Locked in Waiting Rooms Beyond the Purview of Politicians

Review article of Jan Breman, The Poverty Regime in Village India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2007.
The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36 (4)

Jan Breman has been engaged in fieldwork research in south Gurajat, India, since the early ninety sixties. He has lived there for quite some time and has returned regularly, in order to analyse, in a longitudinal perspective, the impact of modernisation and economic growth on the rural poor. He has reported his findings throughout the years in numerous books and monographs. This book can be seen not only as the last re-study of the villages concerned, but also as a history of change during half a century in South Gujarat and as an overall account of research carried out during this period.
The focus of the study is on four villages in particular: Gandevigam, Chikhligam, Bardoligam and Atulgam. They show many similarities, but differ in terms of geography, agricultural orientation (rice, fruits, sugar cane, cattle and so on) and social structure, in particular with regard to caste. Breman did not confine his research to the villages proper, but analysed them as nodal points in an ever-widening regional network. In this way he could study the effects of the emergence and growth of cities and industries in Gurajat, including the impact of labour migration. His main interest is the consequences of change for the poorest population strata, in particular the rural proletariat. Thereby he focused on Scheduled Tribes and Castes, such as the Halpati and Dhodia. Because Breman rejects a purely quantitative economic analysis, he has made an effort to assess the dynamics of poverty of these groups in relation to the lives of the non-poor, in particular high castes such as the Anavil Brahman and the Kanbi Patel. The result is an integrated analysis of economic, social, political and cultural dimensions of poverty. Breman does not only present quantitative data and qualitative descriptions of developments in and around the villages; he also gives a deep insight in the perceptions of the people concerned: self-perceptions of the poor, their perceptions of the non-poor and also perceptions held by well-to-do and powerful population groups about the poor and deprived. The passages concerned provide a startling view on the developments of social relations in the region.
Land-poor and landless
Breman has looked around with his eyes wide open and with a critical mind. He has also listened to numerous stories. He has carefully noted down the narratives, views and opinions of many people, belonging to different castes and trades. These include the land-poor and the landless, people who have no other choice than permanently migrate in order to find some work and stay alive. The detailed accounts of, for instance, sugar cane workers and people working in the brickfields are sober and saddening. However, Breman offers also narratives from people belonging to the lucky few that were able to escape from destitution, as well as from labour brokers and landowners. In order not to be influenced too much by the lines of reasoning of more successful and powerful people, but to get full insight in the real hardship of the rural proletariat, he has taken pains to stay close to the latter, sleeping in huts and sometimes in the open field, occasionally running the risk to be summoned by local authorities to leave the area. However, the book is much more than an account of interviews. It is full of figures, meticulous calculations, categorisations and comparisons. These concern, for instance, changes in the composition of the village population, changes in land tenure, in wage levels in different regions and sectors, in working hours and labour conditions as well as in various dimensions of poverty levels. In doing so Breman has gone out of his way to explain how he arrived at specific figures and why he choose specific breakdowns into different categories.
So, he explains the reasons behind an extensive fragmentation of land, the primary source of property in the village economy. In Chikhligam, for instance, this has resulted in an average of less than one-third of a hectare per owner amongst the Dhodias. The official records do not reflect the distribution of land rights. Breman had to make his own calculations on the basis of thorough interviews. He concludes that in this region 85 percent of the land-poor cannot be classified as farmers. Even if they do have a small plot of land, it can never be their main source of income. Moreover, a registered owner often cannot lay claim to part of the proceeds. At the foot of the agrarian economy a general downward spiral has taken place: a progressive sub-division of land ownership to far below the level necessary for a viable holding. So, the land-poor have no other option than to seek complementary income elsewhere, either around the village, on plots of bigger landowners or as maids, bricklayers and informal sector workers, or by migrating to destinations outside the village, ever farther away. For the landless (like the Halpati in general, or those Dhodias who lost their land due to indebtedness to moneylenders) the situation is even worse: they do not have any means of their own. So, gradually the plots of the poor have become smaller and the number of landless has swelled. Breman has observed that this development was quite prominent since he started his field research. 
In order to review the consequences of this development he meticulously defines and demarcates the groups concerned: land owners (substantial farmers, small farmers – up to 2 hectare – and marginal farmers – less than 1 hectare –, respectively); cultivators; self employed or own account workers; farm servants in regular employment; casual semi-skilled or unskilled wage labourers in and outside agriculture; seasonal migrants; and last but not least those people who are completely dependent on others: old age people, small children and the sick. But he also makes clear that the demarcations are volatile. Child labour on the farm as well as in the brick kilns is a rule (“Young girls who at first are weighed down under a head load of six or eight bricks, are congratulated when their arms become sufficiently long to enable their promotion to carrying ten bricks; their smaller brothers or sisters also acquire added value as soon as they are able to run with two wet bricks instead of one” p. 172). ‘Mostly unemployed and occasionally working as an agricultural labourer’ would, as Breman explains, be a better description of the haphazard and intermittent involvement of so-called casual workers in the labour process. 
This involvement is much more haphazard than it used to be. In Bardoligam, for instance, the number of working days of landless labourers has decreased from 225 per year in the early sixties to 150 nowadays. This is due to changes in both supply and demand on the market for agricultural labour. On the supply side there is increasing pressure, due to population growth, incoming migration and loss of land as a result of indebtedness. At the same time the demand for local labour has decreased, due to the arrival of irrigated agriculture, a decrease in cattle holding and, last but not least, a preference of landlords to hire temporary migrant workers from elsewhere (for instance as cane cutters), despite the fact that there are so many local labourers available. This may seem surprising, but, as Breman argues, it is not. It is part of a strategy to keep down the costs of production: outsiders are cheaper, not because their wages are lower than those of local labourers – the wages of the latter are already below the level required for them to lead a decent life – but because they are easier to discipline and to fire than local employees. Migrant workers “come when they are needed, stay as long as they are necessary and leave again when the work is done. The costs of reproduction are deflected to the hinterland, in which a steadily expanding pool of labour can be tapped, and the migrants even pay for their own transport” (p. 305). This means that local labourers have to resort to seasonal migration as well, in order to stay alive.
Breman concludes that seasonal migration is not the cause of changes in the pattern of agrarian employment, but a consequence. The present regime of agrarian production, which has evolved during the second half of the last century, has reduced land-poor and landless people to the status of a labour reserve army and condemned them to permanent pauperisation, despite the enlargement of economic space for those who have access to resources. Large masses of men, women, and children have been brought “in a permanent state of mobility as a modus operandi resorted to by the new dominant capitalist form of entrepreneurship to ensure that employment remained temporary and the costs involved were kept as low as possible, even at a level that was too low to enable reproduction” (p. 194).
The economic growth that took place during the same period has facilitated the implementation of this strategy. The rural infrastructure has been improved. Roads were built to the cities, where new industries sprang up. Landless labourers migrating to cities, such as Surat, could find work in these industries, but, again, only temporarily and without any improvement of their living conditions. The industries work in capitalist conditions. Like the bigger landowners and the large sugar cooperatives they discharge the recruitment risks to brokers (the mukadam) who shift these risks further down on to the workers hired by them. This is part of a strategy of mobilisation, informalisation, casualisation and contractualisation of labour, in both industry and agriculture: paying on the basis of output, irrespective of how long it takes or who does it (including children), without providing in security of the working place and in other elementary needs of the labourers and their families. In particular since the adoption of neo-liberal market principles this system has become widespread. While originally it had been confined to jobs outside direct production, such as construction, maintenance and transportation, around the turn of the century it was extended to the factories themselves. The result was, as Breman concludes, ‘the expulsion of the industrial workforce from the formal sector” (p. 386). Another result is that both industry and agriculture have become intertwined parts of the same capitalist system. A third one is the blurring of the distinction between the formal and the informal economy. The informal sector is no separate entity, at the foot of the urban economy, a waiting room easy to enter, “in which rural migrants could spend some time to acquire experience and training before moving up to the formal sector” (p. 278). This is a myth. The informal sector is an integral part of the capitalist economy. And the workers float around. We observe an endless circular migration of enormous numbers of men, women and children. Landless and land-poor are no longer farm labourers; neither have they become industrial workers. Together they form a huge mass of footloose labour.
Breman has coined the resulting system of labour relations as a form of neo-bondage, bearing a resemblance to the traditional practice of halipratha, In a previous study he had discussed the origins and functioning of that system of unfree labour and how it faded away (Breman, 2007). He describes that system as less than human, but yet containing elements of patronage, including some support to he family in case of illness or old age, beyond a pure economic relation. On the other hand, in labour relations characterized by neo-bondage workers are being treated as commodities. So, unemployed seasonal workers, in order to provide in their daily subsistence needs receive an advance, ensuring the broker that they would be available for work, if and when needed. The wages are decided after completion of the contract, and made dependent on the earnings of the enterprise. The total sum is to be settled afterwards and would consist of the balance of what had been built up, after deduction of the advance and other periodic payments or rations that had been imparted to meet daily necessities. This system of advanced, and postponed and also manipulated payments puts the labourers at the mercy of the brokers, who provide credit at exorbitant interest rates. This results in a situation of chronic indebtedness, depriving the poor of their freedom and forcing them to exploit themselves.
Self-exploitation is not the same as self-employment. The latter is an act of dignity and freedom; the former is inhuman and not free. Being hired and fired according to the need of the moment people without any resource of their own are effectively forced to exploit themselves, their body, their health and their family. Onerous work and low pay leave them no other option than increasing the length of the working day and involving all dependent members of the household, as soon and as long as these can do their bit. Large masses of landless labour live in a state of extreme and chronic deprivation. They are destitute, living a perilous life in a permanent state of mobility. The labour regime gradually saps their physical strength and their mental resilience. “Destitution is the only term that suitably describes their state of deprivation”, Breman argues. It is “a state in which a regular lifestyle is disrupted by a cumulative shortage of elementary necessities – in the first instance food – which erodes the capacity to make optimal use resources available” (p. 343). That means: the resources they have in order to improve their lives, including their own body, which gets weaker because of fatigue and malnutrition. “Hope of a change for the better is replaced by desperation, the belief that there is no end to their misery” (p. 344).
The interconnection of the formal and informal sectors of the economy, rather than their separation, is, as Breman argues, a “consequence of a capitalist economic order characterized by a surplus of hands and feet ready to work, but for which demand falls short in certain seasons, areas and sectors of an economic regime completely driven by the market” (p. 197). This is not a temporary phenomenon. It is not conjunctural, but structural. The system has been kept like this on purpose. “A periodic rotation of the workforce appears to be a basic principle of operational management on the industrial estate” (p. 394) is one of the striking observations that result from Bremans analysis of the functioning of the labour market in south Gurajat. The dismantling of formal sector employment is part of a wide-ranging neo-liberal economic policy.
In his study Breman is able to compare his recent findings with what he saw and expected during earlier stages of his research. Looking back his conclusions are not positive. On the contrary: on many occasions he must admit that he has been too optimistic. In the nineteen sixties, for instance, he expected that the economic growth foreseen at that time would result in an expanding labour market and a diversification of employment, which would end the encapsulation of the landless in agriculture. In hindsight he now must conclude that this expectation was premature (p. 122). Thirty years later he wrote an extensive passage about the younger generation among the Dodhias, giving a hopeful estimate of the chances to improve their position. “There is nothing wrong with this summary”, he now writes, “except that it is based on wishful thinking and cannot be held as representative of all Dodhia households” (p. 163). A similar conclusion concerns the Halpati, about whose chances to benefit from an upward trend in the economy he displayed a cautious optimism, reinforced by what appeared to be a decline in the legitimacy of social inequality. “I am afraid that this optimistic prognosis has proved premature”, he concludes (p. 326).
Indeed, the days that blatant poverty and growing inequality were seen as unethical are over. It seems that, since the rise of neo-liberalism, a doctrine of a desirable natural social inequality is prevailing. In this doctrine “the under classes, which are unable to participate actively in the restructuring of society and economy to create a ‘shining India’, are fated to be left behind” (p. 251) In particular the Halpati and Dhodia are seen by other classes and castes as losers, as useless ballast, as undeserving poor, as a group that does not deserve better, as people who only have to blame themselves. The expectation, once expressed by some researchers, that due to economic growth class differences would overshadow caste differences, has proven false. On the contrary, Breman concludes: “the arrival of factories has widened rather than bridged the gap between high and low castes. The segregation that already existed in the living environment was given a new impetus and ethos”. (p. 402). Based on his interviews with people that belong to the top echelons in the society in south Gujarat Breman summarizes the present ethos as follows: “Seen from the top of society, those at the bottom do not count, and rightly so as they simply do not have the qualities required to advance themselves” (p. 438).
And what about the bottom itself? How do the people belonging to the underclass see the others? And what do they do in order to falsify the judgement that it is all due to their own failings? They use the weapons of the weak to resist their exclusion from a dignified existence: foot dragging, avoidance, displays of ignorance and indifference. But they go further than this. Breman has sketched an attitude of the poor that under the circumstances they have to obey is quite rational. In order to survive they follow a strategy of occupational multiplicity. They may seem to be idle, just waiting until they are called for a new job, but in fact they are extremely mobile and busy. They may show little sense of mutual solidarity necessary to form a common front, but what could they expect from their destitute fellows, with no resources whatsoever? Instead they have no option other than appealing for support from people with resources, belonging higher classes and castes. They may show little inclination to invest in education, but they have experienced that for most of them the cost of education by far outweigh the benefits. “(Not) pursuing an education could just as easily be seen as a survival strategy for the landless proletariat: not specializing in a particular area of expertise and then not being able to find suitable work, but remaining a jack-of-all-trades, responding with maximum flexibility to the labour market, in or outside agriculture, in the village or, more often, beyond it. The importance of training in this ‘skill’ of resilience should not be underestimated”, Breman concludes.
But his main conclusion, and in his view the most important outcome of his research is that “the poor claim the right, now more than ever before, to a decent and dignified life”. They demand respect for their rights to live and work in dignity and, more frequently than before, express themselves through moral indignation and covert resistance. The question, however, is how to translate a call for dignity into some form of common action, and how to get a response to the quest for respectability and dignity.
Breman argues that such a response cannot be expected from the trade unions or from civil society NGO’s. The former tend to neglect the workers belonging to the lowest castes. The latter have been patronizing and ineffective. Government measures have been ineffective as well. The introduction of a minimum wage has been sabotaged on a large scale. The bureaucracy has excelled in obstruction, turning rights into favours that may or may not be granted. However, Breman’s review of the potential of a number of public policies that had been announced leads to a rather generous judgment. The intentions behind some earlier initiatives to publicly regulate labour contracts were good, but political pressure resulted in either repealing or non-implementation of the Acts concerned. Still recent initiatives such as a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Unorganised Sector Workers Bills concerning social security and working conditions are quite positive. However, scepticism is warranted, because their effectiveness depends on political will, not only of law makers, but in particular also of the bureaucracy, the bigger land owners, the entrepreneurs, the local authorities and all those other people belonging to the upper and middle classes, which hold the power.
Breman has some expectations from what could be described as a three pronged strategy: a new land reform, restoring land property to the very poor, massive rural public works, providing large scale employment, and schooling, qualifying the rural poor for work in other sectors of the economy. Each of these three elements of such a strategy has limits, but together with the initiatives mentioned above they could result in some structural improvement in the living conditions of the rural proletariat. However, everything will depend on a restoration of a public domain, on changes in local power constellations, and on the restoration of a social ethos, replacing the still dominant neo-liberal ideology, which has rendered capitalism in India into a mode of production that has led to large-scale exclusion of huge masses of poor people.
The Poverty Regime on Village India is a case study about the workings of capitalism in south Gujarat, a specific part of the country. It is a thorough study of a specific area with its own geography and demography, its own economic structure and social relations. The scientist Breman does not claim that the situation is the same elsewhere in India, or in other parts of Asia or even elsewhere. Yet the question arises to which extent there are similarities and whether some general analytical and policy conclusions could be drawn. Perhaps the similarities between the different regions in India and abroad are mainly political. Nowhere in his book Breman refers to the phenomenon of globalisation. The word is not even mentioned by him. He does not seem to need such a reference. He demonstrates that the plight of the poor in south Gujarat is evil and that this is due to an inherent capitalist production structure within south Gujarat, whatever the situation in the world around.
Nowadays exploitation and exclusion of people are mainly analysed as a consequence of globalisation. However, Breman implicitly seems to argue that capitalism exploits and excludes the underclass everywhere in a different fashion, dependent on the social and economic structure of the region concerned, irrespective of the forces of globalisation. This is not a new insight, but a good reminder. However, I would like to add, there is a tendency towards similarity as well. Increasingly everywhere in the world people are being exploited and excluded with the same motives, on the basis of the same ideology and supported by the same political principles and preferences. Unquestionably the economic forces behind globalisation have strengthened the tendency to apply the same principles of economic and social policy making everywhere. Globalisation has led to a general leavening of these policies in otherwise different countries with the same neo-liberal doctrine: maximum flexibility for the mechanism of the market and substantial withdrawal of the state from the realm of economics, whatever the social consequences, for instance with regard to security and protection of workers. Those consequences in south Gurajat are clear. There is economic growth, but it is far from inclusive. Poverty prevails and the gaps are widening. Are these consequences the same elsewhere? 
They will be, in so far as poverty alleviation is no longer a major political issue. In the terminology used by Breman the poor in south Gujarat are “in the waiting rooms that lie beyond the purview of politicians and policy makers (…) The fact that poverty is made invisible in statistics and that the poor themselves are rendered invisible in society (and) that these people are hidden away from mainstream society (…) is no reason to label them as marginal or peripheral. They are an army of reserve labour that is at the heart of the predatory capitalism that emerged so virulently on the subcontinent of South Asia in the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 409). It has emerged and flourished and in other parts of the world no less, and has everywhere led to a combination of exploitation and exclusion of an under class, often along ethnic, tribal, cultural (caste) or religious lines. In many other parts of the world the poor are locked in waiting rooms similar to those in south Gujarat.
Breman has written a powerful book. He has assembled a multitude of data and interpreted these convincingly. It is a unique study, the result of a lifelong commitment, untiring, thorough, truth seeking, and dedicated. In the preface to this book the author writes that it seems that his fieldwork days are over. Those have been very productive days. Breman is an outstanding scholar, with a unique approach to social science research. In the Netherlands he is not to be equalled. We can be grateful for his contribution to our insight in the intricacies of processes and policies of development. 
Jan Pronk
Jan Breman, Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.