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Workers’ Dissent in a Democracy

Anurag Mazumdar ( is a doctoral student at the Department of Geography, Ohio State University, the US. 

Undervalued Dissent: Informal Workers’ Politics in India by Manjusha Nair; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016; pp 248, $85 (hardback).

An ethnographic account is often distinguished from a purely theoretical work by the conceptual stasis it can rupture and the categories it can unpack that lie hidden in academese. Manjusha Nair’s Undervalued Dissent analyses into its component elements the contentious category of workers’ politics and identifies fissures within what often seems like a monolith of workers’ demands, their successes and failures. The author effectively demonstrates how similar strategies and tactics deployed by workers can produce divergent results and identifies multiple reasons for this divergence. The book disabuses the reader of any straightforward narrative of workers’ politics and instead calls for a multidimensional understanding of labour activism through a context-specific periodisation of workers’ politics in India.

The book draws from Nair’s fieldwork in the industrial heartland of Bhilai, one of the “temples of modern India” as it is often called, in Chhattisgarh (erstwhile Madhya Pradesh). Her analysis is illuminated by her experiences in two sites in industrial Chhattisgarh, in and around Bhilai. One site is the Dalli–Rajhara mining township, about 80 kilometres from the Bhilai steel township, and the other is the Associated Cement Company (ACC) township in Jamul, an industrial town located right outside the city limits of Bhilai.

Two groups of workers are at the heart of the analysis. One group of workers is the informal, contractual workers of the Dalli–Rajhara mines, the captive iron-ore mines of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP). The other group is the contractual workers of the ACC cement factory in Jamul. The book, a highly revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, asks: why did the Dalli–Rajhara mine workers’ movement that started in 1977 succeed in meeting most of their demands whereas the industrial workers’ movement in the ACC plant in Jamul in the early 2000s fail? Nair identifies “democratic dissent” and the economic, social, and cultural conditions that aid or derail it as the principal peg to hang her analysis of the two workers’ movements in Chhattisgarh (p 97).

The author concludes that following the economic, political, and social effects of liberalisation in 1991, workers have found that democratic means of protest have lost their effectiveness gradually. This inability of democratic means to address workers’ politics has happened due to a series of political shifts and should not be limited to the years following economic liberalisation. Rather, as the book illustrates and highlights, workers’ politics began changing from the early 1980s as the state changed from a “reluctant pro-capitalist state with a socialist ideology to an enthusiastic pro-capitalist state with a neo-liberal ideology” (Kohli [2009] as quoted in the book under review, p 9).

National Space and Its Others

Nair argues that the mining township of Dalli–Rajhara was designed as a national space that had its designated insiders and outsiders. Just like the steel township of Bhilai, the social order of Dalli–Rajhara was divided by the railway tracks. On one side of the tracks was the company township, and on the other side were the informal tenements of contractual workers. The order of the township to formally construct and rationalise the national subject and the citizen–workers was “not an anomaly,” but was “integral to the task of nation building” (p 72). According to the planners and the government, the order of the township was meant to give rise to a producer–patriot, integral to the task of nation-building. In reality, the planned part of the township became a site of privilege, whereas the disorderly space became its other. The author’s fieldwork suggests that both sides of the township, the ordered planned township and the chaotic, unplanned part on the other side of the railway track, were dependent on each other.

So potent were the nation-building ideals that they even affected the workers of the mining township who were excluded from the social and physical space. Notwithstanding their omission from the benefits of Nehruvian socialism, they integrated into the “state-favored geographies of the nation from those of the rural, less developed, less-cared-about geographies” (p 62). This happened because the formally recognised labour unions favoured a politics that kept the nation’s industrial interests, its economic needs and social upliftment as the primary goals of the workers. Permanent workers were provided subsidised housing, education for their children, and affordable healthcare as part of the socialist industrialisation that was in vogue then. The contractual workers also imbibed some of the subjectivities of nation-building and had faith on electoral politics.

The contractual workers imbibed these nation-building ideals due to three reasons, as the author suggests. First, the agrarian conditions in Chhattisgarh (then Madhya Pradesh) brought about a long-term rural distress that contributed to an impoverished rural class. This class migrated to the nearby industrial centres in large numbers, and were willing to work in precarious conditions to sustain their families back home. Second, the workers were engaged in what the author calls a “multivalent” relationship with the bania class, the predominant business community of the mining township. This class of people were often the first point of contact for most workers; they lent them money, and therefore were treated as saviours of some sort. Third, the labour unions in the township were often engaged in conflictual politics, not only with each other, but also within their own political boundaries. Difficult decisions needed to be taken on whether labour unions should support a son-of-the-soil movement (that could turn violent) and this made union politics messy and unpredictable. Thus, their appeal was restricted to a certain group of people, and mass mobilisation was difficult.

Workers’ Fight

The most compelling part of the author’s thesis is in her explanation as to how and why an unlikely group of workers for sustained union activism effected a mass mobilisation in the mining township. Nair contends that the group of workers are an unlikely group for union activism because their employment was contractual with no history of union activism. She identifies three reasons. First, all of them effect a parallel and contending force for an already-established state force. They created a militant labour movement to take on the state employer. Second, they established a regional political party—the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha—to challenge the national political parties. Finally, they brought about sustained social change through creating a network of social institutions—schools, hospitals, and neighbourhood organisations—that positioned them as “community builders” parallel to the state.

Therefore, what went wrong with the other group of workers, who started mobilising in the late 1990s? The times had clearly changed for labour activism. The institutional change that altered their relationship with the state and other political actors were one of the main reasons why their movement suffered at the hands of several groups. The playing field of contentious politics was limited to such an extent that the trio of militant unionism, electoral politicking and community building proved ineffective. How did this happen?

By the time the Jamul workers started their movement, the Indian state was being driven by the interests of an industrial and corporate class that was slowly waking up to the benefits of a liberalised economy. This industrial and corporate class was, in most cases, hand in glove with the growth and proliferation of Hindu right-wing parties. This is true of states with rich mineral resources such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Contractual work, largely exploitative and underpaid, was increasingly becoming the norm in an economy that was experiencing steady growth after a long period of stagnation. This changing nature of work was exploited by legal minds who could identify loopholes in the system and delay the legal process, rendering the workers’ lives precarious. Moreover, the space of activism was reduced to the factory gates or the streets, and it was understood that its effects were restricted to a rhetorical level. The democratic space that was the domain of the workers, was pre-empted by the state and industrial powers, the author concludes.

Workers’ Politics in Future

While Nair’s book allows us to consider the limitations of labour activism for the informal sector in the 21stcentury India, it stops short of exploring the cultural shift in understanding the formal and informal sectors of the economy. Increasingly, the upper and middle echelons (and in some cases, even the lower echelons) of the public sector in India are moving closer to the culture of private corporations where efficiency and profit-making, and not employee benefits and sustained welfare, are regular buzzwords.

This creates a culture where labour activism even in formal sectors is derided and ridiculed by the middle classes as confrontational and redundant. This attitude not only legitimises the chasm between the formal and informal sectors of the workforce, but also increases
the gap considerably. Large sections of the ever-growing middle class subscribe to the notion that disputes can be resolved without labour unions, and that these groups, wherever they exist, are aligned with low-skilled, informal work. This makes it all the more easy for governments to shirk their responsibilities towards the informal workforce and negate their demands. I am not suggesting that this cultural shift was responsible for the failure of the cement plant workers but it is worth considering whether it has ramifications for informal workers’ politics in the future.

This book is a significant contribution to a growing understanding of the precarious nature of work, be it in formal or informal sectors. An economy that is constantly going through boom and bust phases, and increasing automation in all sectors of manufacturing and services, is precarious for workers. Precariousness is increasing across all sectors of the workplace aided with increasing automation (often known as the fourth industrial revolution) and is obliterating the gap between formal and flexible work. Seen in this light, the Jamul workers did not receive the benefits that they rightly deserved because they were seen to be replaceable without any significant harm to the company. One wonders whether the Dalli–Rajhara mine workers would have met with success at a time when manual mine work has been largely replaced by machines.

As India progresses towards ever-increasing right-wing fundamentalism and whittling down of workers’ rights, both formal and informal, what lessons does the book hold for future informal workers’ politics in India and elsewhere? My understanding is that the newly inducted group of workers would have to broaden the definition of “democratic politics” to adapt to the changing nature of workplace and industries. As a more formally educated population joins the workforce, there is potential to rethink workers’ politics even as they draw from older forms of activism, as presented in this book.


Anurag Mazumdar ( is a doctoral student at the Department of Geography, Ohio State University, the US.

Updated On : 30th Jul, 2017


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