Jan Breman’s scholarship on the rural economy in the Indian subcontinent has remained one of the most significant contributions on the literature in the past several decades. This present attempt by Breman can be described as the summary and briefing of all his ideas emanating through his anthropological research started at the beginning of the 1960s. This becomes more important in the current times as there is a growing interest in the subcontinent to understand the complexities of the informal workforce which, although being estimated by scholars and agencies differently, covers more than 90 per cent of the Indian economy. Using examples from his field-sites in the rural landscapes of Gujarat, (where he has graduated from being a Bhai (brother) to Chacha (uncle) and now grandfather—as one of his economist friends at JNU introduces him), Breman clearly shows the trajectory of the rise of the informal sector in the country and its challenges.
Beginning with the rejection of the dualism theory in the first chapter, Breman clarifies why he has opted for fractured, differentiated and varied models in defining the two sectors—formal and informal—which according to him are interconnected in various ways. He suggests that informality is the product of the brand of unregulated capitalism which Indian politicians and policy makers have welcomed with great enthusiasm. It is a mode of employment resorted to by the capital owners in order to exploit the marginalized labour (by keeping the cost of labour low) in connivance with the state. The ‘new wisdom’ suggesting that ‘redemption of poverty has to be sought by formalizing capital rather than labour’ (p. 5), according to Breman, paved the way for ‘social Darwinism, a situation in which the most vulnerable classes at the bottom of the economy do not stand together but are made to fight each other’ (p. 7).
Breman then goes on to underline some of the major characteristics, challenges and neglected ideas in studies on the informal economy. Rejecting the idea that informali-zation is a recent urban phenomenon, Breman shows how short or prolonged spells of unemployment in the already unsatisfying environment of work available in the lower echelons with no space for labour legislations and increasing flexibilization of the relationship between employers and employees has actually led to a decline in growth rate of wages at both the urban and the rural sites. Refuting the claims of ‘faulty time-thrift’ and non-commitment to ‘industrial way of life’ for the precarious condition of the working class in the informal economy, he blames it on the ‘low and capricious demand that is made on their labour power’ (p.53). Addressing the issue of the footloose workforce in urban destinations (intra-rural labour mobility has remained under-studied, as Breman points out), he raises the concern of these squatters’ rights to habitat and economy in the city. A trajectory very different from that of the western world, where exodus from agriculture and the countryside was incorporated into urban citizens and industrial workers, labour migrants in India, Breman shows, pass through, move on again after some time or go back to where they came from. The reason lies, he suggests, in the nature of informalized employment being non-industrial.
The point, although not corroborated by Breman with greater details, is an important observation for further research in the informal economy. Published recently in the review of rural affairs edition of the Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. xlv iii, Nos 26&27, June 29, 2013), Hans P. Binswanger-Mkhize explains how compared to international experience, India’s structural transformation has been slow and atypical, mainly on account of low share in manufacturing in the economy (hovering just around 16 percent of the GDP)….absorption of labour in the urban economy has been slow, and rural-urban migration has been far less than could have been expected in a rapidly growing economy….; share of industry (including manufacturing) has grown just from around 25% in 1989 to around 28% today. The highest growth has been in the share of services—well over 50%- where the unskilled labour has no say. Thus, with no increase in opportunity for rural-urban migration the rural households are instead diversifying into the rural non-farm sector. As Mkhize remarks, ‘the new form of structural transformation happening in India (both rural and urban) is a stunted one because it primarily generates employment that is informal and/or insecure, without the benefits of health and unemployment insurance and pensions.’
This also leads towards David Harvey’s remarks in his recent contribution Rebel Cities (2012). Harvey observes that ‘the important and ever-expanding labour of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly done by insecure, often part-time and disorganized low paid labour. The so-called “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat’’’ (p.xiv). This also explains Breman’s observation why unlike in Europe, where ‘housing cooperatives are a familiar sight in working class neighbourhoods, in India, this term invariably signals the presence of middle-class’ who buy these bungalows and apartments from the capitalist class. The ‘footloose proletarians are subjected to repression and exploitation’ and ‘forever kept on the run’.
Seconding Kannan’s observation that access to work in the informal sector has remained firmly caste based, Breman, in his attempt to locate the social profile and locale of the informal workers suggests a threefold classification—the SCs/STs at the bottom of the heap, a cluster of ‘Others’ consisting of upper-caste Hindus and similar elite formations at the top, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) together with Muslims ranked in the middle. He accepts that caste as a system of social structure and culture has not withered away in modern India. On the contrary, in the labour market it has gained in strength as a marker of identification. This is due both to the older system of ‘hierarchy’ complemented with the new assertion of ‘difference’ through the contestation from below. Breman invokes Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944:46) rightly that ‘man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships’ and ‘the economic system will be run on noneconomic motives.’
For the increasing degree of inequality over the years, which even states characterized by high industrialization, urbanization and the highest growth rates, such as Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, have failed to address, Breman observes that these conditions of reproduction cannot be sustained only by economic instances. The condition set by the political unwillingness to tackle the social question is very important too. He presents innumerable examples from the so called ‘growth model’ of Modi’s governance in Gujarat and supplements it by tearing apart the ongoing debate among the policy makers at the centre regarding the poverty line. The estimates of poverty line are fixed at this low level, Breman opines, only to drive down the below poverty line (BPL) figure in order to reduce the government expenditure on the poor (read vulnerable) in the years to come. Breman also addresses the most challenging issue of jobless growth, which according to him is going to haunt the country in the years to come and what he terms as the ‘real crisis of world capitalism’.
At the end, Breman, points to the ways and means of the growing assertion of the labouring poor fuelled by a revolution of rising expectations. The outcome of the elections, whichever way the poor cast their votes, may not be pro-poor, but they are slowly learning the tricks to claim their share in the spoils of the economy. Universal suffrage, for which Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had waged a struggle in the Constituent Assembly, no doubt, has empowered the oppressed to bargain for their rights. But under the current neo-classical doctrine, which blames the poor themselves for their survival in distress, if the social question is left unresolved, deprivation and subordination may soon be transformed into systemic exclusion. The ‘regime of capitalism’ today is characterized by ‘stubborn and pernicious unwillingness to enable a very substantial part of mankind to qualify both as producers and consumers for full and fair participation’ (p.142). And thus, all promises of social inclusion seem rather a myth.
The present study provides a nuanced and comprehensive insight into the evolution, nature and changing characteristics of the informal sector in the country as a whole with the help of micro-level examples in Gujarat. The book compels us to think how neo-liberalism and democracy are going in different directions in India.
Avinash Kumar is Assistant Professor of Political Studies in the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.