OPE-L review of Breman's The Labouring Poor in India

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun Dec 14 2003 - 14:22:08 EST

Vol:20 Iss:17 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2017/stories/20030829001107400.htm

Living in a state of fear


The Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation, Subordination
and Exclusion by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi,
2003; pages xi + 351, price Rs.595.

JAN BREMAN has had a distinguished career in anthropology. He has
studied the lives of poor and oppressed groups in Gujarat for 40
years. This enables him to comment on socio-political conditions in
the State from a perspective that few other social scientists can
match. Given the horrific events in Gujarat in early 2002, when
thousands of innocent Muslims were terrorised and butchered in
pogroms encouraged by the state, analysts studying that State have an
urgent responsibility to help us understand how these brutal events
came about.

While this is not the sole focus of this collection of essays, The
Labouring Poor in India: Patterns of Exploitation, Subordination and
Exclusion, it does shed much light on the events of 2002, while also,
implicitly, providing an agenda for further research. It is thus a
very timely book and deserves to be widely read. I emphasise this
because the book is not an easy read, given that the essays span a
20-year period (1982-2002) and are of varying interest. This format
also entails considerable repetition in some essays, where key issues
re-emerge. Judicious editing would have helped here. Several
syntactical and typographical errors remain uncorrected.

Despite all this, The Labouring Poor in India is a remarkably
interesting book and well worth reading. Breman's central focus is on
the working poor at the bottom of Gujarat's society. In the
introduction, he challenges Immanuel Wallerstein's thesis (2000)
"that world capitalism is in an acute and even terminal state of
crisis" and that the poorest workers at the bottom of national
economies "have at last... finally managed to strengthen their
bargaining position vis--vis capital and exert upward pressure on
wage levels" (Breman: 6). Breman dismisses this claim, drawing on
evidence from his own four-decades-long research on the informal
sector in Gujarat. He notes that in South Asia "states are both
unable and unwilling to appropriate a reasonable portion of the value
added to capital in the process of production... Consequently, no
social safety nets are introduced to help minimise the vulnerability
of poor people while expenditure on public housing, education and
health care is much lower than what is minimally required" (page 8).

Breman (like Barbara Harriss-White in her recent book1) draws
attention to the huge impact of the black economy (page 9). In the
introduction, he asks a central question: "Are prosperity and
democracy for a minority of the world population really compatible in
the long term with the exclusion from these `goods' of the larger
part of mankind, condemned to live in dire poverty and
subordination?" (page 10). This question has close relevance to
India's class divisions too. Breman points out that the global trend
towards the informalisation of all employment and the
"non-implementation or even dismantling of statutory labour rights"
illustrate fundamental changes in notions of what `development' means
(page 12). He concludes his Introduction by noting that, in a world
where the gap between the rich and the poor is not narrowing but
steadily increasing, not only are the poor increasingly treated as if
they are merely troublesome burdens on society, but in countries like
India they are also very susceptible to political use as pawns and
mercenaries in "the communal hate politics instigated from above"
(page 13).

Breman argues that the incitement of the poorer classes to communal
violence needs to be recognised for the smoke-screen tactic that it
is, a deliberate tactic used by those in power as part of their
hidden class warfare. This hidden `class war' that has been waged on
India's poor has become much more open in recent years, he argues,
because it now receives legitimation from the neo-liberal credo of
the World Bank and the international financial institutions, which
argue that notions of the state's responsibility for the welfare of
its impoverished citizens must be rejected. Thus, today in India, and
in particular in Gujarat, "the fight against poverty seems to have
been transformed into a fight against the poor", who are now viewed
as "an excessive burden that cannot be included now or in the future,
in the economy and society" (page 13).

The central themes of the book come together in Breman's impassioned
concluding paragraph in Chapter 7, where he writes: "I have
endeavoured to demonstrate the untenable and unjust nature of current
economic policies in the case of the majority of people living and
working in Ahmedabad. Persistence with the doctrine of
neo-liberalism, with its almost social Darwinist mindset, will lead
to further widening of the gap between rich and poor... Gujarat could
be understood as an experiment for trying out what will happen to
state and society under a policy regime which does not attempt to
harness the most brutal consequences of a market-led mode of
capitalist production. The total eclipse of the kind of Gandhian
values which, for the better part of the last century, were so
important in the promotion of a public image both within and outside
the country, has also led to the shrinking of the social space needed
for humanising economic growth. The disappearance of a climate
leaning towards social democracy and tolerance has been accompanied
by an increase of communal hate politics" (pages 246-7).

Since the themes of the 11 essay-chapters vary, it is useful to
briefly review them. Chapter 1 deals with intra-rural labour
circulation and the landless Halpati tribal caste in the context of
sugarcane cultivation. Breman notes that sugarcane "is cut by an army
of around 100,000 workers", all of whom are migrant labour, owing to
"the outright refusal of co-operative factories [owned by wealthy
higher caste farmers] to rely on local labour" (page 35). This is
part of the punishment they mete out to the Halpatis, who now are no
longer their bonded labour. But for the Halpatis their `emancipation'
is almost meaningless, because "for many the daily misery has become
even greater because they no longer have the basic security on which
they could formerly depend. Their newly gained freedom [therefore]
... means little more than that they have the freedom to starve"
(page 35).

This is a crucial issue because it implicitly calls into question the
very meaning of `freedom', `rights' and `democracy' in India today.
As Breman notes elsewhere in this book, all the large promises of
social justice and genuine democracy made to the poor during the
struggle for Independence, have been belied by the deeds of India's
ruling classes. The pauperisation of many `resettled' tribal
communities in Gujarat, which have been "robbed... of their land" in
order to facilitate irrigation projects, "results directly from the
type of development policy adopted by the state" (page 37). This is
an important theme of the book: the state consistently sides with
rich farmers and therefore virtually never supports landless labour
in its struggles with employers. Thus the state's rhetoric, which
insists that "social harmony" exists, hides "an essential
unwillingness to introduce any change into the extreme inequalities
between the rich and poor" in Gujarat (page 46).

Chapter 2 is a gripping account of how a young, landless, Halpati man
was tortured and beaten to death at the hands of the village elite in
1994. Breman observes that such beatings were designed to intimidate
and silence agricultural labourers. He argues that when political
parties quickly stepped in, ostensibly to defend the local labourers,
they were in fact solely interested in gaining electoral advantage by
blaming their opponents for defending those guilty of the murder.

Chapter 3 is the intriguing story of a young Halpati man who gained
sufficient education to get a `reserved' public sector bank job. But,
Breman argues, despite `reservations' in higher education and
government jobs, caste discrimination is still very active and as
poisonous as ever, ensuring that "Scheduled Tribe" individuals, such
as the protagonist, who climb up the class ladder remain extremely
isolated socially. He reminds us of the "explosion of violence" from
the upper castes, in the anti-reservation protests in Gujarat in 1981
and 1985 and comments that "[t]his not only brought to an end the
sustained dominance of the Congress party in Gujarat, but seemed to
herald a decline in institutional efforts to create extra
opportunities for people seeking escape from economic deprivation and
social discrimination" (page 113).

Chapter 4 is an excursion to Kolkata, where Breman considers the
position of the city's rickshaw-pullers. This essay is
impressionistic and lacks the depth of the essays on Gujarat. Chapter
5 reviews the World Bank's "World Development Report" (WDR) of 1995.
This WDR was entitled "Workers in an Integrating World". Breman's
review is a hard-hitting polemic against the World Bank's labour
policies, highlighting the neo-liberal ideology that underpins the
report. He has written for several years about the ways in which
jobbers and middle-men ruthlessly exploit migrant labour in the
informal sector. He is therefore able to highlight the absurdity of
the World Bank's characterisation of these, in his terms, "ruthless
operators" as, instead, admirable agents who "contract with farmers,
act as employment agencies, and contribute to the flow of information
across labour markets" (WDR 1995:26, quoted in Breman, page 174).

Chapter 6 critiques Hernando de Soto's ideas on development and
concludes on the following note: "de Soto's analysis has a one-sided
bias in favour of capital and entirely ignores labour as a factor of
production... [it] boils down to the formalisation of the factor
capital in such a way that the trend towards the informalisation of
labour relations can continue unabated" (pages 218-9). These three
chapters (Chapters 4 to 6) constitute the weakest section of the
book, possibly because they contain the least discussion of Breman's
own ethnographic findings.

WITH Chapter 7 - perhaps the best essay in the book - we return to
analysis based on first-hand fieldwork, focussed on Ahmedabad's
ex-mill workers. This interesting essay has valuable insights to
offer on what happens when 85,000 mill workers lose their secure
formal sector jobs and are thrown into an insecure existence where
they and their families have to work in exploitative, poorly paid
informal sector jobs. Breman argues that the great hardships of this
new poverty result in some of them being tempted into high-paying
illegal activities, as well as into becoming mercenaries who
persecute minorities - for example, Muslims - on orders from above.
This is hardly surprising "in an economy where more than half of the
total money circulation takes place outside the legal-administrative
purview" (page 239, emphasis added throughout2). More specifically,
in Ahmedabad, "Working on one's own account and at one's own risk may
be combined with membership of gangs hired on a regular or incidental
basis by landlords and slum bosses to drive out squatters, by
politicians to intimidate opponents or to persecute minorities... "
(page 239). Breman quotes other research on Ahmedabad as follows "...
crime, particularly economic crime, had become a way of life in
Ahmedabad" (Spodek 2001: 1632, quoted in Breman: 240). In short, the
growing criminalisation of politics emerges as a powerful factor
behind the targeting of Gujarat's Muslims in the pogroms of 2002.

The remaining four essays take this discussion further. Breman
provides accounts of rural reactions to the destruction of the Babri
Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992 (Chapter 8) and the shocking
pogrom of Muslims that followed in Surat that month (Chapter 9).
Based on his own investigations, he suggests an explanation for the
surprising fact that the worst atrocities were committed by killers
"who came from among the horde of labour migrants who have flocked to
Surat" (page 273). He argues that the conditions of work and life for
these young male migrant workers are so brutal that they constitute
contexts and processes that dehumanise and alienate these young men
to such a degree that it becomes easy for them to become violent and
bestial killers, when given political carte blanche to go on the
rampage (pages 273-277). This is a provocative thesis - but one worth
serious consideration, because Breman's account draws our attention
to the underlying economic, social and political factors hidden
behind these dreadful events.

Chapter 10 describes Breman's visit to Hindu and Muslim slums in
Ahmedabad in January 1993. He emphasises that to see the repeated
driving away of poor Muslims from their slum neighbourhoods as a form
of `religious' harassment is to be hoodwinked, because both his own
investigations and those of other researchers (for example, Nandy et
al. 1995, quoted in Breman: 299) indicate that "economic and
political interests are at stake" here for slumlords and real estate
developers (page 299). Thus the supposedly `religious' attacks on
Muslims stand revealed as "the continuation of earlier back-stage
manipulations involving mafia dons, bureaucrats and local politicians
who colluded to whip up the communal frenzy" (page 299). What becomes
very clear here is the extent to which the massacres of innocent
Muslims in 2002 were a further phase in the steady brutalisation of
an entire State, a dreadful symptom of a deeply diseased society and
economy. This is worrying, given that the plagues of Gujarat appear
to be spreading elsewhere in the country, both in increasingly
rapacious capitalist forms of exploitation of labour that are
encouraged by the government's neo-liberal stance, in the growing
criminalisation of politics in the looming shadow of India's black
economy and in the new intolerance towards vulnerable groups, whether
they are Dalits, Christians or Muslims.

GIVEN the structural similarity of the positions of Dalits and
religious minorities, one of the puzzles and great disappointments of
the communal violence in Gujarat has been the apparent co-option of
some sections of Dalits by Hindutva politics. Breman refers to
"significant Dalit participation" in the post-Ayodhya violence
against Muslims in 1992-93 (here he cites Chandra 1993 on Mumbai and
Surat, see Breman: 306) and in Chapter 11, the final essay, Breman
confirms this again in his investigations conducted in the aftermath
of the Gujarat pogroms of 2002. He observes that the pogroms have to
be understood in the context of "the well-entrenched nature of the
Hindutva movement... in this part of the country, strongly opposed to
communal harmony... The mobilisation of low and intermediate castes
to participate in the activities of the Sangh Parivar organisations
in the last two decades has broadened the base of Hindu
fundamentalism as a socio-political force. The price these previously
denigrated segments have to pay for their acceptance within the
Hindutva fold is their willingness to express antagonism to Muslims
as members of the religious minority and, in brutal acts of
confrontation, to do the dirty work of `cleansing' on behalf of their
high-caste brothers and sisters" (page 322).

But social identity is closely affected by economic position, and
Breman emphasises, once again, the fact that "in this still ongoing
[economic] crisis, close to 100,000 workers have lost their jobs"
(page 322). The closure of the textile mills has been accompanied by
the "dramatic... collapse of the social infrastructure that has
accompanied it. It is certainly not a coincidence that the orgy of
violence that has taken place in Ahmedabad since the end of February
2002 seems to have reached its climax in ex-mill localities populated
by the social segments from which a major part of this industrial
workforce used to be recruited: subaltern Hindus (mainly Dalits, OBCs
and intermediate classes... ) and Muslims" (page 323).

Breman draws attention to the central role of working class
solidarity in past decades, when the Majoor Mahajan Sangh (MMS), the
mill workers' trade union started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920, had the
unquestioned support of Hindu and Muslim workers alike (page 323).
The MMS promoted a number of welfare practices that created meeting
points within the mill localities "which facilitated interaction
between people of different identities" at "sports clubs, reading
rooms, classes for adult education... day nurseries, primary health
centres" (page 325). Thus - and this is of central importance - "The
`other' was not at a distance but highly visible and touchable as a
workmate, a neighbour or a friend with whom close contact was
maintained both within and outside the mill. This mesh of social
cohesion that transcended the separate niches of caste and religion
broke down once the MMS started to fade away" (pages 325-6).

Breman's insight here is of fundamental importance. Such social
interaction in intercommunal networks based on political institutions
such as trade unions is crucial, argues Varshney in his important
recent analysis of communal violence in India, which concludes that
such socio-politically based intercommunal solidarity has proved the
strongest guarantor of social harmony in India (Varshney 20023).
Breman's book thus raises issues of crucial importance to India's
political economy, and, in fact, to all our lives. Its great value
lies in his insistence that we have to investigate the broader
contexts and processes from which events result. Such an
understanding is essential because without it we cannot prevent the
politically inspired plagues of Gujarat from infecting the economy
and society of the entire nation.

1. India Working: Essays on Society and Economy by Barbara
Harriss-White; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003 (see
review in Frontline, May 9).

2. See Harriss-White's book for important discussion of the subject
at the national and Tamil Nadu State levels.

3. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India by
Ashutosh Varshney; Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.
Indian edition: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002. The book
was reviewed in Economic and Political Weekly, 37:38, 3921-22.

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