ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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No Gain or Relief for Informal Workers

At Work in the Informal Economy of India: Perspective from the Bottom Up by Jan Breman (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2013; pp 457, Rs 995.

The Long Road to Social Security: Assessing the Implementation of National Social Security Initiatives for the Working Poor in India edited by K P Kannan and Jan Breman (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2013; pp 542, Rs 995.

The books under review are complementary to each other. The first provides a theoretical framework from the perspective of labour on the nature of capitalism in general and the informal economy in particular. It is supported by a rich ethnographic analysis of the condition of casual and self-employed workers who live in perpetual poverty. The second book presents an evaluation of the government’s social security programmes for the poor, and reading it alongside the first makes it more meaningful. Together, the volumes enhance our understanding of the economy and governance in postcolonial India.

Social anthropologist Jan Breman is the author of the first volume and co-editor of the second. He has been engaged in studying different facets and stages of capitalist growth in India. His area of field work has been Gujarat, one of the more prosperous and industrialised states where capitalist agriculture and industry began to emerge under colonial rule in the late 19th century. Way back in the early 1960s, he began his research on the hali system, which involved bonded labourers in a semi-feudal agrarian economy. It was a time when agrarian relationships were changing, with land reforms and the state investing in irrigation, other infrastructure, and industry. Rural-urban boundaries became more porous, with farmworkers moving from their villages to other rural or urban areas in search of a livelihood. The already weak shackles of traditional bondage gave way and customary patronage systems began to disintegrate. Social scientists here and abroad were convinced that it was a transition from tradition to modernity, similar to what happened in Europe in the 19th century. Though Breman was trained in this school of thought, he has steadfastly continued to interrogate the process of transformation under a capitalist economy by looking into empirical reality.

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