ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Work and Life at the Bottom

at the Bottom Down and Out: Labouring under Global Capitalism text by Jan Breman and Arvind N Das, photographs by Ravi Agarwal; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000,

Labouring people are the backbone of our civilisation. They produce wealth and prosperity. But in the present scenario of globalisation they are down and out, treated as parasites and deadweight. Consequently their rightful place as citizens in mainstream society is ignored. At one time, labour studies occupied an important place in social science research. The subject is now relegated to footnotes and appendices in contemporary intellectual discourse. In such an environment, a book on labour is a welcome timely reminder of our misplaced direction. This is an unusual social science book. More so in its presentation. This is a photo-book with the text written in non-social science style. The committed social scientists wish to reach out a larger audience and sensitise them on the condition of the labouring class. The get-up and format is that of a coffee table book. But it is not meant to be read and looked in a relaxed mood and casual manner. It sensitises the reader and makes her/him uneasy as the photographs and text unfold the harsh conditions in which a majority of labourers toil.

This volume is a collective work of three concerned scholars. They share a common outlook. Jan Breman is a Dutch social anthropologist who has researched in south Gujarat for more than three decades. He has captured the changing socio-economic scenario at the macro and micro levels and condition of the labouring class in his many scholarly writings. This book provides a gist of his perspective, theoretical framework and empirical observations which are shared by the co-authors of the volume – Arvind Narayan Das and Ravi Agarwal. Arvind, social scientist turned journalist, alas is no longer with us. His premature demise has created a void in the circle of committed social scientists and journalists. Arvind had a deep understanding of Bihar society. His series of articles on Bihar in The Times of India and his three books Agrarian Unrest and Socio-Economic Change (1980), The Republic of Bihar (1990) and Changel: The Biography of a Village are well known and reflect his deep understanding of political processes not only in Bihar but also in the country. He also studied Gujarat and closely observed the condition of labour in the powerloom and diamond industries in Surat during his association with Centre for Social Studies. The book bears the imprint of his style. Ravi Agarwal is a social activist in the field of environment and social life. He worked on the project for more than a year and took more than 800 pictures which were exhibited in Ahmedabad in the last March. From them 153 selected photographs are presented in the book. The depth in which the working and living conditions are captured is commendable.

The main argument of the book, as of the other writings of Breman, is that deprivation and degradation of the toiling masses in the third world cannot be understood as the inevitable outcome of stagnation and the socio-cultural milieu of society. Their origin lies in the politics and policies of the development process itself. Capitalist path of industrial development which is now conspicuously a part of globalisation is the core of the modernity project that the Indian ruling class has followed since independence. In this project the terms of the trade are heavily in favour of industry. In the quest for building ‘modern’ India the policy-makers and planners insisted that “the agrarian-rural mode of production, the societal framework on the south Asian subcontinent since the time immemorial, would soon fade away to be replaced by an industrial upper way of life” (p 6). The earlier half-hearted land reform and other measures which provided little relief to the poor are now given up as redundant under the dominance of the laissez-faire economy of globalisation. It is now being argued that “instead of increasing the deadweight at the bottom of the rural order by parcelling out tiny plots that were bound to remain uneconomic landholding, their underprivileged clientele would find a much brighter future in the multitude of urban factories that would spring up”. In the process, globalisation has also encouraged ‘informalisation’ of the factories. The workers are getting more and more fragmented. The welfare state has begun to retreat.

In this scenario it is the concern of the authors of this volume to describe the condition of the labourers in urban and rural farm and non-farm sectors. The location is Gujarat, one of the industrially advanced regions of the country, a laboratory for globalisation and hindutva. Following Wallerstein, though differing on the concept of “a single mode of production”, as early as in 1976 Breman argued that duality of formal-informal labour and rural-urban economy is artificial. Such dichotomy loses sight of multiple identities and ambiguities in the vast landscape of labour. There is a continuum, in the economy. A number of photographs in this book eloquently highlight this point. The picture on page 27, for instance, shows a waterlogged paddy farm on the outskirts of Surat city where workers – young and old, male and female – are working. In the background of the farm is a row of multi-storeyed building and posh bungalows. Similarly, the pictures of village life, the posters depicting film actors, religious leaders and consumer items, commuters using various modes of transport highlight the penetration of the market in the countryside. With this the authors assert that “the village subsidises capital and commerce and it, in turn, gets affected by them” (p 30).

Besides the prologue by Jan Bremen and the epilogue by Arvind Das, the book is divided into 11 chapters. Each one covers different aspects of the workers’ work situation and daily life. Chapter four graphically presents the workers on the move by foot, cycle, bus, truck, tempo and train. Migration is not a one-way process. The workers are in circulation. The chapter opens with a stanza from Raj Kapoor’s famous film ‘Shri 420’. But the authors warn us against romanticising migration. They tell us that unlike Raj Kapoor of the film, the migrants are aware of their destination. They are armed with the knowladge of market and carry whatever tools they can gather to earn a livelihood. The next six chapters are on their work situation as so-called self-employed workers such as plumbers, cobblers, vendors, coolies, tea, pan and bidi sellers, ragpickers, etc, wage labourers in the powerloom industry, diamond cutting, road and building construction, brick factory, quarry and sugarcane farms. All the photographs speak volumes on their alienation, drudgery and work situation in which the workers are crushed like the sugarcane. The next two chapters are on their activities “off the work” if there are any, and their silent and open assertion for dignity.

The book presents images of people who are producing wealth, creating growth and sustaining development without themselves sharing justly and fairly the prosperity and well-being that they have significantly increased. The picture on page 141 tellingly conveys this. The picture juxtaposes an advertisement hoarding and pavement-dwellers. The board with a picture of three generations proclaims, ‘Yesterday, today and tomorrow SUMUL (Dairy): Milk, Ghee and Mithai (Sweets)’. Below the board are two generations of a labourer’s family helplessly struggling for food for survival. Again the photo on page 111 highlights the contrast of shelter: a multi-storeyed building constructed by labourers and their own temporary huts on the pavement.

Because of low wages and insecurity of employment the workers are malnourished and do not have basic amenities. The technology that they use do not have safety measures. As a result they constantly live under the risk of major and minor injuries and other health hazards. They are vulnerable to chronic diseases like dysentery, diarrhoea, tuberculosis and malaria. They are victims of all kinds of injuries in sugarcane farms, brick factories, building and road construction and quarries. Their suffering and misery even the masterly pictures cannot capture. This is a limitation of the medium. As one of the workers said, “I can show you the wounds on my body, but not the pain that I feel inside my body” (p 75). Women and children are often exposed to sex abuse and fall victim to veneral diseases. They do protest, but such protest has severe limitations in the situation in which they work. The authors observe that “Usually the only protest possible against such treatment is to leave the workplace. And that option is not open to them in a system of subordination practised by employers, gang bosses and the male heads of labouring households” (p 109).

The picture at the bottom is dismal and gloomy. Not that the poor are becoming poorer; but inequality is widening and the power of the dominant is all pervasive and intensive. Casualisation, informalisation and contractualisation of labour have grown unabated in the global market. Labouring people are marginalised: they are down and out. Many would tend to agree with the authors that the “working people are nowhere near becoming a class for itself; they even do not constitute a class in itself” (p 20). Nonetheless new social consciousness of deprivation and rights has also emerged which manifests in different ways. Arvind Das rightly observes in the Epilogue that a large section of people are excluded from the fruits of productivity to which they contribute. There is no visible organised movement expressing collective solidarity which we witnessed a few decades ago. “And yet, not only work but life also must go on and dignity and hope, protest and resistance, honour and optimism must be asserted even in these dismal conditions. And they are” (p 156). Arvind lived with this optimism, shared by many others. Echoing this sentiment, Bremen expresses his hope in the Prologue: “There can be little doubt that this swelling tide of assertion to insist on a fairer share in distribution of prosperity is going to find expression, sooner rather than later” (p 9).

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