Sociology of Law & Labour Welfare

I have been studying the building and construction workers in Bangalore as a part of an academic research for over six months now. The study emerges from a simple observation that many of us might have made commuting around in this city – that what explains such poor work, health and social conditions in which the construction workers live? Is there no law which guarantees minimum work and social conditions to them? Turns out there is!

The Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCW), 1996 was made to address this situation. This category of workers have worked and lived in appalling conditions forever and the BOCW act was brought into force to improve their situation as a class of workers in the country. Then, did it work to improve their condition should be our next question. This is where we hit the classic Indian condition of having adequate legal provision but little implementation and consequently ineffective law. While this can be analysed in several different ways, I choose to ask a normative question on the understanding of ‘labour welfare’ by the judiciary. This is because the BOCW Act proposes to take care of the workers’ welfare by extending social security benefits to them. These benefits are essentially about financial assistance provided to registered workers under eight different schemes. There are 13,00,000 construction workers in Bangalore according to the Karnataka BOCW Welfare Board estimates. Out of these, 250,000 are registered with the board and therefore deemed as ‘covered’ with social security benefits. Among these registered workers the most popular scheme is financial assistance for education, maternity assistance and funeral assistance in that order!

Sociology of law is a poorly developed discipline in India. Legal analysis often does not account for the social contexts in which the law operates. Its relevance to the contemporary dynamics of labour productivity, migration and their economic contribution makes me consider a sociological enquiry in this issue. The country can no longer afford to neglect its construction workers which forms a substantial part of the unskilled labour force employed in the construction sector and which in fact is the driving force of the sector – not machinery and certainly not capital. A case in point is the Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi. Over Rs.70000 Crores were provided only for improving the city infrastructure and sports facilities. When the work was at peak in mid-May, 2008 to mid-May, 2009, more than one lakh workers were employed in all these projects.

Their welfare must be of immediate concern to the state governments because – first, they are a major group of workers who rank low on human development measures like income, healthcare, education and skills. Second, that the neglect that they have lived through in the 1990s and 2000s which were the famed years of India’s economic success story, has alienated them from considering themselves a part of the society as well as of the growth story which the country so wishes to tout as ‘inclusive’. Here the law is directly linked to social and economic aspects of the construction workers lives. This is also evident in Durkheim’s theorization of the relationship of law to the forms of sociality. He says: “The visible symbol of social solidarity (conceived as a solidarity in fact, that is, a form of solidarity) is the Law,” and adds: ‘Hence we can be sure of finding all the essential varieties of social solidarity reflected in the Law’.

Now, when the law itself doesn’t encompass the values of dignity of labour and welfare as a comprehensive set of enabling conditions that makes a worker feel secure and safe his work environment then what possibilities of him to be reflect even traces of social solidarity. In addition to this the workers are in many cases the flotsam and jetsam of a certain kind of economic growth where it has ceased to be anything beyond an exercise in identifying development by numbers and percentages. All the workers we interviewed during the study were migrants. Therefore, we suggest that there is disconnect in the way the act articulates its goals and has set guidelines for the states to then provide for the welfare of the construction workers. The act discounts the social world that the construction workers inhabit. To interpret their social security as financial assistance is incomplete. Contrast this with the social security bundle of white collar workers which comprise of benefits like provident fund, right to a clean, safe workplace, strict enforcement of building safety compliance, maternity benefits to women employees, crèches, tax sops, food coupons etc. The question of explaining such divergence of benefits between these classes of workers may not concern private enterprises but must in all aspects concern the law.

An enquiry into this law and poor state of welfare of the workers reveals problems on several fronts from economic relationship between employer and the workers to labour rights. What type of change in the status quo is likely to bring about a positive change in the situation and where does one begin thinking about it – are the questions that must be dealt with in order to have a broad based change than a mere sharpening of the act. A divergence from the conventional view which argues that law should not be seen as working through the modern types of courts or police is of significance here.

Reciprocity as a moral norm can make a significant difference to the understanding of construction workers’ relationship with the society at large. Malinowski observes that reciprocity is the binding force in the society. Everyone has to render adequate services to others lest others may withdraw or reduce their service for him. Reciprocity is a key intervening variable (gated link) which through which shared social rules are enabled to yield social stability. On a normative front this appears to be a moral yet practical position that one can take to view labour welfare in the modern society and go about effecting appropriate rules to guarantee a minimal standard of living and work conditions at par with the national average that exists in the country today.

Ecological context & identifying it

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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- I

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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?