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The Other Side of Development

1)From Past to Present by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; 2)The Poverty Regime in Village India by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007;

Review article

The Other Side of Development

Poverty, Bondage and Marginalisation of the Rural Underclass

Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present

by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xi+216, Rs 525.

The Poverty Regime in Village India

by Jan Breman; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xviii+458, Rs 795.


ocial and economic life in village India has been an important subject of inquiry and interpretations. Given that nearly 85 per cent of the Indian population lived in rural areas at the time of its independence, centrality of the village in popular imaginings of India would have been quite natural. Village and agrarian economy were also important sites of economic activity. Agriculture employed more than 75 per cent of working Indians and generated more than half of India’s total income. While there were no doubts about the importance of rural and agrarian realities for understanding the nature of economic stagnation and its possible solutions, the social universe of village was looked at differently by different people. These differences were not to be found only in the perspectives of political leaders and ideologues of India’s free dom movement – Gandhi, Nehru or Ambedkar1 – but also among social scientists.

Social anthropologists working on the village during 1940s and 1950s emphasised the communitarian character of social life in a typical Indian village. Even when they recognised the existence of caste hierarchies and social inequalities, they emphasised the vertical unity and functional interdependence among caste groups.2 While social anthropologists collected detailed information on the normative framework of caste society and social order of kinship, they gave lesser importance to realities of social relations of production and the prevailing structures of dependency/exploitation in the rural/agrarian society. Though the perpetual misery of the Indian peasantry and the labouring poor had become an important issue during the freedom movement, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that social scientists work ing on India began to do serious research on these questions. Right from the beginning “agrarian studies” focused on the political economy of the rural social order and the manner in which relations of power and domi nation were reproduced or sustained.

Though the “agrarian question” had become a very important issue during the Indian freedom movement and was on the priority list of the government soon after independence, it largely remained focused around the “land question”, which in turn implied its preoccupation was mostly with problems of the cultivating peasants. However, unlike in many other parts of the world, the Indian village has always had a large proportion of landless labouring poor who had been part of the agrarian economy as a subjugated category. Notwithstanding the enormous diversity of agrarian ecologies and social/economic histories, there were remarkable similarities in the manner in which their subjugation was institutionalised in different regions of the subcontinent.

The typical story of this subjugation was something like this: a young male from a landless family began to work with a substantial landowner fairly early in life, and helped in grazing cattle or with other odd jobs. As he grew older, and attained marriageable age, he needed money to finance his own wedding. There could also be other sources that generated the need for money, such as the wedding of a sister or any other kin, ill-health in the family, or need for construction or repair of the house.

Given his economic status and near complete lack of any assets, the only way he could mobilise money was through mortgaging his labour power to a landowner. Low wage rates and lack of any alternative sources of employment or income meant perpetual indebtedness, which in turn led to a prolonged relation of dependency and bondage, often lasting for life and beyond, to the next generation and would invariably suck in the entire family of the labourer. While the bonded labourer worked on the land, his wife and children helped with domestic chores and looked after the cattle. As I have mentioned above, these kinds of arrangements evolved in different parts of the sub continent, with a variety of local names and regional specificities. For example in the north-west of India, in Punjab, it was known as the ‘sepadari’ or ‘sajhi’ system. In the Haryana region it was called ‘siri’ system. In western India, in Rajasthan and Gujarat, it was locally named as ‘halipratha’. In parts of south India, it was known as the ‘jitu’ system. In Bihar and some other parts of eastern India, it was called ‘goti’ or ‘gotia’ system.

Historians of labour relations in India do not agree on the origins of this system. While some see it as a typical feudal system of patronage, others tend to see it as an offshoot of the changes introduced by the British colonial rulers in Indian agriculture [Mundle 1979, Prakash 1992]. They argue that it was only with the intensification of monetary transactions in the agrarian economy that traditional structures of caste and patronage were turned into slave like system of bonded labour. While this may simply be a question of interpretation, subordination of the landless and labouring population was indeed real and had been in existence for a fairly long time.

The available evidence also tends to point to the fact that this system of bonded labour began to weaken, at least in some parts of India during the later years of colonial rule.3 However, it was only after independence, with growing tendency towards capitalist agriculture that the forms and substance of labour dependency and attachment began to change rapidly. It is this history of changes and continuities in the agrarian social structure of south Gujarat, documented primarily through his own fieldwork that Jan Breman presents in these two volumes.


It was in the early 1960s that Breman first went to two villages of Surat district in south Gujarat to study the changing nature of the agrarian relations with specific focus on the relations between the local ‘halpatis’, the landless dublas, and their employer farmers, the patidar patels. Over the last four decades, he has remained involved with south Gujarat and has been closely following different kinds of changes taking place in the life of the rural underclass and other social groups in the region. Breman has also published quite extensively on subjects ranging from agrarian bondage to labour migration, informal sector, changing forms of urban industry and communal violence leading to the growing marginalisation of Muslim minority in the state of Gujarat.

Though the two books are two independent volumes, they have a unity of theme and purpose. The first book Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present looks at issues relating to rural labour during the colonial period and how the “labour question” entered or evaded the nationalist discourse during the freedom struggle. The book also has a chapter on the postindependence period. However, it is in the second book on The Poverty Regime in Village India that Breman deals with the emerging empirical realties of rural south Gujarat. Though the second book is based primarily on his recent fieldwork in four villages of the region, it invokes quite extensively his earlier works on rural and agrarian change in south Gujarat.


Like other agrarian regions, the social context of south Gujarat has its own specificities. Unlike most other parts of India, where the landless population invariably come from the scheduled castes, a large majority of landless in rural Gujarat are the dublas, a local tribal group, who had been integrated into the local agrarian economy in the “distant past” as “bonded servants of the Hindu landowners”. Dublas over the years lost their distinctive tribal culture and were assimilated in the village, at the lower level of the caste hierarchy.

The driving force of agrarian social structure, according to Breman, was not the market or production for profit but “articulation of domination and subordination”. Even when production was more than what was locally required for subsistence, it was not taken to the market by the producers. Instead, traders travelled around and collected surplus yields. Similarly, big landowner did not always hire dublas simply because they needed labour for cultivating land. The servile labour also added to the status and power of the landowner and allowed him a life of leisure and visible privilege.

A dubla household was invariably tied to an upper caste landowner in the framework of patron-client relationship. While the dubla man worked as an agricultural labourer, the ‘hali’, his wife worked at the landowners’ home. As required by the normative framework of the traditional economy, “the master was obliged to ensure that the labourer could meet his basic needs” and gave him a share from the grain produced on land. Even when there was no work, the master paid enough for the survival of labourer and his family.

Patronage did not come for free. Apart from the obligations that this relationship carried, it also depressed wage rates. The labourer always earned barely enough to survive. For any contingency, he had to borrow from his patron, which meant a perpetual state of indebtedness and servitude. However, Breman also suggests that this institutionalisation of servitude through debt was not always a bad thing for the landless labourer in the given context and the dublas rarely wanted to come out of it. This was partly because of the fact that the condition of an unattached labourer was even worse. When changes began to occur during the later phase of colonial rule, dublas were hardly the gainers. The hali remained bonded to his master, but the element of patronage that had been so important in the past faded away.4 These changes did not result out of any conscious policy of British colonial rulers towards this system of servitude. Though they were aware of the slave-like situation of the dublas, the colonial administration did not initiate any kind of intervention to regulate the terms of their employment. “Labour relations were left to the free play of social forces, which in practice meant confirming the traditional dominance of the landlords”.

Even the nationalist leadership largely ignored the questions of servitude and bondage. The nationalist movement, Breman argues, always had a middle class character. Even when the “agrarian question” began to acquire prominence in the freedom movement, it remained concerned with interests of the cultivating peasants and substantial landowners who invariably came from the local dominant caste groups. The landless labourers, who almost all came from dalit and tribal background, rarely mattered in the nationalist agenda of freedom and independence. Even when the land less population was mobilised it was for the issues of land tax, which concerned the cultivating kisan. Gandhian social workers who occasionally talked about the miserable conditions in which dublas worked and lived invariably shared the prejudice and stereotypes of the dominant castes about them. Other nationalist leaders from the region like Sardar Patel had absolutely no sympathies for the halis and squarely blamed the victims for their situation.

The left and radical movement in Gujarat had always been weak. However, there were some voices which tried to articulate with sympathy the issues concerning the servile dublas. Indulal Yagnik and Dinkar Mehta, for example, who were initially part of the Gandhian movement, moved away to join ranks with Swami Sahajanand of the All India Kisan Sabha movement and argued for the dublas in a very different language. However, the Kisan Sabha movement did not have much of an impact on ideology of the mainstream nationalist struggle. The issues of landless labourers continued to be of marginal concern to the Indian nationalists in Gujarat and the subcontinent.

Reforming the agrarian social structure was widely seen as an imperative if Indian agriculture had to get out of the cycle of stagnation. It was with this concern that soon after independence the government of India directed state governments to initiate legislative measures and transfer land rights to the tillers of land. There was an occasional talk about ending the system of bonded labour and giving the surplus agricultural land to the landless but in the given context landless tribals and dalits did not carry much political weight. Not surprisingly, it was only in 1974, when thanks to growing capitalist tendency, the older form of bondage had already seen significant erosion that the Act against bonded labour was passed by the Indian Parliament.


The Act of 1974 or the growing tendency for capitalist agriculture did not bring freedom to the labouring classes. Bondage

Economic and Political Weekly September 29, 2007 and servitude continued, not only in regions where capitalist tendency was weak but also in the pocket of India where the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had transformed the agrarian scene quite radically. In other words, while the process of economic development brought prosperity to the landowning classes, the landless continued to be vulnerable. However, the nature of their vulnerability and the manner of its institutionalisation varies significantly across regions.

The region where Breman conducted his fieldwork during 1960s had already seen a decline of the old form of bonded labour, accompanied by a process he described as “depatronisation” and “casualisation” of labour relations. The labourers were no longer bonded to a particular master. The change was primarily a consequence of the withdra wal of patronage by the erstwhile masters.

What implications did this process of formalisation of social relations have for the labouring poor? Did it reduce their vulnerability or made it even more acute?

While we know a great deal about the nature and extent of poverty in India, we do not know much about the relational or structural contexts that produce and reproduce poverty and vulnerability. This, according to Breman, is because the discourse on the poor and poverty has virtually become an exclusive domain of the economist. However, the economists’ perspectives and their preoccupation with numbers fail to capture the complex reality of social relations and the larger value frames within which the poor live and struggle for survival. Breman thus advocates for village level micro-studies to capture the complex realities on ground, something that he has been involved with himself for the last four decades.

In the second book he brings together his recent work in four villages of south Gujarat, two of which are the ones where he first went to do fieldwork in late 1960s. Even though the process of change was quite visible during his first fieldwork, the rural scenes in the region has transformed much more radically since then and as expected implications of these changes have been different for different categories of the rural population. For example in the first village of his fieldwork, he identified three categories of rural populations responding differently to changing times.

The traditionally rich and upper caste families had been slowly moving away from the village. Though not many of them had sold off their lands, their interest in agriculture was certainly declining. However, this did not necessarily result in dec line of their influence. In fact politically their power grew with new found urban networks. They were now part of the regional elite, and this extension of their sphere of influence did not in any way reduce their hold over the village level politics.

The koli patel, who had traditionally been poor peasants continued to be attached to the land and the village. Though they were not a locally “dominant caste”, their political-orientation was not very different from the anavil brahmins. Their limited experience of mobility made them conscious of their Hindu identity and in their quest to become good Hindus, they invariably joined the anavils in their support for Hindutva politics.

The story of landless dublas has understandably been quite different. As mentioned above, the old structure of “patronage and exploitation” had given way to more formalised and casual labour relations. Though the old type of halipratha had declined, not every labourer worked as a casual labourer. Some of them still worked as attached labourers, albeit on different terms, as farm servants on annual contract. They also moved out of farmers’ homestead and the contract no longer required labourers’ wife to work with the employer farmer.

The numbers of those working as attached labourers have been consistently declining over the years. For example, in 1962-63 as many as 81 per cent of all the labourers were attached and this came down to 42 per cent in 1986-87 and further to 30 per cent in 2004-05. Even in absolute terms the number of attached labourers declined from 50 in 1962-63 to 36 in 2004-05 and the number of casual labourers during the same time went up from 12 to 88. This shows a significant increase in the supply of casual labourers. In absence of any increase in the demand for labour locally, finding employment becomes a difficult proposition. The only option left with them was to migrate out of agriculture. However, the nature of employment available to them in urban and non-agricultural sector is not very different from the employment in agricultural sector. The wage rates are low with no certainty or permanence of employment. Breman describes them as footloose proletariat engaged either with the urban “informal sector” or who travel to other agrarian settings for seasonal employment. Only rarely do some of them manage to find employment in the formal or organised sector of the economy.

The net result: a vicious and unending cycle of poverty. Poverty however does not simply mean low levels of income. It also produces vulnerability, which binds them into a structure of social relations marked by their perpetual dependence on the rich and the dominant. Interestingly, the mechanism through which their dependency and vulnerability is institutionalised today is not really new. The only mode of filling the gap between income and the requirements of survival for a large majority of the landless in south Gujarat is through borrowing money from wherever they can get it and given their economic status the only way they can avail it is from the substantial landowners or the labour contractors on the promise to work for them as and when they require. For the landowners and the labour contractors, this is a good way of not only ensuring labour supply, but also getting labour at a price of their choice. The indebted labourer has no option but to work for whatever wage that is offered to him by the creditor employer.

While the mechanism of bonding labour seems old, the value-frame within which this arrangement is institutionalised is very different. The employer has no obligations towards the labourer and the labourer has no sense of security either of subsistence or of employment. It is for these reasons that Breman chooses to call it “neo-bondage”. Unlike the old system of halipratha, neobondage can also take a variety of different forms, ranging from annual contract as farm servant to seasonal casual labour. Its’ elements can be found in the manner in which the regimes of labour migrations work in the region. The core element of the relationship is the power and domi nation of the creditor over the poor labourer, which eventually translates into depressed wages and disciplined labour power.

Domination is invariably accompanied by resistance. However, the nature of much of the resistance that Breman mention in the book seems to resemble what James Scott describes as “everyday forms of resistance” [Scott 1990]. As has been pointed by the critiques of Scott, the political effects of such resistance are not of much consequence and rarely lead to empowerment of the poor, or any kind of meaningful social and economic transformation [Gupta 2001], something that seems quite obvious in the context Breman is located in. Yet, he often seems to romanticise such instances of resistance.

The experience of the dublas of south Gujarat has also been a test case for the Gandhians, perhaps the only mainstream political formation that has been actively working with the tribals in the region. Not only has the effect of their work been negligible on the economic life of the dublas, over the years the Gandhian movement has also dissipated. In their effort at making them civilised and a part of national mainstream, the Gandhian activists only helped in the process of their integration into the Hindu fold, thereby also making them available for the spread of right wing Hindutva politics.

After more than a decade of near silence, stories of Indian agriculture and rural life have once again begun to be reported on the front pages of Indian newspapers. Unfortunately, this time it is not the excitement of rural development and positive social change that is being talked about. The story this time is that of crises of agriculture presenting themselves through the tragic news of farmers’ suicides and negative growth rates of agricultural production. The rural setting where even today more than two-thirds of India’s population lives and the agrarian economy which despite its falling share in the national income continues to employ more than half of the working Indians could not have been ignored for long.

However, in much of this new discourse on agrarian crisis, the village is again being represented as a land of the cultivating peasant/farmer invoking sectoral policy initiatives for the agricultural sector as a whole. These two volumes by Jan Breman should work as a reminder of the fact that the rural realities are not only internally differentiated but there is also a structure of subordination and domination, which continues to persist and flourish. While members of the dominant upper castes have already diversified themselves into nonagrarian occupations, the dublas continue to circulate between the local agra rian economy, employment in informal sector and borrowings from whosoever is willing to lend them money. They continue to struggle for sheer survival. Their story is neither encompassed by a sympathetic talk of agricultural sector nor by any kind of populist resurgence of the idea of village.

At a different level, the story of rural underclass as narrated to us by Breman also reveals quite sharply the other side of the story of Indian development during the post-liberalisation era and shows the hollowness of the hype generated by high growth rates. For the dublas of south Gujarat, and a large number of others working in similar conditions elsewhere, the rapidly globalising Indian economy has only brought further marginalisation, social exclusion and insecurity.




1 For differing images of rural India in Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar see Jodhka 2002.

2 See, for example, Srinivas (1955, 1994). For a summary of village studies see Jodhka 1998.

3 See Bhattacharya (1985) for Punjab. Breman also makes a similar argument for Gujarat in the first book.

4 It was the disintegration of this system of Patronage and Exploitation [Breman 1974] during the late colonial period and after independence that Breman studied in-depth during his major fieldwork in south Gujarat during the 1960s. However, he has also been criticised for his “positive” conceptualisation of bondage and servitude of the Dublas [Brass 1999:217-54].


Bhattacharya, N (1985): ‘Agricultural Labour and Production: Central and South-East Punjab 1870-1940’ in K N Raj et al (eds), Essays on Commercialisation of Indian Agriculture, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Brass, T (1999): Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates, Frank Cass, London.

Breman, J (1974): Patronage and Exploitation: Changing Agrarian Relations in South Gujarat, India, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Gupta, D (2001): ‘Everyday Resistance or Routine Repression? Exaggeration as Stratagem in Agrarian Conflict’, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol 29 (1).

Jodhka, S S (1998): ‘From ‘Book-View’ to ‘Field-View’: Social Anthropological: Constructions of the Indian Village’, Oxford Development Studies, 26 (3), pp 311-31.

– (2002): ‘Nation and Village: Images of Rural India in Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar’, Economic and Political Weekly, 37 (32), pp 343-54.

Mundle, S (1979): Backwardness and Bondage: Agrarian Relations in a South Bihar District, Indian Institute of Public Administration, Delhi.

Prakash, G (1992): The World of the Rural Labourer in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Scott, James C (1990): Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Srinivas, M N (ed) (1955): India’s Village, Asia Publishing House, Bombay.

– (1994): ‘Indian Village: Myth and Reality’ in The Dominant Caste and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp 20-59.

Economic and Political Weekly September 29, 2007

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