Poor left poorer

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Migrant workers at a construction site in Gujarat in December 2013. Photo: AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

This book raises serious questions on the government’s development strategy of large-scale urbanisation without addressing, among other things, “the shrinking space for bare survival” of landless workers who find themselves dispossessed, displaced and destitute.

AS the Industrial Revolution was making rapid progress in Great Britain in the early part of the 19th century and its achievements of growth came to be noted in that country and in other parts of the world, a French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote a book with the title Journeys to England and Ireland (1835). He saw in England what many natives did not see or did not want to see.

Here is what he wrote: “A very long room full of women and children whose age or infirmity prevented them from working. On the floor the poor are seated pell-mell like pigs in the mud of their sty…. In the left wing, a smaller room full of old or disabled men…. They are waiting for supper which is due in three hours. It is the only pleasure that remains to them; apart from that they would have nothing to do but to die…. On leaving there we come across a small covered barrow pushed by two paupers. This barrow was going to the houses of the rich. They throw the leftovers of their meals into the barrow and these debris are taken to the Poorhouse to make soup.” The foreign writer was writing about the living conditions of a section of British society.

To us, Jan Breman, Professor Emeritus at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Sciences, is a foreigner. However, he has done almost half a century of fieldwork in India, Gujarat in particular, on relations of production with emphasis on living conditions of peasants in rural areas and migrant workers in urban areas. He finds a close parallel between the conditions of life of the lower sections of Great Britain in the early part of the 19th century and their counterparts in India in the closing decades of the 20th and early years of the 21st centuries. This may be an unpalatable truth to many in this country, but Breman documents his case with care.

Pre-capitalist economic orders in many parts of the globe characterised by glaring social and economic inequalities had some institutionalised arrangements of charity. In rural areas, even the lowest sections did not starve; they had the crumbs falling from the tables of the rich as their entitlements. In urban areas, as represented by the Poor Laws in England, the community accepted responsibility for the poor among them.

During the early stages of capitalism when owners of factories were looking for “free labour”, there were complaints that charity was making the poor lazy. Under pressure from the captains of industry, all institutional arrangements for charity were removed so that the able-bodied unemployed “could be dealt with as that which it was, a commodity which must find its price in the market”, as Karl Polanyi aptly summed up the ethos of the period. That is the socio-economic setting for pauperism.

Twenty-first century India would not be so crude. On the contrary, our official ideology is “inclusive growth”. And a great deal has been done, thanks to the political compulsions of democracy based on adult franchise, to protect the rights of those below the poverty line. But, points out Breman, in our preoccupation with income levels, we tend to ignore, or at least overlook, the conditions of living of a rapidly swelling footloose population. It is this section of the population that has constituted the focus of his anthropological studies in Gujarat from the mid 20th century.

The latest of his field studies, reported in this volume, centre on the city of Ahmedabad and its neighbourhood, particularly on “the shrinking space for bare survival”.

But Breman points out that this phenomenon, a core aspect of pauperisation, cannot be understood without reference to the agrarian situation. At least two aspects deserve special attention. The first is that landless workers who were permitted to put up sheds on the landlord’s property to be at his “beck and call”, and whose survival was assured through that relationship, were under pressure to vacate the property.

Secondly, those with small plots of land, the marginal farmers, were finding it difficult to make a living from cultivating land. With very little activity other than agriculture in the rural areas, both these groups were left with no choice other than to migrate to urban areas where there was increasing demand for labour, especially in the construction industry. As is well known, there are contractors who recruit such excess rural labour and put them in touch with potential employers and then disappear from the scene. The migrant workers have to find a place to stay close to the worksites, and so unofficial settlements develop in different parts of the city.

When slums in big cities become eyesores, the official machinery gets into action to evict the dwellers, promising them sites elsewhere but faraway from their worksites in the city. But conditions apply.

The workers must produce proof of the length of stay in the city, ration cards to prove their below poverty level status, voter identification and, increasingly, even Aadhaar cards. There are, of course, plenty of agents ready and eager to help those in need, but for a consideration.

So here are human beings, fellow citizens, removed from their rural settings and possibly even their families, thrown out of their temporary settlements in the big city, shifted to a satellite town specially set up for them where, of course, they cannot find any work—dispossession, displacement, destitution. Some of the workers do go from the new settlement, Ganeshnagar, to Ahmedabad in the morning and return in the evening. Some make visits back to the village. So, it is not migration but circulation, points out the author. The informality relating to work is matched by an informalisation of governance also, writes Breman, “leading to widespread leakage of funds, lack of coordination, accountability, and transparency between the various echelons in the bureaucratic hierarchy and the denial of legal entitlements”.

A specific case was that of a widow who had to sign the main application form twice as also nine separate chits stating that she was a widow, had no adult son, had lived in Gujarat for more than 10 years, belonged to a particular caste, was from the BPL category, had not received support earlier, was eligible to receive support, and so on! There are different forms of uncertainty too. Work itself is uncertain in the neighbourhood of the settlement, wages are lower, the ration shop is not open most of the time, and thus poverty gets transformed into pauperisation.

In the light of these findings, Breman raises serious doubts about the development strategy of the Narendra Modi government, which not only plans to step up “growth” but also proposes to give urbanisation a big boost with its emphasis on smart cities, smart governance, smart buildings, smart infrastructure and smart citizens who will find it easy to practise their professions without any bureaucratic hassles.

There is much more in this volume to read and ponder over, but those who turn to the book may find that the tiny print makes it not easy to do so.

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