Workers of the world can’t unite: May Day in neo-liberal times


May Day Rally, Town Hall, Bengaluru. 2017.

Walking with workers on May Day morning was a humbling experience. Workers’ unions from various establishments across the state showed up for May Day rally at the Town Hall yesterday. I was also filling up the last of my field trips for masters’ thesis. So, this also comes from my field notes. The roads in all directions from Town Hall were a stream of red. While it was heartening to see workers showing up in such numbers, it was also distressing to see that a key driver of unionization among workers across jobs like marketing and distribution, automobile manufacturing, garment manufacturing, cleaning and garbage collection and a whole range of other miscellaneous ones, is the fact that they find their situations too precarious in the emerging economic context. The unions in this year’s May Day were not the traditional unions of pre-1990s which drew mainly from skilled, industrial workers in long term and secure jobs, who needed to fight primarily for wages.

This May Day was of the precariat – a category of workers in low wage jobs with no social security and job security. They are retained only on employment contracts and will never be valued by the employers as workers who are worth investing in, over long term. These workers are the former proletariat with an added precariousness to their lives owing to the jobs that they find themselves in. This is the precariat that Guy Standing refers to in his work – The Precariat: The Nww Dangerous Class.

In a 2014 paper – The Precariat and Class Struggle, he writes –

The world economy is in the midst of a Global Transformation that is producing a new global class structure. A new mass class is emerging – the precariat – characterised by chronic uncertainty and insecurity. Although the precariat is still a class-in-the-making, divided within itself, its elements are united in rejecting old mainstream political traditions.

It was the precariat in action yesterday at Town Hall. Nothing significant is likely to change in their lives if they continue to organize in manner and style of the old unions. The call for action isn’t simple anymore. Neither the workers of the world can unite nor will the tripartite of state – market – trade union will ever be respected as earlier. I was glad to be a part of the march filled with sloganeering, music and dance. However, here are my concerns because I know that the music and dance mood would hardly take time to turn into violent protests and lockouts in these times of arbitrary policy making by the state which tends to favour businesses:

  1. Workers of the world can’t unite anymore because the global solidarity that the traditional unions called for has been rendered unattainable by effects of globalization which relocates shop floors to cheap labour markets, thus depriving one group of workers and providing another with work. Case in point – Detroit’s death in the US and rise of Asian car manufacturing hubs. There is a reason why Volvo opened a large manufacturing unit outside Bengaluru and not in any of the pretty settings in Scandinavia. So how do workers feel for each other when they end up as losers and winners?
  2. Resurgence of radical nationalism seems evident in several parts of the world – India, US, Germany and France among major economies. Countries like Hungary have gone a little further with their attitude towards immigrants. This will prevent any transnational solidarity to emerge among workers.
  3. Complex state-business relationships in free-market economies have rendered the place of unions irrelevant, if the unions are still articulating their concerns and fights in the language of the 1960s. States will pander up to businesses which bring in investments. Workers are no longer indispensable, should be known wide and across the segment. Indian unions moreover do not seem to have taken lessons from the devastating 1982 textile mills strike led by Datta Samant. What was the end result? Why does this question upset union leaders? This famous strike with over 300,000 workers participating in it which assumed that workers would stand their ground (owing to the poor choice of their leader Samant) and the state would bend, wiped out textile industry from Mumbai!

Returning to Standing, only because it seems a useful analysis of the situation, suggests what might the transformation of the precariat’s situation need –

To become a transformative class, however, the precariat needs to move beyond the primitive rebel stage manifested in 2011 and become enough of a class-for-itself to be a power for change. This will involve a struggle for redistribution of the key assets needed for a good life in a good society in the twenty-first century –not the “means of production”, but socioeconomic security, control of time, quality space, knowledge (or education), financial knowledge and financial capital.

I find Standing’s views a reasonable direction that workers in the neo-liberal times need to reorient their thinking in. In my work, I have been studying the contract workers who sweep, collect garbage and clean the city for Bengaluru’s municipal corporation. These workers are referred to as porakarmika in Kannada. Their union was formed three years back and in my analysis I find that this is the only effective grievance redressal agency that they have to plead their demands to the corporation. There are over ten thousand registered members. Every time I participate in their protests for wage hikes and workplace conditions, I am struck by the lack of thought in their demand for regularization – that they should be made permanent employees. In these times, with neo-liberal thought and new institutional management having taken firm ideological root in the government imagination, there is no hope for contract system to be discontinued. The state will increasingly deliver more services through contractors. The workers and their leaders seem to have no idea about the impossibility of permanent work and abolishing contract system for public services. The political-economy context of this is perhaps not known or at times seems known but a refusal to acknowledge it prevails among the leaders.

On May Day 2016 post at MPP’s Lokniti blog – From Haymarket Square to Hosur Road: State of Workers in India in 3 Charts, I ended with the following –

The direction to move in is to think of how must the workers be armed (not in the weapons sense) to take on this shove from the current economic system which appears to be shortchanging them left, right and center.

I feel the same on May Day 2017 and this is likely to be my outlook for the workers in the next decade too. In the three charts that I shared on last year’s post, I’d say that te number of registered unions might start looking up soon. Case in point – Rakhi Sehgal’s National Trade Union Initiative formed in 2006 has grown from a membership of just 500 workers to nearly 11 lakh by 2011.

There are new labour leaders emerging in India who are making a serious dent by organizing workers and letting businesses know that it won’t be easy for them to feed the workers into the machines for cheap. I’ve known some of these leaders covered by India Today magazine several years back – Face of New Labour, and how they mean serious business.

In these times soaked with neo-liberal ideology, workers are essentially fighting commodification of vital social services like healthcare, education, insurance, work benefits etc. These must be specific sites of focus and targeting these sharply should be the unions’ work. It appears difficult at the moment, but not quite if unions’ recognize that they need to know the nuts and bolts of how the new economy works and that concepts of means of production and labour power has outrun their potential in these times.


First Learnings – Reading Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)

Anthropology from late 1940s to 1960s serves a useful starting point to understand how the growing breed of sociologists and anthropologists encountered experiences, people and cultures strikingly different from those which they came from. This could be true in any century, rather more so when the first Portuguese sailors arrived at the western coast of India or when the Dutch merchants disembarked on the eastern coast of India. But the post WW II period is particularly interesting and perhaps the phase when anthropology as a discipline began rising up the ladder of scientific importance and recognition.

The language used to put these cultural encounters into words, methods of observation, analytical understanding, which was largely comparative (us vs. them) – of the studies during this period reveal an exercise in building social understanding in a simple, progressive and incremental. This should be of interest now several decades later, because the current works in social sciences have left such approaches far behind discarding them as too simple.  A critique of methods in anthropology is a longer discussion. The intent here is to share the stunning clarity and analytical knife with which Mead works up her observations and experiences while studying the Pacific communities.  When in doubt about your sense of purpose in doing something, give Margaret Mead a chance to reignite the flickering flame of excitement and writing. One of her works I have immensely enjoyed reading is “Male and Female”. In First Learnings and the entire book she draws from the seven Pacific peoples she lived and worked with – the Samoans, Manus, Arapesh, Mundugumor, Tchambuli, Iatmul and Balinese. These folks in the pacific live by a completely different set of values, norms and practices. The contrast can be so strong that it can potentially throw your mental order and cognition so off balance that one may not find himself any different from those we sent to the mental asylums.

Here is an instance of her clarity as she begins to make sense of practices of the Pacific communities with that of her own – American society in 1950s. She writes,

Civilization depends on an orderly transformation of the primary experiences of childhood into the disciplined symbolism of adult life, in which walking-sticks are decorations of class or individuality, umbrellas keep the rain off, hand-bags contain everything one needs for the day, and the distinctions between food and not food are clear enough to make sword-swallowing an amusing vaudeville turn. Those who have not succeeded in making such transformations go mad, and fill our insane asylums.

She goes on to pen a masterful stroke of explanation of just what these artists, creative types, authoritarian leaders and similar types might be.

Those who keep an easy access to their own early memories but who have also talent and skill become our artists and our actors; those who can combine these early basically human experiences with vision and love of mankind become prophets; those who combine this ready access to early images with hate become dangerous demagogues – Hitlers and Mussolinis.

Mead concerns herself with the transformations that societies force upon themselves – a transformation of primary body experience into culturally approved elaborations. In less elegant words, this blog contest realities is an attempt to think and discuss such realities which seem to be conflicting yet in their own relative orders seem to be just the way the people who devised them want their social, cultural and perceptional order to be.

The paucity of ideas in the current practice in anthropology appears very confined to a few stock methods and approaches to studying society. A delightful passage in her book, looks like a fairly cool imagination of academic research in anthropology today:

Long ago in a New England village one of the villagers received a revelation from God that every one was to do exactly as he wished. Sadly, with exemplary rambunctiousness, the villagers took of their clothes and ran around on all fours like animals, making animal sounds. No one had a better idea.

The other front, on which Mead’s works score very high is the merit of her ideas about social transformation and civilizational trajectories with respect to the interaction between men and women. The problem graduate students today face is that the professors of social sciences and others which have an intersection with anthropology (like legal studies) seem to lack an appreciation for simple, logical and analytically limited methods of study. Papers not too loud on their methods get nothing better than a C or at best a B grade. This rather curious behaviour is making me read these early works with a closer eye. And I find that I can understand as well as appreciate the weight of their findings. Isn’t that an achievement of the author herself? By this I do not mean to cast early works as beyond doubt or criticism. Mead’s observations have been questioned a good deal and greater criticism was made of her inferences. While that goes on, one can at least learn from her style of writing, approach in studying Pacific communities and her extensive recording of field work.



Anatomy of a Disaster: Cyclone Phailin


High speed winds sweeping states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh (Image: Deccan Chronicle)

This month we are on an assignment which takes us to cyclone affected districts of Orissa. Reflecting on what we saw from our travel in the region in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin (which struck India’s eastern coast on October 12, 2013) it appears that Odisha’s preparedness and response to the disaster is an extraordinary example of what states can achieve if they really get themselves up to it.

Identifying the action in the simplest fundamental sense is necessary to inform discourse on disaster preparedness and response. Given the meteorological information available from IMD this disaster which was almost certain to occur. But was it expected to be as catastrophic as it ended up being, is an open question. Cyclone Phailin, a Category 4 storm (for reference: Hurrican Katrina was a Category 3 storm, of lesser intensity than this) was estimated to make a landfall (approaching from Bay of Bengal) on October 12, 2013 by the Indian Meteorological Department, in the coastal town of Gopalpur in Odisha state. It made a landfall at 9.15 pm IST. During its approach winds sped through the coastal areas at about 200 km/hr speed along with generating huge waves on the coasts. On October 8, 2013 four days before the cyclone, the Principal Secretary to the state of Odisha communicates information on Cyclone Phailin to the district administrations, particularly to those of Ganjam, Mayurbhanj, Puri and Balasore districts. These lie on the coast and were likely to be severely hit by the cyclone. In the next three days before the cyclone gathered strength, these four districts were to make an evacuation plan, a relief plan, a micro plan for all the blocks of every district to ensure maintenance of essential services like telecommunication, drinking water availability and food. Along with this teams to act on all these aspects were to be constituted and operationalized.

The unexpected element in this disaster was floods due to an extremely heavy rainfall in the aftermath of the cyclone. As soon as the cyclone left, coastal districts were flooded from the sea inundating large stretches of land as much as 20 kilometers inland. This was not anticipated. Further, the excessive rainfall triggered another round of floods and this time in interior districts as well. Neither the state nor the district authorities were prepared for the floods. This made cyclone Phailin unique in its impact. `

This, to those familiar with Indian bureaucracy and the political context would attest is a task which would take months together and certainly hard to realize in a three day period. Yet, the records now show that over 1 million people were evacuated within this period, housed in cyclone shelters and supplied with essential items – food, water and sanitation. Many senior officers are reported to have worked round the clock during this run up to the landfall of the cyclone and for several weeks for relief and rehabilitation after the cyclone had passed. The scale of the response mounted grew and proceeded with unprecedented rapidity. This is where the question lies. How could a state and the proverbial Indian bureaucracy known for its slow response operationalize such a large operation and perform flawlessly, delivering lowest ever lost of human lives while braving the severest natural disaster that has hit the eastern coast of India in the last 14 years?

It is remarkable that Odisha lost only 59 lives in Cylone Phailin which is dubbed as the most powerful and dangerous cyclone that has hit the eastern coast of India. It was more severe than the Supercyclone of 1999 which had caused very high loss of life and property in Odisha. “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction. The state government, which fixed the target of “Zero Casualty” during the cyclone, had earlier said it had evacuated as many as 9,83,553 people from the coast. (FirstPost)

So what worked for Odisha?

A defining characteristic that we observe in the government’s response to the disaster is that government officials consistently went beyond their outline duties and made several moves which went beyond their duties. The highly localized action taken by various functionaries of the government departments was a consequence of human decisions, indecisions, trial and error rather than rationally organized action. In this dynamic entity, they reconceived their own role as insignificant by itself yet essential to the whole (an argument by Sarat SS and others in the “sociological citizen”). For instance, upon receiving a telephonic report of a marooned village in floods, the Block Development Officer rushes with relief supplies late in the night with a farm tractor trucking the supplies driving through the high levels of flood water. The officer’s brief does not necessitate such an action yet he makes a rather foolhardy attempt to reach the marooned village. These instances are exactly the kind of actions that the paper seeks to find an explanation for. Dismissing them as random acts of individuals would be far from reality because in every tragedy such acts are reported and there appears to be several such individuals risking their lives, going beyond their briefs as public officials.

The difference could be that the individual in times of crisis is a “sociological citizen” The following discussion from Silbey et al (Silbey SS, Huising R and Coslovsky SV, L’ Annee sociologique, 2009, 59, The “Sociological Citizen” Relational Interdependence in Law and Organization) appears instrumental to the argument that I make here.

“Where other fail to act, the sociological citizen is enabled and endowed by that web of constraining associations, which provide the material and symbolic resources for intervention and reconstruction. In other words, by recognizing one’s location in an extended network of associations (Latour, 2005) a sociological citizen has an extended, rather than constricted, set of opportunities (resources, schemas, persons) with which to fashion solutions to local problems (Burtm 2004; Granovetter, 1973).”

For those familiar with the work of humanitarian and relief agencies of the UN and several independent ones, it would be easier to recognize how difficult aid workers find comprehending the situation that they see in places suffering any of the tragedies that are indicated in the paper. It is in the interest of these humanitarian and relief agencies as well as governments to understand what lies underneath the individual behaviour that they see in the field. Accordingly, they would be required to promote and encourage some behaviours and curb others. An informed decision on these can be taken when one understands the sociological basis of their actions. The consequent understanding, it is hoped, will drive better disaster preparedness and responses by all those who are affected by it and of course government agencies primarily.

Alernative Dispute Resolution & Legal System Reform in India

This is the summer of dreaming dangerously (yes, Zizek too is in the summer reading list). I have been trying to pack in three different projects in this summer plus a travel in the subcontinent. Here goes a brief on the first internship at the Bangalore Mediation Center in Bangalore on mediation as a method of alternative dispute resolution in India’s legal system reform. 


This summer I work with a team on a project to study mediation as an alternative dispute resolution method. ADR is looked upon in the legal fraternity as a way ahead in achieving legal system reform in India. There is a tremendous backlog of pending cases in the Indian courts across states and in the Supreme Court of India. Estimates suggest that if the number of cases pending in the courts are continued to be tried in the same way as now then it would take up to 340 years to solve all of them. That by any means is a tough situation in a society. Therefore, alternatives are being considered. One stream of thought suggests that what is to be done is clearly known – that the legal system faces capacity and resources issues and therefore open up more courts and modernize the courts to be able to handle such a heavy case load. The other approach however suggests that we must look at alternatives to the process of dispute resolution itself. Why is it necessary that every case must be adjudicated i.e tried in a court of law where a judgment is handed over to the parties and they live with it? An alternative approach can be to – mediation, conciliation, arbitration and counseling. These means are different from a trial in the way that it doesn’t involve a judgment of what is right or wrong (primarily) and instead focuses on what are the disputing parties’ interests and how to achieve a state where both the parties’ interests are met by negotiation. The neutralizing communication skills and powerful bargaining strategies of facilitated negotiation can strengthen the system’s capacity to bring justice to the society, as Chodosh suggests.

ADR is not new to India. It existed as a part of the Arbitration Act of 1940. Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 and the National Legal Service Authority Act, 1987 (under which the Lok Adalats were constituted) are provisions which offer alternatives to a regular trial in court. Also, Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure provides for Mediation as an Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanism in India. However, with the increasing pendency of cases there is an increasing thrust on ADR as the legal processes in India proceed at a very slow pace. In 2007, High Court of Karnataka set up Bangalore Mediation Center (BMC) to mediate cases that would be referred to it from various courts in the state. The center is overseen by a director, a coordinator and a team of 82 trained mediators who are all practicing lawyers. BMC is widely perceived as a successful initiative because of the high number of cases it has mediated as well as for its high settlement rate. It mediated over 18,000 cases in a five year period since 2007 with a success rate of about 64%.

We examine the case data from BMC for general patterns that could suggest trends in using mediation as an ADR method. The exercise also serves as an exercise in testing how valid is BMC’s claim about its success in mediation of cases. We look for the type of cases mediated, success rates, time taken for the cases to be solved and what kind of cases are more likely to get resolved through mediation. For instance, family disputes have a higher tendency of resolution by mediation than cases of criminal nature.

What interests me in this study is that I come to this field from a non-legal background. I do not have training in law except a semester long course in law and governance, which served as an orientation into reading the law, understanding it and gaining a proficiency which can help in working in development sector. The dataset from BMC therefore looks interesting, for the associations and relationships that I figure between the variables are not seen the same way by the others with a law degree.

Over the next few weeks I sit as an observer in the mediation sessions and closely watch the process where a mediator is hearing a case between two parties at the BMC. The mediation sessions are observed to identify interests of both the parties. What kind of motivations do they hold and how does the mediator figure these out. The concerns, goals, priorities and means through which a resolution is achieved are of critical importance in understanding mediation as a process. And then how does all of these differ across various types of cases like matrimonial cases, family disputes etc. Observe interests, as the coordinator of BMC suggests. The enthusiasm towards mediation is high at BMC. One lawyer even suggests that “this is a silent revolution going on in the Indian courts”.

A good social (ethnographic?) account of the process and a identifying patterns (related to method, type etc) in mediation of cases would be a more likely product of this study.

Corporate – Community Relationship : An exploratory study

This summer, I finish another small study as a part of a research methods course. While findings are thin and not too reliable either, I have enjoyed every bit of it. For there are few opportunities when one can try out a variety of methods – qualitative, ethnographic, GIS based analysis, observations of various types etc.

With a team, I have tried to understand what kind of relationship exist between a large corporate facility and its immediate community, in a city like Bangalore. A wide range of things could have been done, explored and closely investigated whereas we ended up looking at a few historical satellite imagery and developments in land use – land cover on the ground. As I write the paper, here is what we are presenting tomorrow.

The idea (and research question) for us emerges from two sources –

i) From our exposure to corporate –community tensions across India. We find that from West Bengal (Lanjigarh) to Maharashtra (Lavassa) to Kerala (Coco Cola in Plachimada) corporates have had a not so easy relationship with the immediate community with which they co-exist. The distrust of corporations run so high that the relationship is automatically inferred as exploitation of the community by the big company. We try to understand this relationship in the urban context and examine if the relationship is always negative. Although we don’t end up establishing any conclusive evidence as our time spent in doing this was very limited, we find that the process gives us a segue into studying this relationship with a certain system level view.

ii) That urbanization is a major force shaping cities across the world. If this is real then what do we know of corporate – community relationships in urban contexts? We try to develop this understanding.

Going further we must map the range of interactions and then weight them into the final relationship map that will evolve from this exercise. A whole lot of possibilities exist. But perhaps that will have to wait till we get time and institutional space to pursue this.



On how not to do a study

It would be interesting to see the sort of writing that would come out if ‘researchers’ of Marxist influence were to leave their desks, go out into the real world (in quotes for I doubt if they should be called so) and do a study with actual field observations. I am making no criticism on why Marxist ideas are being pursued in the current times and of course it would be naive to do so. The problem is with the way it is being pursued. The ‘lens’ syndrome is all too rampant where a researcher conducting a sociological, environmental, political or philosophical study is quick to summon these thinkers and their ideas and gift wrap their studies in it.

An example is this one on Community-Coco-Cola Interface: Political- Anthropological concerns on Corporate Social Responsibility. I find that the study has been too quick to summon grand ideas without sufficiently examining how do these relate to the subject at hand. Also that it starts with a position that the corporate in question has had damaging effects on the community. While this position is okay to take, it obfuscates a fair judgement as it does not examine the positive effects (sure there would be some for millions of dollars spent on it by the company worldwide) that CSR had on the community.

The presentation below is a short analysis of this study’s key ideas and conclusion prepared during a lecture on research methods.

A methodological note on field work & research

A woman draws water from a beri (a traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan

A woman draws water from a beri (traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan. Image: Praveena Sridhar

On conducting research in development sector and doing field work it appears that there are divergent views on how a question of interest (enquiry) should be pursued. These academic concerns – epistemological and ontological, were clearly unknown to us in our comapny where we have done contract research for small businesses, funding agencies and NGOs. We had a question, we had an agreed structure of enquiry and then we proceeded to the field to find out whats going on and we sought observations guided by our pre-decided structure. At one level it appeared intuitive to us. Of course, it requires domain knowledge and prior experience in that field of research but then that is all. We did have it. Also that we have persistently worked on it over the years.

The findings we came out with and the reports we developed during these research assignments always seemed to find acceptance with the client and was done to the client’s satisfaction. A testimony of this fact is that our company has grown solely on word of mouth and our image as well meaning, ethical researchers with a good value for money proposition. In our humble opinion we are just another cog in the wheel who try to do their job and learn from every single one of them.

This idea of ‘applied’ work (that we thought we were doing fairly well) complicated as one of us (I) entered academics. I am attending a course on research methods to take the quality of our work in our business to the next level. This next level we see as a widening of scope, depth and offer greater value to the clients in terms of insights and actionable knowledge.

In conducting academic research projects the knowledge framework, methods and final use perspective of the research are divergent from how one may conduct research in business. I am not entirely sure if the divergence that I am noticing here is universal or it is merely coincidental that we in our company have operated differently! Here is an instance –

In March 2012, we documented a small NGO’s work on using traditional methods of harvesting water in desert regions of Rajasthan, India. This NGO felt that it had a rather unique approach where it was not organizing the water scarcity affected community by using any external or ‘western’ approach of implementing projects but work with the community to mobilize them, drawing on their own, inherent societal values. There are no ‘timelines’ and no ‘plans’ in such mode of operation. In some ways this was a very fuzzy and unclear mode of working for an observer outside of the cultural and social realm of the people living in these deserts regions of Rajasthan.  The organization now wanted this work documented because they had been successful in helping the people of the villages in this region to address their own water security by reviving the traditional water harvesting structures that have existed in the region for centuries. They felt this approach should be shared with a wider network of organizations and that they too could draw some learning from this experience.

We toured the region for over three weeks and actively observed the deliberative process and village meetings that happened between people. The staff at the NGO also constituted our subject of enquiry as their motivations mattered to the outcome of this NGO’s endeavour.  The report was prepared and the NGO as well as its funding partner find it articulate and insightful, for now they had an identified process in place which could be shared with organizations. In short, they felt it was a practical guide to working in revival of traditional water harvesting systems.

When I presented the same study (in greater detail) to a group of academic researchers, I was questioned on the ‘knowledge constructs’ and ‘implicit assumption’ that our approach carried. No objection that we would like to raise to such questions of theoretical merit but we would like to ask ‘whats the point?’ . Too many good quality studies which actually help organizations benefit from clearly identifiable method to accomplish a change or implement a project are criticized on their epistemological considerations. While for a larger pursuit such questions may be of value and many a times they are (like they say ‘some research questions should have never been asked’ as in case of scoring human intelligence (IQ)). But in development sector it would perhaps be equally important not to score a research study only and primarily on theoretical basis. Examples of such theoretical, hard to identify what is being said and what was the point kind of research abound in academics.

Bottom line: There is a dire need of applied and practical variety of research as well, which serves the interested of NGOs who seek understanding and implementation knowledge of development issues and workable solutions to them.

Ecological context & identifying it


A lake in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh (Field study site)

This post examines the ecological context of a field study conducted in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. I have written about it on the field notes page

In a preface to his booklet “Economy of Permanence” published in August 1945, J.C. Kumarappa refers to his work as a ‘positive outlook that will suit the genius of the people of our land’. This reference to Indian genius was perhaps a rare one. Our work in Kuppam has a strand of such positive frame of reference towards the people we chose to study and the society of which we became a part of for two weeks. Our enquiry into the life and work of hawkers was propelled with a curiosity to understand a form of livelihood which appears to be an intelligent combination of the resource opportunities that the region presents. By this we mean that the region is known for horticulture production, it is well located on a major national highway and on the main north-south rail link and that it is nearer to a big metropolis which generates a huge demand for fresh vegetables. All these factors are taken advantage of by this group of hawkers who have found an interesting opportunity in hawking vegetables to the commuter population on the trains that pass through this town. Also that this sort of trade has a very low barrier of entry in terms of upfront investment and licenses, thus making it a trade of choice for individuals who have been excluded from job opportunities for various reasons.

This paper examines such emergent pattern of livelihood which is not confined to this town we studied but is a common phenomenon across the country. Every region which has a rail route cutting through has hawkers of various sorts selling fresh vegetables, fruits and other natural products (like groundnuts, tender coconut) to the passengers travelling on the trains in the region. This implies that these livelihoods are set in a clear ecological context as much as they are political in nature. We explored the hawkers’ trade from a political context and social context. There wasn’t a well identified ecological framework within which we could have located the hawkers. The hypothesis of our work too doesn’t reflect an ecological context to the subject we explored.

However, during the field study and with the cumulative experience of observing the entire chain from production to selling of horticulture produce an interesting ecological context emerges. This context is not about the typical human-production system relationship alone. That could have been said even when the study was being thought about. The relationship here as we begin to understand is that of the ecological endowment functioning as an enabler of a rapid and remunerative form of livelihood with very low barrier to entry. As our field notes indicate, such an endowment apart from supporting the consumption demand of a nearby urban center (Bangalore) also helps to kickstart livelihood for individuals who have been otherwise void of opportunities in the regular market. For instance, we found that there was a higher number of single women (divorced, widowed) working as hawkers. These would either not venture out of town as migrant labourers to Bangalore or have ventured out and found living in the town much better than living in a big city like Bangalore. Apart from this, the hawkers earn a significant amount of money per month considering the average wages that they would have earned as a casual labourer.

In the admission that the study did not explore ecological aspect during the hypothesis formation state should not make one believe that the ecological relationship in hawking as a livelihood is being deliberately attempted. The admission is made with an intention to highlight how ecological relationships are not often evident in a system to begin with but on a rigorous exploration appears to be a major determinant of the dynamics of the system. For instance, if Kuppam town did not have such a significant production of horticulture it is unlikely that such a form of livelihood would have emerged.

The production system of the town appears to have been undergoing a shift from agricultural crops to horticulture. The state government’s agriculture department too has had a focus on promoting cultivation of fruits and vegetables. The town was a pilot site for implementation of a horticulture production experiment in early 1990s which gave encouraging results. Andhra Pradesh state government termed this experiment successful and this was known as the Kuppam model. This program is responsible for adoption of horticulture crops by the small farmers in the region. The duration of study was inadequate for us to figure out the current agriculture patterns and how has it impacted the region economically and socially. The town traditionally has been an agrarian one until the large scale quarrying of granite stone in the 1980s. Since then the labour force of the town is constituted of people working in stone quarrying-cutting industry and agriculture.

The form of production system observed in Kuppam appears to be a transient one and is likely to change again if the current agriculture labour force finds more remunerative job in the nearby cities or if the industrial zone on the outskirts of the town has more factories opening up. It is also interesting to see that the town and adjoining region does not have any surface water irrigation system servicing its irrigation needs. It is likely that much of the irrigational water use is supported by groundwater. This in the long run could impact the region’s groundwater level and even more if the scale of production increases from the current levels. We find that not only the hawkers but a larger number of people in the town itself are engaged in some form of agriculture related livelihood. We noticed that a majority of the vendors in the town market too were selling goods which originated or related to agriculture in some manner.

While agriculture forms one aspect of ecology, the landscapes and biodiversity of the town appeared to be homogeneous in its composition. Quarries and large stretches of eucalyptus plantations dot the landscape as one travels from Bangarapet to Kuppam and further down to Jolarpettai. It appears that people’s relationship with the environment is instrumental in nature.

This study exhibited human-nature relationship as it actually unfolds in a small town. It is revealing to note that ecology here is functioning as a leveller of economic inequality in terms of the livelihood opportunity that the hawkers did not have in the formal economy. This role already is a determinant in the welfare schemes that the state government extends to the farmers here, but a systems thinking applied from production to its various forms of use as well as the input resources that it consumes could help striking a balance in the human-nature relationship that we have understood to be purely instrumental.

Field Notes from Kuppam- II


The field study on vegetable hawkers from Kuppam has been an interesting experience on several fronts. From a traveller who went a little beyond what he saw to an anthropology enthusiast who wanted to explore how Clifford Geertz’s ant’s eye view of development can be effectively employed in multi-layered study like this one, it has been a valuable experience.

The second set of field notes (first set here) reflect the sort of titration point that we reached in striking relationship with the hawkers. The rapidity that sets from day 5 onwards is a pattern that I have seen in our earlier works as well. A lesson that comes home again is that in field studies and investigations where several factors are not known or are uncertain, one must still persevere. It is important not to get disheartened or drop out of interest in the first week of a field study because the difficulties of the first days are the very same which at first look insurmountable challenge but later become a key theme in the study. And surviving that first week sets you free. For example, in our study it got very difficult for us to gain a sense of physical and social spread of the town we were living in. Adding to this was the fact that we did not know if there are a sizeable number of hawkers from this town. Both these unknowns in the later part of the study reveal themselves in a manner that it strengthens the study in terms of insights. Once this sets in the disjoint observations from earlier days suddenly start making sense and we have multiple layers of the entire study taking shape.

So, here is the second set with which we ended our study. Back in the university, we set up a small poster exhibition which highlights some parts of our study.

Field Notes from Kuppam- I


First in series is this ongoing field research (a descriptive sort) that I am doing with a team in Kuppam, a town near Bangalore. A detailed write up got to wait for a later time. Meanwhile, here is a short slidedeck about it (and this is team work).

(Updated on 07/11/12. An excerpt from the field report)

My team has been interested in experiencing the multi-layered interactions – law, livelihoods, rights and assertion of spaces, which play out in everyday life in India. A simpler question that we posed from an experiential point of view was “how does it feel to earn a livelihood selling wares on the streets or on trains?” and how do such apparently “insecure”, “uncertain” livelihoods exist in hundreds of towns across the country. A nearer case was that of hawkers on trains which our team had often noticed. This in a way gave us a ready ground to go out, experience and have a close quarter look at these individuals who haven’t probably meant much to people other than providing a service which again not many seem to care for. It is an early experiment in conducting a quick backyard variety of anthropological study. We were cognizant of the requirement that this exercise of field immersion required us to do. And in that vein, we only see ourselves furthering the goals and improving the potential outcomes of such an activity so that it is rewarding for us individually as well apart from serving the academic requirement.
The contested space as we see is located between the Indian Railways as an institution, which is asserting its right over property and hawkers who flout this property right every day to earn their livelihood. It was a conscious decision to venture out and strike alliances with the people on our own. Any mediation (via NGO, activists etc) we reasoned might dilute the nature of our experience and desire to test if we can take a green field approach and execute it or not. We focussed on the hawkers on the Bangalore-Chennai section of Southern Railways.

The hypothesis with which we begin with is:

  • Is criminalization of an act of plying livelihood on trains just? What are the underlying determinants of such a relationship?
  • Who are the claimants of this system?
  • What IS the nature of access rights in this form of livelihood?