s piece on evolution of the badli, or substitute, labour system in the Calcutta jute industry, in which he unconvincingly argues that the badli system, labour recruitment, and migration patterns need to be seen as an aspect of workers’ agency, their “choices” and “value”, rather than as a business strategy to retain a flexible and exploited labour force. Peter Knorriga maps the unstable industrial relations in the small-scale, mostly home-based production units in the Agra footwear industry.

Karin Kapadia contests traditional arguments about class formation in her study of the synthetic diamond industry in rural Tamilnadu, arguing that workers’ identities are mediated, and the “flexibility” of the globalising labour market maintained, through gender discourses and practices. Miranda Engelshoven analyses the formation of the urban Saurashtra Patel community through the the production relations of the diamond industry in Surat, and discusses obstacles to workers’ organisation. Geert de Neve analyses the practice of tying labour to maintain a stable workforce in powerloom industry in Tamil Nadu, and how what was once an employers’ strategy of bondage has become a reciprocal relation for workers in search of a better livelihood.

The revival of interest in labour studies in India — distinct from the post-Independence intellectual and policy interest in labour — comes both at a time when the foundational categories of the disciplines concerned with the study of labour are being contested, as well as in a political conjuncture when working-class radicalism is at a low ebb and capital at its most expansive. The contributions to this exceptional volume confront the conceptual challenges faced in the study of the historical and contemporary working landscape in India, and offer exciting new possibilities for research by all social scientists.