Dipankar Gupta

Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town by Jonathan P Parry (in collaboration with Ajay T G), New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2019; pp xxx + 702 (biblio+index), ?1,850.

The old world has changed radically in India but there are still many who cling to traditional views on caste, labour, village and kinship. These individuals need retraining on an urgent basis, and, happily, a remarkable book has recently appeared entitled Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town by Jonathan Parry, which is perfect for this purpose.

What commends this work is that its analytical contents are powered by intensive field-based data collected over a period of nearly three decades in Bhilai Steel Plant. The choice of the field too is telling. By basing himself in the township of Bhilai, Parry was able to examine, at close quarters, the relationship between urbanisation, migration, class and kinship in a single setting.

Let us begin with the fundamental statement that Parry makes in this book. In his view, the axial principle of stratification in India is no longer caste, but class. This is not a political statement but one that is an inescapable outcome of his painstakingly gathered field data.

This is not a stand-alone conceptual assertion but is accompanied by several others to form a tight unit. Fortunately, this volume has been rather indulgent with space which has allowed the author to demonstrate, indeed, luxuriate his propositions in a variety of empirical contexts.

Take marriage, for instance. Caste has always been a central consideration in marriages among Hindus and so it is among Bhilai steel workers, but with a difference. While the first marriage is along traditional lines, the second one, of which there are many here, are nearly always founded on romance and love, with caste nowhere in the picture.

Nor is caste a concern in the matter of inter-dining, except that the so-called caste Hindus draw a line when it comes to eating with Satnamis, who are Scheduled Castes (SCs). Otherwise, caste makes no difference and people eat freely between castes which are above the pollution line. Those brought up on earlier sociological texts will recall how emphatically their readings mentioned dining rules and commensal restrictions as a defining feature of the caste system.

Interestingly, the one remaining taboo among caste Hindus of not dining with SCs falls by the wayside when workers sit for their lunch break inside the factory. At that time, there seems to be little hesitation among them in opening their lunch boxes and eating together in happy camaraderie.

Naukri versus Kaam

That should not be taken to mean that stratification has disappeared among the Bhilai working class. While the old forms may have lost their lustre, new principles of differentiation have emerged. The most significant among these is the distance maintained between those who have regular jobs, or naukri, and those who are not in permanent employment, or merely have kaam.

Naukri-ranked employees look down upon those who are not, to the extent that they are reluctant to even shake hands with non-permanent kaam workers. The trade unions of the naukri employees also refuse to make common cause with kaam-based workers. It is not surprising, then, that the most dangerous jobs in Bhilai Steel Plant are given to contract workers.

This has an impact on the social lives of the working people as well. The children of those with naukri go to regular schools while the children of those who are performing just kaam suffer from inadequate learning opportunities. As the author remarks, there is a correlation between the permanence of job and planning for the future. Those with naukri not only pay greater attention to their offsprings’ education but also to planning for their retirement, including investing in real estate.

We can, therefore, see a sharp difference here between the “labour aristocrats” and the rest. The management too likes to keep this distinction alive by propping up pliant labour unions. Interestingly, as and when a regular employee in the plant retires, the newly released job does not go to a regular worker with a naukri, but to a contract worker.

Naturally, the contractor plays a very important role in the lives of non-naukri labour in Bhilai. As workers are discouraged from being on the muster continuously for more than 248 days, as they are then entitled to severance pay, contract workers are constantly flipped around. This compels kaam-based workers to establish links with large contractors who can then move them from establishment to establishment with greater ease.

Private companies producing sponge iron and cement have grown in Bhilai and much of their production is for the state steel plant. The entire workforce in these enterprises is practically made up of contract labour. It is in these units that one sees kinship playing a stronger role than among naukri-based Bhilai Steel Plant workers, and with good reason.

When one has a naukri, the future is secure and the need to rely on kin is much reduced. This is not the same for contract workers for whom kinship ties are very important for they provide an insurance-like cover in their uncertain lives. If one then wants to know why Indian workers depend so much on their families, the answer lies here.

I was reading this book at the time when a large number of migrant workers were on the streets, post lockdown. Their plight made additional sense to me for it was clear that if Indian labouring classes had regular naukris they would not be so desperate to be with their families back in the village. When I looked into this matter further, I realised that those heading for their distant, rural homes were all migrants who did not have naukris. What a difference job status makes.

That so much can be accomplished in one book is a tribute to Parry’s scholarship. He has upended much of traditional sociology with conviction and evidence. Given the rapid increase in the population growth of towns and cities, the direction of change is very clear. It is now time to burn those fallen leaves and start thinking anew.
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