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Economic Liberalisation, Work and Democracy

Economic liberalisation has brought about significant changes in the experience and meanings of work, as well as in the social consciousness and political subjectivity of workers. This paper explores the transformation of ideas about the state, democracy and rights, and the impact on political action. A case study of declining jute industrial areas of Kolkata shows that the labouring poor interpret their experience of unemployment and "casualisation" not primarily as an economic phenomenon, but as a political crisis involving the betrayal of the working classes. This perception has led the poor to abandon political activism, to condemn democratic politics as unrepresentative, and to confine their engagement with institutional politics merely to extracting patronage benefits. Working class youth seek to exercise their agency within the urban locality in diverse ways, ranging from extortion and coercion to local community-oriented social work. Politics among this section of the poor is undergoing intense localisation, shunning the wider arena of democratic politics, thus spelling a crisis of political representation and participation.

Economic Liberalisation, Work and Democracy Industrial Decline and Urban Politics in Kolkata

Economic liberalisation has brought about significant changes in the experience and meanings of work, as well as in the social consciousness and political subjectivity of workers. This paper explores the transformation of ideas about the state, democracy and rights, and the impact on political action. A case study of declining jute industrial areas of Kolkata shows that the labouring poor interpret their experience of unemployment and “casualisation” not primarily as an economic phenomenon, but as a political crisis involving the betrayal of the working classes. This perception has led the poor to abandon political activism, to condemn democratic politics as unrepresentative, and to confine their engagement with institutional politics merely to extracting patronage benefits. Working class youth seek to exercise their agency within the urban locality in diverse ways, ranging from extortion and coercion to local community-oriented social work. Politics among this section of the poor is undergoing intense localisation, shunning the wider arena of democratic politics, thus spelling a crisis of political representation and participation.


conomic reforms in India since the 1980s have brought about significant changes in the organisation of work, labour markets, employment relations and workplace practices, as well as a re-evaluation of the social worth, public status and discursive meanings of various forms of work and labour. As is well known, the legitimacy of labour rights and of working class political activism has yielded to the perceived compulsion to augment efficiency, international competitiveness and private investment. Technology and business now dominate public imagination as the sources of both individual social mobility and national economic growth. The economic importance of manual and industrial work has been devalued, and the role of labour has also been undermined as a constituency in democratic, party politics or as a major presence in left wing politics. These normative shifts have implications for work, not only in the small and shrinking “formal” or “organised” sector, but also in the wider economy. As the experience and meanings of work change under globalisation, so do social consciousness and political subjectivity of workers, variously affecting relations of community, class, gender and generation; political and social norms; ideas about difference and hierarchy; conceptions of the state, democracy and citizenship. Changing notions of work, social perceptions and political attitudes and practices, in turn, have a farreaching impact on wider political processes, which forms the subject of this paper, with a focus on the labouring poor in areas of industrial decline.

A voluminous literature on developing countries has drawn attention to the diverse political consequences of globalisation and economic reforms. On the positive side, freeing of the market and the curtailment of state regulations are believed to have given an impetus to self-employment, micro-enterprise and marketbased institutions, and thus strengthened the informal sector, not only for economic opportunities, but also as an arena of political action, often in rejection of interventionist states.1 Economic reforms are also understood to energise civil society organisations and thus, ultimately boost political pluralism and dynamise democracy [Bratton 1989, Bratton and van de Walle 1992]. The beneficial links between market liberalisation and political liberalism constitute the analytical crux of these accounts. Other interpretations, however, are less positive. In Africa, for instance, the adverse economic consequences of structural adjustment in the 1980s, often implemented by authoritarian governments, undermined the post-colonial “social contract” with the state, led to “popular departicipation in the political process”, and elicited political protests [Olukoshi (ed) 1998: pp 20-21, 28; Gibbon, Bangura and Ofstad (ed) 1992]. From a range of different, and not necessarily converging, perspectives, it has been suggested that “casualisation”, rapid turnover of jobs, unemployment, declining living standards, and downward social and economic mobility of the labouring poor, compounded by urban social and spatial polarisation, retreat of the state, lack of state protection, growing physical insecurity and lawlessness have variously led to the decline of class-based action, fragmented the working class, fuelled ethnic or religious tensions and identity politics, generated political unrest and protest, and turned urban areas into sites of political instability, conflict, vigilantism, crime, drug trafficking, and violence, even civil wars.2 Despite differences in interpretation, the analytical accent in these various discussions is on the experience of marginalisation, vulnerability and insecurity in determining political outcomes. On a somewhat less pessimistic note, particularly for Latin America, while it is acknowledged that economic restructuring has intensified both material deprivation and social exclusion, and stimulated crime as a form of entrepreneurship, yet at the same time, it is argued, collective action and community mobilisation have thrived among the poor and contributed to the electoral success of populist, left-leaning political parties [Portes and Hoffman 2003; Oxhorn and Starr (eds) 1999]. Similarly, among the “new poor” – those adversely affected by structural adjustment policies – new forms of association, political engagement and strategy for coping or survival have been detected. Where older institutions like trade unions have lost their importance or where erstwhile patterns of clientelism centred on state institutions have declined, in their place, new mediating institutions or charismatic individuals and “strong” leaders or “big men” have, at times, emerged to represent the poor or act as their patrons [Vilas 1997; de la Rocha et al 2004]. This politics of “new poverty” in Latin America is often marked by historical continuities with social movements and rights-based urban political action, and is set within an institutional context of democratisation, decentralisation, participatory governance, NGO activism and increasing local level development policy interventions, albeit with the limited integration and access of the poor to political institutions. In these diverse analyses, institutional political change in the neoliberal era is emphasised, alongside economic or material aspects of structural adjustment, in shaping the politics of “new poverty”. The literature on economic reforms and politics has also drawn attention to the increasing localisation of politics in the context of decentralisation and the development of the local arena as a meaningful site of popular political engagement [Harriss, Stokke and Tornquist 2006].

On India too, a variety of perspectives have emerged on urban popular politics in the era of economic reforms. Within the broad analytical framework of social marginalisation, Jan Breman has examined the impact of industrial decline in Ahmedabad and concluded that with the decline of the textile mill economy, the erstwhile political tradition of working class collective action gave way to narrow sectarian identities and religious mobilisation, within a wider context of the rise of fundamentalism, caste conflict and communal tensions [Breman 2002, 2004]. Similarly, Mahadevia points to the communalisation of politics in Ahmedabad in the context of informalisation of work, increasing vulnerability and spatial exclusion of the poor [Mahadevia 2002; Kundu and Mahadevia 2001]. Chitra Joshi too links the history of mill decline in Kanpur with the crystallisation of communal identities [Joshi 2002]. On a different note, general studies on Indian democracy, based on electoral and survey data, have demonstrated the commitment of the underprivileged to democracy and their sustained electoral participation [Alam 1999, 2004; Yadav 1999]. John Harriss has shown with evidence from Delhi, that in Indian cities, political parties, their local leaders and events organised by them hold sway among the labouring poor. Unlike in Latin America, alternative forms of political organisation and association or social movements have not manifested themselves to any significant extent. Concentrating on political action and organisation of the urban poor to “tackle their collective social problems” under liberalisation, Harriss concludes that poor people continue to rely on their local political representatives – “big men”, often through the vehicle of neighbourhood associations [Harriss 2005]. While Harriss gives an interesting insight into political behaviour, his study is not concerned with political attitudes and norms that underpin action, and, thus, he does not fully address the meaning and significance of this type of politics to the poor.

In this paper, the changing nature of the politics of the urban labouring poor under economic reforms is examined from the analytical angle of the transformation of political perceptions and ideas, which are, in turn, approached through the prism of changes in the experience and meanings of work and labour. The aim here is not to unearth hitherto unknown forms of political action or to devise a fresh model of correlation between economic liberalisation and its political impact, but to suggest a different analytical approach that would shed new light on the subject from the hitherto largely neglected vantage point of the interplay of work, labour, political ideas and practice. In the light of various interpretations of politics noted above, the paper probes the proposition that economic restructuring has fuelled criminalisation of politics, violence or sectarian conflict, especially among unemployed and economically marginalised urban youth. Rather than starting with the premise that the disaffected poor contribute to urban violence and political conflict, this paper devotes attention to uncovering how, for instance, ideas about democracy, rights, public morality or political responsibility might have been transformed, and how such changes mediate democratic participation and political behaviour, with or without violence. The paper examines whether the history of democratic politics and labour activism in the past several decades left any enduring mark on working class consciousness, or whether apparently “primordial” or ascriptive religious and ethnic identities have proved to be more durable and led working class communities and the poor to succumb easily to political mobilisation along these lines.

To analyse political attitudes and action, this research is based on a case study, set in the context of unemployment and “informalisation” or “casualisation” of the labour market. The geographical focus is on areas of industrial decline in Kolkata, specifically jute mill districts. The research covered erstwhile mill workers as well as others in the locality, especially young people, who have not been in factory employment, but are affected by the impact of industrial decline on the local economy. Fieldwork for this research, including interviews, focus group discussions, non-participant observation, was undertaken in slums and working class neighbourhoods, between 2000 and 2005, in a municipality of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area, which has a population of over 1,24,000 and a remarkable population density of over 38,000 per sq km, with over 78 per cent of the population living in slums,3 and over 70 per cent classed as living below poverty line (BPL).4 Research was also conducted in and around the “coolie lines” (residential quarters) of a jute mill in the adjacent municipality. Most people in these areas have historically depended on six jute mills in the locality, or on jobs in the local economy servicing the factories and mill population. Mills in the area, as also in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Kanpur, have been in a state of acute crisis from the early 1980s, with the gradual onset of policies to liberalise the economy. Factories here face long-term lockout or periodic closure, and offer only irregular jobs and pay, most often on a casual basis. There is now an enormous pressure of job seekers on local petty trade, transport and construction, and on a handful of small manufacturing workshops – readymade clothing, car and bicycle repair, plastic toys and the like. Pressure on local jobs and economic opportunities has led to what Mike Davis characterises as “urban involution”, following Clifford Geertz’s description of overcrowding in the economy that has to “provide everyone with some niche, however small, in the overall system” [Davis 2006:182-83]. Some, brief supplementary research was done in another area where a mill has been closed for a while, but where alternative job opportunities have developed, albeit in conditions of highly exploitative labour. Here ‘zari’ work (gold and silver thread embroidery on cloth) has started to provide workshop or home-based employment to young men, women and children, who work for middlemen contractors. In both areas, more and more workers and job seekers – old and young, with or without any experience of mill work

– have become economically vulnerable, with uncertain and intermittent work, and with low earnings in an intensely competitive market for self-employment and casual wage labour.

I Crisis of Jute Labour

The jute industry in West Bengal, centred on Kolkata, experienced a range of problems after independence and partition, with employment rising and falling in waves over the years [de Haan 1996:121; Ghosh 1999]. Despite the fluctuating numbers, by the early 1970s, jute workers had gradually benefited from government policy and come to be protected, to a certain extent, by state legislation [RoyChowdhury 1997:124; Roy 1976]. A survey of jute workers conducted by researchers at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, in 1969-70, found that, in the years after independence, workers had profited from “progressive labour legislation, increased and standardised wage rates, abolition of ‘sardari’ [labour recruitment through intermediaries] and contract systems, greater security of service, improved working conditions, social security measures, and welfare activities” [Bhattacharya and Chatterjee 1973]. By the early 1970s, the norm of job security and the notion of workers’ rights and entitlements in the jute industry had come to be recognised by the state, often in response to workers’ mobilisation, in particular, after a strike wave in 1966, and general strikes in 1969 and 1970.5 However, actual implementation of policies was often a contentious and fraught process, with employers seeking to circumvent and subvert them, as far as possible.

That workers in the jute industry had come to internalise the legitimacy of their newly gained and hard-earned rights, and were prepared to fight in their defence is amply demonstrated by the fact that the late-1960s and the 1970s were dominated by militant labour movements in the jute industry,6 along with working class engagement in communist politics in West Bengal. This history is now remembered by most older workers as a period of exhilarating activism and assertion of workers’ strength.7 The industry witnessed three major general strikes between 1974 and 1979, not to mention regular protests and political militancy in individual mills, and spectacular mass meetings and demonstrations that earned Kolkata the epithet of “city of processions” and conferred it notoriety as the city of industrial ‘gheraoes’. As a popular political slogan of workers and wall graffiti of this period put it: “This is a fight for life. We must win it” (Ei lorai banchar lora; Ei lorai jitboi), referring to the entirety of a worker’s human existence that depended on the realisation of their rights as workers (Ganashakti, August 5, 1969). To be a worker was not merely to be employed and paid a basic wage for livelihood, but to have rights, entitlements, and the power to express political protest and challenge exploitation.

To deny workers’ rights and to blunt labour militancy and trade union mobilisation, employers began to take recourse to lockout of mills in the 1970s. Employers’ hands were strengthened between 1975 and 1977 when the government of India promulgated a state of national emergency. Labour movements were brutally repressed nationwide in this period, and jute employers resorted to large scale retrenchment in their mills [Roy Chowdhury 1997:120-22; Basu 1984a:277]. Although workers thus suffered political reversals in the 1970s, yet this decade was crucial in shaping their attitudes to work, labour, rights and the state, precisely because of the intensity of political conflict in this period. Through the history of militant labour struggles and leftwing politics in working class milieus, work and employment developed as concepts redolent with ideas of rights and entitlements, and came to assume a significant normative force in the social and political imagination of mill workers, as well as others in working class communities involved in the politics of the time. The notion of work with rights then did not simply represent the source of material privileges of a labour elite in this case, but it was also a potent political construct for all workers. If workers’ rights did not exist in practice they had to be earned and consolidated, either in mills or elsewhere, through powerful political mobilisation. In their struggle for rights, workers drew ideological legitimacy from extensive communist mobilisation and trade union political action in the locality, from state legislation and government policy, and from the post-colonial state’s projected role, at least in rhetoric, as the protector of labour and the guarantor of workers’ rights against capital. A familiar image now invoked by workers frequently is of a trade union leader and communist politician promising in his speech in the early 1970s that, if his party ascended to power, he would ensure that mill owners were tied with ropes around their waist and paraded in public. Although in practice the state did not always fulfil this role of disciplining and restraining capital, so graphically depicted in this imagery of being kept on a leash, it had come to be accepted as the expected or normative function of the state or the governing party from the workers’ perspective. This is primarily because the state played a central role in the industrial relations regime, and most rights and benefits of workers were not directly wrested from employers but came through state laws or negotiations involving the state, such as rulings of industrial tribunals, awards of wage boards, and tripartite agreements in which the government was a party, alongside employers’ associations and trade unions. Neera Chandhoke has recently drawn attention to the powerful role that the state plays in popular imagination, because the government “through most of India’s post-colonial history presented itself as the guardian of the collective interest”. Chandhoke emphasises that the “historical memory” of this state shapes present political perceptions [Chandhoke 2005:1039]. In tune with this line of interpretation, workers’ history of political activism in the 1970s, the crystallisation of the idea of their rights, and their conception of the role of the state have to be central to our understanding of the experience of “casualisation” and unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the wake of the 1970s struggles and at the end of the period of Emergency, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), ascended to state power in West Bengal. This raised great expectation among workers, not least because the CPM’s trade union wing – Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – had led many of the jute labour struggles of the 1970s, and the party had actively opposed the repression of labour and championed its cause. However, the situation in the jute industry worsened in the 1980s and 1990s.8 Labour militancy of the 1970s culminated in a 84-day general strike in 1984 [Basu 1984a]. Following this, the problems that beset jute workers became more acute [Basu 1984b; Roy 1992], and they are indeed considered unprecedented and catastrophic by workers themselves. Threatening workers with mill closure and keeping mills locked out for long periods, mill owners forced workers to accept work on whatever terms they dictated. New factory recruitment was almost entirely on a casual basis, with workers not being formally registered, paid low wages and deprived of pension, health and other entitlements. Various estimates suggest that the number of permanent workers had been reduced by as much as about 1,00,000 by the early 1990s out of a total workforce of about 2,50,000, and only about 30 per cent of workers enjoyed “permanent” status by 2000 [RoyChowdhury 1997:122, 125-26; Roy 1992; Pal 2000; Bagchi 1998]. Not only was the workforce being “casualised” in this way, but also the rights of those still listed as registered, permanent workers, with entitlement to all benefits, were being blatantly violated, with arbitrary increase in workload, wage-cuts, and non-payment or irregular payment of bonus, dearness allowance, health benefits, and retirement dues. A worker comments on the present situation:

Our employer … pays his workers the weekly wage. … You work, you get money [implying bare wages only, no other entitlements].Don’t ask for your rights (huq) [a reference to the lack of dearness allowance, bonus, pensions, gratuity, guaranteed employment, etc]. What you work for, ask only to be paid for that, but no more.

Workers increasingly found employers’ onslaught difficult to resist, not least because trade unions appeared to fail them. The most influential and militant labour union of the 1970s, CITU, dramatically attenuated its militancy in the 1980s, towing the government line to avoid alienating employers in search of industrial investment [Ramaswamy 1988, Chapter 5]. At the same time, all trade unions, not only CITU, often worked closely with mill managements to enhance their influence over local mill affairs and employment, for the ability to control and dispense scarce jobs was a valuable resource in patronage politics in the locality. This, in turn, served as a tool of mass electoral mobilisation for political parties. Trade unions and their leadership appeared to be more and more complicit with employers and as mere appendages of political parties [Roy 1991; Ramaswamy 1988, Chapter 5; Fernandes 1999: 81-88]. The detrimental consequences of the failure of unions in the eyes of workers were compounded by the lack of action against employers on the part of the state government. Workers now highlight the fact that they played a historic role in communist politics in the 1970s, and they also see their support as crucial in the sustained electoral success of the Left Front government for nearly three decades from 1977. However, they now point out that the Left Front government in power tempered its erstwhile radicalism in labour matters. Operating within the framework of a gradually liberalising national economy, the government proved to be less supportive of labour and more solicitous of capital in an attempt to attract industrial investment to the region [Ramaswamy 1988, Chapter 5; Das Gupta 1995; Fernandes 1999:34]. The government increasingly deplored the lack of “work culture” of workers, and urged them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in the interest of industrial efficiency and competitiveness, in order to make West Bengal more attractive to investors. Workers’ agitations were argued to be detrimental to the industrial revival of the state, and negotiated settlements with employers were designated to be the only legitimate means of conducting industrial relations.

Within this changing context, the process of taming of labour by employers peaked in the early 1990s, as jute workers mounted what they now perceive to be their last-ditch struggle, in which they felt they were completely routed. The early 1990s is seen by workers as the watershed. A 49-day general strike in 1992, after a decade long crisis ended in what is seen as state betrayal and a tripartite agreement between the government, employers and trade unions that failed to redress the situation [Roy 1992]. Following this, in 1993 and 1994, numerous individual mills witnessed labour unrest, with workers repudiating their union leaders of all hues, whether or not affiliated to the ruling party. In some cases, this rejection of unions led to violence in and around mills against leaders, with the most well known case of Victoria Jute Mills in October 1993 [Special Correspondent 1994a]. Violence here involved arson and attack by mill workers on a trade union office, union leaders and policemen, causing the death of one; and police firing on workers killing three. Subsequently several workers were arrested, one of whom went missing, and was widely believed to have died in police custody. While the police cracked down on workers’ militancy and the ruling party condemned the violent outbreak,9 workers in the jute industry hailed the actions of Victoria mill workers as a brave initiative to be emulated elsewhere. Slogans like the following were reported to have been chanted or written on posters and wall graffiti in other mills: “Learn a lesson from Victoria mill. Spread the flames in all mills and factories” (Bartaman, October 29 and November 20, 1993). However, the fate of Victoria mills’ militant workers, much publicised in the media, ultimately came to symbolise the decisive defeat of the jute workers’ struggle, and instilled a sense, not only of the futility of overt protest, but also of fear of repression and reprisal. A vast majority of workers today claim that they do not organise themselves for activist protest for fear of “death” or “murder”, although sporadic, seemingly spontaneous, violence in mills, including attack on managerial personnel and trade union leaders, continues.10

Elsewhere at Kanoria jute mills in Howrah, workers formed an autonomous, non-party union – the Sangrami Shramik (Militant Workers’) Union in February 1993.11 They adopted, in alliance with some middle class political activists, what they identified as a third way. Instead of waiting upon fruitless trade union negotiations with no hope of success, and eschewing the path of seemingly self-destructive violence as in Victoria mills, they espoused what they saw as the constructive route of occupying their closed mill and resuming production in December 1993, with the hope of running the mill on the basis of a workers’ cooperative with state support. Unfortunately, government help was not forthcoming, and the mill eventually returned to the control of the management. The Kanoria workers’ movement was significant because here workers asserted their right to work by opening a closed mill, instead of refraining from work by going on strike. They projected their struggle, which also came to involve workers’ families and neighbourhood communities, as a constructive endeavour of an entire working class community for the right to dignity and decent livelihood through legitimate work, of which the employers sought to deprive them [Kanoria Jute Mill Union 1998]. Despite much initial euphoria in Kanoria and among workers throughout the jute industry, the ultimate collapse of the Kanoria effort represented yet another workers’ defeat and the destruction of hope.

II Transformation of Political Attitudes and Action

How have these developments in the jute industry in the 1980s and 1990s changed workers’ political perceptions and behaviour? Workers and their families in slums and mill “coolie lines” comment on their predicament as follows:

Here there is nothing [pointing to the surroundings in the coolie lines]. They [mill authorities] have cut off the electric supply [while the mill is closed]. Next they will cut off the water supply. Don’t drink supplied water, drink dirty water. Somehow the workers have to be broken in every way. … If we have nothing to live on for a week or two, one is bound to run away. Leave the struggle and run away… See this [battered] pole of bamboo. We are like this – left to rot away; we are still standing upright today with difficulty, but we will collapse soon as we rot away. We are writhing and thrashing about in pain like fish being fried alive on a pan There is no future for us. We [young people] will die away.

Even after taking into account the propensity to paint the past as a golden age, it still appears from workers’ testimonies that despite a history of economic and political turmoil in the jute industry, workers see the current situation as an unprecedented state of terminal crisis, without the hope of a solution. The current impasse is perceived to be a product of a colossal act of betrayal and of the sacrifice of the cause of labour and a denial of their legitimate rights by a corrupt nexus of the government, political parties, trade unions and mill owners, all driven by greed and an absence of a sense of political morality or responsibility. Workers now believe firmly that it is escalating corruption that has enabled capital to become so overwhelmingly powerful and to destroy labour’s power to bargain or sustain a struggle. Faced with the seemingly inexplicable situation of being deserted by all allies or guardians and the apparent impossibility of stemming the steady dissolution of their rights, corruption appears to workers to be the only plausible explanation for their present condition. As workers frequently put it, in the past, governments, politicians and leaders worked at least 25 per cent in the interest of workers and 75 per cent in the interest of employers of labour, now they are 100 per cent against labour. As some workers saw it:

Earlier there used to be agitation on behalf of the workers; now there is agitation on behalf of the employer. The power of the employer has increased. …Those who looked after us [unions, the government] have gone in favour of the owner. … They have filled their pockets with notes. … The days of real agitation are gone and so are the people. They now get our votes and cut our throats. … The worker is helpless.

The idea of corruption of the political classes as reflected in their apparent sell-out to the power of capital has thus come to grip workers’ imagination.

No doubt, the workers’ interpretation of “casualisation” as a function of political corruption is bred partly by numerous controversies in India in the past 20 years focusing on corruption in national politics and also partly by the apparent or real complicity of trade unions, political parties and the government with employers. There is more to it, however. Akhil Gupta has drawn attention to the importance of popular narratives of corruption in imagining the state, its legitimacy and notions of citizenship [Gupta 2005]. Jonathan Parry has argued that peoples’ heightened consciousness and condemnation of corruption are not necessarily a reflection of an appreciably higher incidence of corruption in public life. Actions of politicians or public servants are now identified as corrupt and illegitimate because there is now a far firmer public belief in and commitment to certain political rights and norms [Parry 2000]. Following the logic of these arguments, it can be postulated that, corruption plays such a central role in the political imagination of jute workers because of the gradual entrenchment, in past decades, of a belief in the legitimacy of their hard-earned rights at work and the seemingly irreversible devastation of such rights in recent years. Some claim that the Constitution enshrines their rights as workers. They, thus, seem to envisage that citizenship is conferred through rights at work, and invoke a sense of unassailability of their rights under the highest law of the land. However, powerful, corrupt people are seen to violate the Constitution and trample upon these rights with impunity. It is this idea of corruption, expressed by workers, as a moral indictment of the ruling classes, rather than any objective reality of corruption, that enables us to understand labour’s political response to “casualisation”. The notion of corruption here serves as a mode of articulating a sense of lack of accountability or responsibility of the state to the labouring classes, and a sense of failure of political elites to represent labour.

The experience of “informalisation” is, thus, perceived by the workers not merely as an economic crisis, entailing the worsening of labour relations or economic vulnerability, but more crucially, as a political crisis that involves, first, the supposedly immoral connivance or complicity of the government and political parties with employers; second, the apparently unjust abdication of public and state responsibility towards the well-being of labour; and third, a denial of their history of struggle, their self-image as militant and upright workers, who had earned their rights and had the ability to challenge the power of employers. Workers lament that they no longer have a firm ground to stand on, from which to mount a struggle, for the legitimacy of their rights has been undercut. From the workers’, perspective then, their present predicament involves the destruction of the normative foundations of their rights. They construe this as the cause of the decimation of labour’s capacity to resist or protest against employers, not just in the mills, but anywhere in the labour market. As one mill worker said: “When the judge and the policeman are thieves, who can you appeal or complain to?” Another drew some unexpected parallels with contemporary developments in international politics to illustrate the nature of what he saw as the impunity of capital, achieved with the connivance of the government:

[Osama bin] Laden made a cremation ground of America and no one could catch him. Our bastard employer is not getting into the hands of any union or the government. So you can say he is Laden no 2. … He [bin Laden] is not going to come into anyone’s hands [meaning he cannot be captured or brought to justice]. He [bin Laden] is no 1, and our employer is no 2. He is not going to come into anyone’s hands either. The government here [West Bengal] and the government in Delhi are in his pocket – he says so openly. He says he has power. He says a third of the High Court is under him.

Workers’ diagnosis of the crisis of mills as corrupt betrayal has bred muted rage, coupled with an acute sense of despair. Workers repeatedly invoke the metaphors of having their hands and feet tied and being immobilised; of backs being broken; of lying prone in defeat; of being beaten into abject submission; of being down on their knees in despair and in the hope of mercy; of wandering around crying hopelessly, of dying and being dead. These images of themselves expressed by a predominantly male labour force with a history of political militancy, in effect, suggest a strong sense of public diminution and loss of dignity. To them, the corrupt system has simply marginalised them and reduced them to cogs in the wheel, and expendable non-entities. The term ‘bekar’ or unemployed evokes this sense, for it carries the connotation of a state of uselessness or worthlessness. Worse still, they feel dehumanised: “The mill management thinks, ‘these people – these workers – they are like donkeys; kick them, kick them even more, and they will work’”.

An overwhelming sense of fear and loss of ability to fight accompanies the sense of powerlessness. Workers say they are afraid of starvation if mills are closed; or of physical violence and summary dismissal if they protest at work; or of reprisal from local trade union and party leaders if they fail to fall in line; and of police repression as in Victoria mills and elsewhere. “He who is frightened is dead. We are frightened. We are dead. Are we alive? We are no longer alive.” Being so mortally afraid, they feel they are immobilised into inaction, let alone fight: “No capacity or power [‘khamata’ in Bengali; ‘takat’ in Hindi] remains. Say someone is walking along the road and a child falls down on the road. No one has the capacity to pick up the child. That you pick up the child and take it home, that capacity is not there. It is finished. The workers are dying…”. Fear and the loss of power and capacity constitute a frequent refrain among workers, in contrast to courage and the ability to struggle that are seen as their past attributes and that had once struck terror among employers in the heyday of labour struggles in the 1970s. “Once we workers had agitations, we had a labour community [shramik jati]. There are no labourers any more. There is so much torture.” “We are like beggars on the street”. The end of labour struggles thus marks the erasure of their identity as a community, in their eyes. Here is a conception of work that is not primarily related to employment or livelihood, but based on a sense of being a community with the power to struggle, devoid of which, they are akin to beggars. Beggars are not just destitute without work, but more importantly, they are seen to have no political capacity, presence or identity; they are not treated as citizens or political actors; they are not even registered to vote, let alone being invested with any other rights that would enable them to engage in political struggles.

The crippling perception of impotence, as well the overpowering sense of fear, corruption and betrayal, have contributed to a sense of futility about collective action or agitational politics, based on an ideological challenge to exploitation, or for justice and rights.

In the past, ‘andolan’ used to happen in the interest of the neighbourhood or a locality, but now they happen to fill pockets.There are still agitations [referring to political and union agitations]; but they are to fill pockets, not for us. … If you join an andolan you could be left high and dry. You could be beaten up while others run away.

Only a minority of seemingly reckless mill workers, while admitting the dangers and irrelevance of agitational politics, strongly advance the idea of a last ditch fierce struggle. Rather than dying a 100 deaths everyday or dying slowly of attrition, one worker argued, it is better to mount a do-or-die struggle once and for all, and then meet inevitable death, alluding to a large-scale closure of mills and the consequent loss of jobs for all, the latter metaphorically representing death. The inevitable or certain “death” he seeks to court is not that of heroic martyrdom that would contribute towards achieving a desired goal. Instead, death and destruction in a final struggle would be an epic suicidal act of symbolic self-sacrifice or self-extinction, crucially to reclaim one’s sense of agency. Such death in a struggle would bring the public recognition of agency and “presence” that workers have now been robbed of in their life. This would be preferable to dying silently of starvation or privately committing suicide or killing one’s family members for failure to earn a living to feed them, as some have done in the past two decades, whose tragedy has been etched in workers’ minds and is frequently recounted.

Workers’ disillusionment with political struggles, and a sense of destruction of all rights and violation of political norms by corruption, have in turn bred political cynicism and a view of democratic institutional politics merely as a source of patronage and benefits. This tendency has, no doubt, been encouraged by the role of unions as patrons and intermediaries in mill politics and labour relations, coupled with their growing party political approach. It is understandable that politics in such a context comes to be viewed as being driven only by contacts and currying favour to “fill pockets”. Workers now try to steer clear of democratic party politics as “corrupt”, other than to manipulate and integrate themselves into local patronage networks of politicians and notables as a means of addressing their escalating material and practical problems. This does not mean that they accept this politics of networks or machine politics as the desirable norm. However, most people choose to play along with the “corrupt” system, and many even join political parties and attend party political meetings and events, in a cynical pursuit of self-interest in line with what they see as the broader trend of politics, where morality and an ideology of public responsibility or political commitment no longer play a legitimate role. If workers thus embroil themselves in local party and representative politics, from their perspective, this does not signal their democratic engagement, but rather its opposite. It suggests their capitulation to what they condemn as anti-democratic and unethical. The significance of an increasing trend of party political activity here is, thus, complex and ambiguous. The seemingly vigorous party political engagement in the locality is not a form of democratic enfranchisement or inclusion, from the vantage point of the poor, but a desperate strategy to grapple with their increasing everyday material difficulties.

It is worth clarifying that the idea of politicians as brokers in a system of patronage has not suddenly erupted into the political consciousness of workers, nor is the sphere of employment relations the only source of these ideas. The important new inflection here is the notion that politics is now entirely driven by the logic of “filling pockets”. Workers feel they have the option of joining party politics, but only if they too embrace or connive at corruption. Or else they have to “sit down”, as workers put it, or become politically recumbent; in other words, retreat or resign from political engagement, abjure political activity and lapse into silent inaction, as most “true people” (saccha admi) or “good people” (bhale admi) and erstwhile militant workers and activists are said to have done. Unless one opts for political abstinence or quietism in this way, workers claim that corruption engulfs one and entraps one in its tentacles. Within, what is seen as an unjust and lawless system and a culture of corruption, workers perceive themselves to be crushed. Over and over, they lament the demise of public morality, and condemn their betrayal by the state and the current political system.

III Youth and Politics

Workers’ sense of marginalisation in a supposedly corrupt polity and in the mill economy is compounded by a crisis of identity in the household and the local community. This affects the large majority of young men in particular, who have not worked in mills and now face either unemployment or precarious self-employment or underpaid and irregular wage labour, with long hours, poor working conditions, and absence of bargaining power. The decline in household earnings, absence of income security and uncertain long-term economic prospects have forced households to commit more and more members to the workforce, especially women. The jute labour force had come to be defined overwhelmingly as a male preserve by the 1970s. Between 1950 and 1971, the number of women employees in jute mills decreased from 13.6 per cent to 2.5 per cent [de Haan 1996:202]. Mill families, by the 1970s, came to depend on one major earner

– the male head of the family, expected to be followed in due course by his adult male heirs [Ibid 204-05]. In the social and political milieu of mills, a “male public sphere” had been forged, and this was accompanied by an ideological emphasis on the domestic role of women, often drawing upon caste and religious ideologies [Ibid; Fernandes 1999, Chapter 5]. Against this background, women’s recent re-entry into the workforce has had significant implications for social identities and gendered subjectivities. Not only are women now taking up employment, usually part-time self-employment and working as domestic servants, they have adopted other coping strategies as well. They have sometimes drawn upon the resources of their natal families, and frequently sought to limit their family size, often against the will of their husbands and in-laws, by taking advantage of the growing availability of birth control technologies in slums, through several new or expanding government schemes to promote women’s reproductive health.12 In search of economic opportunities, women have also joined local organisations or associations of various kinds, including political parties, as a source of information and as a means of establishing networks of contact. Recently, many of them have eagerly joined neighbourhood groups or community self-help groups, sponsored by the local municipality to implement poverty alleviation programmes with a focus on women’s empowerment, funded by the government of India or foreign donors. These women’s groups have also at times attempted to deal with cases of men’s drunkenness or alcoholism, physical abuse of wives, and intervened in domestic disputes in favour of women.

Men have responded in contradictory ways to this situation of women’s workforce participation and their assertiveness. While they are eager for women to generate income, they fear the erosion of their own authority or they fear that this could lead to sexual laxity, especially because women now have access to sterilisation or other contraceptive techniques. One woman, suffering from domestic violence, whose secret sterilisation became known to her husband when she developed some subsequent health complications, explained that her husband beats her if she does not go to work, but then if she does go to work, he beats her too on suspicion of sexual promiscuity at work, which she is thought to be able to indulge in easily because of the absence of risk of pregnancy after sterilisation. In a markedly different response to women’s work, a group of young men have planned to raise money from the local community to initiate small-scale income generating activities for women within the neighbourhood, to prevent them from going elsewhere to work, particularly as domestic servants. Many men stressed that women need employment, but most argued that these have to be home-based, partly because women need to be protected from the harsh world of men’s work and partly because women will have to continue to play a key domestic and maternal role. Many emphasised that home-based low paid work is not likely to be accepted by men, for men are used to a different work regime and culture, and it would be demeaning or beneath their dignity and status to do these seemingly menial, “feminine” jobs, of low status and poor pay.

With a male literacy rate in the locality of about 60 per cent in the early 1990s, and 80 per cent according to the 2001 Census, young men are now increasingly better educated than previous generations.13 They aspire to either paid work that carry rights, entitlements and security, such as government “service”, or to embark on business or some form of self-employed, lucrative entrepreneurial activity.14 In reality, though, most find themselves dragged into the overcrowded petty trading and transport sector or in casual construction work, all of which expose them to low earnings and insecurity of work. In frustration, young men and boys are now often inclined to abandon their education, which, they argue, does not help them to secure decent work. Moreover, having expected to become male heads of families, they often find that their sisters and mothers contribute to family income, while they remain unemployed or intermittently employed, partly because they discriminate between male and female jobs and partly because some work, like domestic service, is primarily available to women. Young men have no choice but to watch their mothers or sisters accept what is considered the demeaning option of domestic service which undermines family status and respectability.

In some areas, small workshops for petty production or homebased work, such as zari or gold and silver thread embroidery work, have emerged, with young men, and sometimes women and children, working for low wages, usually at piece rates for 12 to 14 hours-a-day, seven days a week, often sitting in the same posture all day at their embroidery frame, in cramped, unhealthy conditions. Many complain of family and social problems due to long working hours. They also dread an early burnout and fear the onset of occupational health problems or disability, thus forcing an involuntary and premature exit from the labour market that might eventually reduce them to destitution. Importantly, despite being employed or engaged in economic activities in various ways, and often earning a reasonable sum of money, many young men identify themselves as ‘bekar’ or unemployed, doing odd jobs or yielding to exploitative work, for want of anything better. Work of this nature, even if they give cash in hand, seems to be seen as non-work or sub-standard work, because these fail to give them any rights, dignity, social or community status, or a sense of political agency, let alone a degree of economic stability or long-term work prospects. In this context, some young men vented their anger at the government and the ruling party for their hypocrisy in celebrating May Day. These young men, although never themselves employed in the “organised” or “formal” sector, had grown up in a political milieu in which they had learnt to associate May Day with workers’ historical struggles for their rights, including limited working hours and regulated working conditions. They argued, the government that was once committed to the cause of labour, but was now presiding over the dissolution of labour rights and turning a blind eye to appalling working conditions and labour exploitation, should not have the audacity to celebrate May Day. They, thus, condemn a government that, they think, rules in the name of the poor, but is unaccountable to them, nor does it represent their interest. To them, particularly striking is also the contrast with the visible expansion of a middle class consumer culture, property ownership, and private education and healthcare, all encouraged by the government, precisely at a time when they feel their own access to these is blocked due to decreasing and uncertain family income and the loss of welfare entitlements. Young people see themselves as a dying generation and the working class as a dying community that cannot socially, politically or economically reproduce itself, because of the wholesale destruction of what are seen as legitimate forms of work, endowed with rights. They express an overwhelming sense of despair for being caught in what they see as an irreversible downward spiral.

Some of these young men, though not a majority by any means, resort to petty extortion, bullying and intimidation in the neighbourhood, and are able to make a few rupees in the process. They exact petty dues from neighbourhood hawkers, traders, transport operators and builders at construction sites, or they raise money coercively from local residents. Commenting on the patterns of crime, violence and illegal activities in the locality, a police officer referred to the peddling of illicit liquor, running gambling dens, wagon-breaking on railway sidings to gather coal, and “hooking” of power supply cables to access electricity illegally. However, these involve only a minority of young people, and do not amount to endemic violence or extensive gang clashes. Instead, the police officer pointed to a significant change in the character of crime in the locality in recent decades. Not major professional gang violence, such as armed robbery, as in the past, but a range of small-scale illegal activities, particularly extortion, have in recent years been the key forms of crime involving local youth. In a small handful of cases, an extension of this petty extortion might be the entry of young men into wider professional protection rackets, usually under the tutelage of influential local notables, which might then lead them into street violence. Interestingly, such violent or criminal activities by poor young men in the service of local bigwigs have been glamorised in recent popular Bengali films, where they are portrayed as tormented, tragic heroes, trapped in a world of corruption, but with a moral conscience and a sense of justice and altruism towards their own community.15 Local people do not usually romanticise criminal youth in this way, and often see them as a source of neighbourhood violence and insecurity, but at the same time they do not blame young men for entering into these activities. It is often said in the locality, including by young people, that some men are driven to crime because of the economic crisis; others say that the young are merely emulating on a small, local scale what they see as the large-scale theft from the people of the nation, perpetrated by self-seeking politicians. Indeed, extortion activities on behalf of local notables can be regarded as a way for youth to break into the exclusive, though corrupt, world of privilege and power. Evidently, while these young men are by no means seen as social bandits, they are also not demonised within their own milieu and are sometimes even seen to be democratising crime and corruption by joining the exclusive ranks of the powerful in this respect.

Interestingly, a police officer recounted a number of occasions when young men involved in petty extortion were arrested, and then the family turned up for bail, genuinely taken aback that the young man had been up to such “crime” at all, when at home he was a timid and docile “boy”, unemployed and dependent on the family, who lacked confidence even to look anyone in the face when speaking. What this, and comments of slum people, seem to point to is that young men feel so diminished, that they seek a sense of identity and agency through expressions of power in the locality. It appears that these activities represent an aspiration for recognition of adult malehood and a sense of exercising local influence, within a context of perceived marginalisation and devaluation in the family, community, economy and politics. It is worth emphasising here that crime of this nature cannot be simply interpreted in terms of a criminal pathology of the unemployed poor or a straightforward translation of frustration into aggression, but as an activity with a socially constructed meaning at a particular historical conjuncture. Young men are not simply turning to any crime, but to certain specific types of crime like petty extortion and intimidation, for it enables them to define a new persona as the powerful, rather than as a common criminal or petty thief or burglar. It should also not be assumed that unemployment or casual employment inevitably predisposes youth to crime, for it only affects a small section of young men, and this is only one of many forms of their self-assertion.

Neighbourhood youth clubs constitute an important site of expression of identity for young men. Clubs are not new in urban male associational life. Body-building clubs with a Hindu religious orientation used to be prevalent in the municipality under study until the 1960s, but they gradually lost importance in the 1970s. It is believed by local people that the culture of physical prowess had been eroded with increasing literacy in mill neighbourhoods and a tendency towards the gentrification of the self-image of youth. Others comment that clubs had become embroiled in political violence in the 1970s and the Left Front government, after ascending to power, had gradually disarmed and pacified them through the intervention of local units of the party and its patronage system, and with the help of the police. Moreover, when trade union politics was still vibrant, the locus of male identity and leisure activities of the previous generation had often revolved around work and workplace-oriented organisations, rather than clubs.

By all accounts, however, clubs in many working class areas have proliferated extensively in the past two or three decades. The function and social meaning of clubs have also undergone recent transformation. Men, mostly young men, come together in clubs for games and recreation. The term club conjures up the image of a room in the neighbourhood where young men meet regularly, play indoor games and watch the ubiquitous TV. In public perception, clubs are often the dens of idle, useless men, who sometimes take to local bullying, drinking, gambling and street fighting. To the men who take refuge there, clubs are safe havens from social and family pressures, and a form of escape from the role expected of them as men. Clubs for team games like football and volleyball, now increasingly rare, are favoured by older men, who are anxious about the potential social problems that might beset unemployed youth and see clubs of this nature as a safe forum for recreation. A moral discourse towards youth has, thus, at times led older men to encourage “sporting” clubs, but this is a limited phenomenon.

International donor-funded slum improvement programmes have also recently patronised local clubs as representative “community-based organisations”, and sought to support their activities through the provision of sports and physical training equipment, but they have been less forthcoming with coloured television that is at the top of the wish-list of club members. Most clubs, however, go well beyond games and recreation, and play a role in the symbolic expression of power and influence in the locality by youth.

Clubs have historically engaged in various “constructive” forms of activities, and these are now re-emphasised and expanded by the newly emerging or revitalised clubs. Virtually all clubs raise local subscription, and organise a range of activities broadly classified as social work, social service, or social welfare, including health and educational initiatives, such as free eye clinics with volunteer doctors, blood donation camps, tuition centres for poor young children, textbook libraries for school students, adult literacy classes, raising funds for dowry for poor young women or for the funeral rites of those who are destitute or without relatives. Clubs may also play a role in local dispute mediation and in campaigning for local issues. Some clubs are, at times, involved in maintaining neighbourhood safety and security. For instance, in the context of rising communal violence elsewhere in India, at one stage, young men actively organised nocturnal neighbourhood patrols through “resident guard parties”, with the support of the police, in order to prevent communal outbreaks in the locality. One young man explained that apart from the obvious need to ensure communal harmony, they had been motivated to take part in these guard duties to demonstrate their own ability to do useful work for the neighbourhood community, the state and its law and order machinery, and thus to make others recognise their worth, when people usually treated them as “dirt”. Most clubs raise subscription a few times a year to celebrate religious festivals. It is widely claimed that these celebrations are rapidly multiplying and that there is greater public display with street decorations and illuminations, often with new innovations in this respect. Through what are projected as public-spirited, community and neighbourhood based activities, the young men of these clubs try to define a leadership role and autonomous agency for themselves in the locality and in the community. In some ways, without these clubs, young men would indeed be dreaded non-entities.

Since party and institutional democratic politics are seen to be monopolised by corrupt, unrepresentative and unaccountable politicians, clubs are also projected to be the site of affirmation of ethical public conduct and a critique of wider politics. Here young men claim moral superiority over the corrupt. Within the context of collective social activities in clubs for public benefit, many members claim vocally to be non-political, staying clear of power plays, patronage nexus and factional rivalries. Of course, they become individually involved in local patronage politics of parties in search of jobs or other benefits, and they also admit to clubs getting drawn into party politics and election campaigns, but, this is argued to be extraneous to the real essence of clubs. Some point out that political parties simply exploit clubs, deploying them for election campaigns and then forgetting about them until they are needed again for political purposes. Despite such party political entanglements, clubs are portrayed as the arena where youth can rise above partisan, “dirty” politics and work for the common good through social work. Their normative discourse is one of service and civic duty, not political participation, with its negative connotation.

IV Implications for Democracy and Urban Politics

Faced with a sense of social marginalisation, young working class men now define a presence and a public role in the urban locality in diverse ways, ranging from petty crime and extortion to social service. Violence, crime and the assertion of masculinity are by no means the only or the dominant forms of self-expression of youth in these localities, contrary to many recent depictions of youth politics in the globalised third world. These activities coexist with various community-oriented initiatives that are informed by a moral critique of public politics and a sense of civic virtue. They represent an articulation of the normative value attached to ethical, responsible and accountable politics. However, when some young men get involved in local extortion, street violence, electric cable “hooking” or wagon-breaking, their assertion of local power clearly goes beyond social duty and assumes a coercive mode. It would be too narrow, however, to interpret these activities as nothing but the criminalised behaviour of the so-called “lumpen”, with social work providing the cover. Rather, it is precisely this dual orientation which most interestingly manifests the key feature of the politics and identity of young men. This is a youth in search of a role and public recognition, which they seek to achieve in many different, often contradictory, ways. Social work and coercive or criminal activities are two sides of the same coin. It also leads some of them into local party political networks in an attempt to set themselves up as locally influential individuals, with direct access or proximity to influential political patrons. Ultimately, then, politics of the youth is about a search for identity and agency in the context of a loss of sense of self.

Cooptation of such young men or youth groups by powerful elites into illegal activities, criminalised politics, mafia-type underground gangs, protection rackets or into aggressive ethnic militias has been argued to be a major source of overt and endemic urban violence in Africa and elsewhere in the third world [Maegher 2007]. While low intensity or sporadic street violence can be found in these erstwhile industrial neighbourhoods of Kolkata, yet violent outbreaks or endemic clashes, of the kind witnessed elsewhere, are rare here. This is possibly because of relatively very low levels of criminalisation of politics and limited communal mobilisation by religious or ethnic political parties here, compared, not only to Africa and Latin America, but also to some other Indian states and major cities, such as Mumbai or Ahmedabad, that have seen extensive urban violence and the involvement of youth in sectarian riots. Moreover, other than in a few exceptional cases, youth clubs or groups here are primarily engaged in local petty intimidation or extraction, as seen above, and not, as yet, organised against rival armed gangs over control of territory or resources. Nor are they poised in a sustained, direct confrontation with an overtly repressive state, or geared to protect themselves and local residents in an armed, vigilante mode within a context of growing state failure, lawlessness and insecurity, as has happened in Latin America or Africa in some cases, for instance. A degree of stability in the law and order regime and institutional politics in West Bengal has contained or prevented political developments of this kind in Kolkata, which may explain the low levels of violence here among youth, despite some petty coercion and illegal activities in urban neighbourhoods.

What are the wider implications of the developments described so far for urban politics, democracy and representative institutions? While there is an acute awareness of the violation of rights and dignity, a critique of corruption and immoral politics, there is no organised attempt to forge any agitational or oppositional movement. This political passivity – a politics of silence

– is clearly related to the all-pervading sense of futility, despair and fear, and a loss of faith in the possibility of change through ideologically driven political activism in a seemingly corrupt world. As one worker put it, workers’ revolution that he had believed in and fought for in the past was now pushed back 200 years by the corrupt ‘chamcha raj’ – rule of venal sycophants and clients, a reference to patronage politics. Without this betrayal, he argued, workers would have achieved revolution by 2010, or 2015 at the latest. To him, it does not seem worth fighting for citizenship rights, social equality or class power now. This reveals the formidable obstacles to the self-mobilisation of the poor for wider social or political change. It leads to the conclusion that, in the foreseeable future, politics among these groups will remain largely confined to intensifying local level party political activity and patronage networks, on the one hand, as seen above, and expending their energy on defining a sense of agency and a “politics of presence”16 in the neighbourhood community, on the other. Politics here has increasingly turned inwards into the locality, shunning the wider arena of democratic politics, and is undergoing intense localisation. Urban economic involution, as defined by Mike Davis (2006:182-83), seems to be accompanied by political involution in this case, in which more and more people are jostling for political space within a restricted, insular, local arena of intensifying micro-politics. However, evidently, this cannot be equated with the emergence of a local civil society space for political mobilisation or of a meaningful decentralised site of democratic political engagement of the poor, for the process of localisation is, at the same time, marked by a rejection of wider democratic and representative politics and of state institutions, as they function in practice.

Workers have little faith that the state and representative institutions, as they are now seen to operate through corruption, would ever effectively represent or be accountable to them or allow their genuine political engagement. This sense of the crisis of accountability, participation and representation in democratic institutions arise, as we have seen, not necessarily from the actual deficiencies of these institutions or their elite control, but relate to the wider perception of betrayal of the labouring poor by the state and the ruling classes in cahoots with capital. In recent decades, an emphasis on democratic decentralisation has facilitated the devolution of financial and administrative powers to urban local bodies, with a mandate to mobilise the involvement of local populations. Participatory development initiatives have also been implemented in the locality with overseas funding – notably a slum improvement programme. These projects observe all the well orchestrated drills of participation and community involvement. Ironically, all this has served to boost patronage based politics centred on municipal councils and councillors, and on the officials who implement participatory development programmes. Poor peoples’ own changing approach to politics has both fed into and fed off this process. They have chosen to exercise their agency in municipal institutions to elicit patronage benefits through network politics, rather than seeking to engage themselves in local institutions for democratic participation and decision-making. As noted above, a large number of women have also participated in local development projects, which emphasise gender empowerment as a key goal. However, these women, while deriving a personal sense of achievement and agency through participation in development projects, also view the relevance of their participation in terms of access to local resources, patronage, and information networks for the availability of work or credit. Democratic devolution and participatory development initiatives in the locality have come to be reinterpreted by the poor as individual or group opportunities to join patronage networks and to extract benefits to address specific material or practical problems, rather than as the launching ground collectively to democratise and change the system from below by demanding transparency, accountability, better services or public goods, let alone seeking a greater voice, power or rights of citizens in decision-making in local or wider politics. The liberal institutionalist theory of democratisation through decentralisation and participatory governance is undermined on the ground by the political practice of the despondent and cynical labouring poor. A political culture of clientelism and patronage, which is not conducive to substantive democratisation, is clearly reinforced through the changing experience of labour and work, although, of course, this is not the only source of patronage politics. This points up a paradox of current processes of democratisation in India from the perspective of the poor, which might be characterised as “low intensity democracy”,17 in which well functioning formal political institutions, including electoral participation, coexist with a crisis of political representation and participation of the poor to ensure their citizenship rights or to make an impact on government action and public policy.

The destruction of rights at work and the consequent sense of all-encompassing marginalisation have also crystallised a notion of social and political disenfranchisement and erosion of citizenship. The vote is the only democratic institution and the symbol of citizenship that some workers seem to have faith in, even while others see electoral politics to be corrupt. Whether or not the electoral process functions effectively, and whether or not their votes count in making and unmaking governments or changing public policy, many workers still feel the need to cast their votes to confirm their identity as citizens of the nation, who cannot be ignored or cast into oblivion. In a context of overwhelming powerlessness and a sense of marginalisation, the poor appear to see voting as the only residual democratic action in a corrupt polity that gives them a sense of agency and affirms their citizenship. It is debatable though whether this particular construction of the vote could be celebrated as a mode of meaningful democratic participation, although it could be construed as an expression of the democratic will of the labouring poor and an expression of a “politics of presence”. It should be emphasised in this context that disillusionment with democratic institutions, practice and procedure has not meant a denial of democratic norms. On the contrary, as seen above, the poor strongly assert the need for public responsibility, accountable and representative politics, civic virtue, and rights, and they express their commitment to justice, equality, welfare and ethical politics. Indeed, they see themselves as the true champions of these ideals, in contrast to self-seeking elites. Young men claim to practise these through their community-based activities. In addition, many people in the locality still continue to vote for the Left Front and CPM, because, they argue, that even if corrupt leaders have vitiated communist politics, the ideology and principles (‘niti’) of the party ought still to be upheld, as they stand for equality and rights of the poor. However, democratic or radical political aspirations are not matched with any activist politics or any other attempts to translate these into practice.

How might informalisation affect religious resurgence or fundamentalism and communalism or sectarian conflict? As seen in other Indian cities, the experience of industrial decline and the scarcity of jobs may unleash competition among various communities, and there can be a tendency to blame a rival community for many ills and to nurse communal stereotypes, particularly when wider Indian political developments encourage an atmosphere of communal polarisation. There is little evidence in the areas studied here, though, that the decline of the conditions of labour has led to either communal identity politics on a significant scale or dramatically deepened so-called “primordial” cleavages, surmounting or obliterating a history of powerful collective political struggles for rights. As seen above, poor people have focused their political antagonism on the state and ruling elites for the violation of rights, and so far refrained from turning against each other along religious fault lines. However, religious fundamentalism, and hence communal polarisation, might strike roots here for other reasons. As seen above, the celebration of religious festivals has become more elaborate as a neighbourhood-based activity of the youth in search of a local role. This might serve to fuel competitive religious mobilisation and indirectly exacerbate communal tensions. On a different note, as observed above, with the transformation of gender relations, some men harbour apprehensions about women’s workforce participation, sexual autonomy and independence and fear the potentially adverse impact on male authority. This has bred a degree of social conservatism towards women and a tendency to espouse a moral approach to women’s conduct. Among older men, no longer acting as primary bread-winners and with diminished social standing in the community, a fear of loss of control over both women and young men, as well as an anxiety about the possibility of youth being corrupted and led astray into crime and violence, can encourage an emphasis on morality, domesticity and family cohesion. Such social conservatism could potentially merge with wider ideological trends of religious resurgence, both Hindu and Muslim, not least because social conservatism, patriarchy and hierarchical notions of family relationships resonate well with religious fundamentalist ideologies. Similarly, with the failure of secular ideologies of democracy, development, socialism, and especially locally dominant communism, in achieving political morality and commitment to the poor, they could potentially be drawn towards religious ideologies as the fount of ethical politics. However, the critique of representative politics here shows no propensity so far to invoke religious legitimacy, and continues to draw upon a discourse of rights and justice without reference to religion. The historical legacy of radical, left wing and democratic politics appears to have endured here among the labouring poor, and has not easily yielded to the lure of religious ideologies.




1 Chazan 1988; The best known celebration of the informal sector is to be found in de Soto 1989.

2 Portes, Castells and Benton (eds), 1989, Chapter 1; Moser and McIlwaine, 2006; Pratten and Sen (eds), 2007 forthcoming; Koonings and Kruijt (eds), 2004; Meagher, 2007 forthcoming; Rotker (ed), 2002; Sanchez 2006; Ukiwo 2002; Yunusa Zakari Ya’u (2000) and Abubakar Momoh (2000), both in Jega (ed), 2000; Baker 2002; Special issue of Development and Change, 37, July 4, 2006. For arguments about deindustrialisation and the new “underclass” in US, primarily ethnic minorities, affected by unemployment and decline of the welfare state, see Wilson 1987.

3 Census of India 2001 figures, as documented in Urban West Bengal, 2000-2002, pp 23, 38, 44. 4 ‘Project Memorandum: India: Calcutta Slum Improvemrnt Project, Phase IC’, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority, February, 1998, p 10.

5 For the history of jute mill labour and politics since 1947 and until the 1980s, see: Sengupta 1982; Basu 1979, 1984a; de Haan 1996, 1999; Fernandes 1999; Labour in West Bengal, 1970 onwards (annual publication).

6 Ibid. 7 Joshi 1999, describes complex forms of remembering of the past by mill workers in Kanpur.

8 For the condition of jute industrial labour in this period, see Labour File, 2001; Nagarik Mancha Report, 2001; ‘Chatshilper Baromashya’ by Sailen Chatterjee, Ganashakti, March 20, 1991; ‘Pat arthaniti o shramiker dabi’ by Animesh Goswami, Ganashakti, January 17, 1992.

9 Ganashakti, October 22, 1993; Editorial, Ganashakti (official organ of the CPM), November 12, 1993; ‘Victoria: Oikyobaddho Shramik Andolan Ekmatra Path’ (Victoria: Organised and United Labour Movement is the Only Way), by Shantashri Chattopadhyay (MLA and president of CITU, Hooghly District Committee) in Ganashakti, November 19, 1993; Roy 1995.

10 Some important incidents include: Titagarh Jute Mill workers barricaded the main arterial road near the mill against suspension of work at the mill and fought pitched battle with police (The Telegraph, April 17, 1999). Chief executive officer of Baranagar Jute Mills and his colleague burnt to death after he shot and killed a protesting worker (Ganashakti, January 14, 2001). Attack on mill managers, personnel managers and on union offices and leaders at a number of mills after the unions concluded a statewide agreement with employers and the government to bring in productivity-linked payment (The Telegraph, January 9, 2002). Labour officer at Hastings Mills died after assault by angry workers protesting against non-payment of bonus before the annual festive season (The Statesman, October 10 and 17, 2002).

11 [Special Correspondent 1994b]. This incident was extensively reported in the press at the time. Kanoria Jute Mill Sangrami Shramik Union (Militant Workers’ Union), Kanoria Jibaner Jaigaan (Kanoria Song of Life), February 2, 1988.

12 For example, India Population Project VIII, Calcutta Urban Development Programme-III, and Integrated Child Development Services.

13 Census of India 2001 figures, as documented in Urban West Bengal, 2000-2002, p 38.

14 Not only young men, but also school boys and girls in classes 9 to 12 mentioned, during interviews, focus group discussions and casual chats, that their preferred future job would be “business”, since good, wellpaid employment with rights is now scarce.

15 For example, Chaka (Director: Nepaldeb Bhattacharya); Chakravyuha (Director: Raja Sen). More recently, however, the film Yuva (Director: Mani Ratnam 2004), in Hindi but set in Kolkata, fails to redeem the character of a violent, angry, and ambitious poor young man, working for corrupt politicians, and casts him in a negative light in contrast to equally violent middle class youth, who succeed in fighting their way into formal institutional politics (the state assembly), challenging the entrenched cadre of seasoned and corrupt politicians.

16 The term is used here in a different sense from Anne Phillips (1998).

17 A term used in Gills, Rocamora and Wilson (eds), 1993.


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