A Review of Undervalued Dissent: Informal Workers’ Politics in India by Manjusha Nair
Presidency University, Kolkata
This review-essay explores informal workers’ politics with respect to state–labour relations in India. Locating informal workers’ movements in the context of neoliberal economic reforms, this essay focuses on how transformations in the nature of the state may close ‘democratic spaces of dissent’ and probes the possibilities of new forms of resistance. This essay explores the agency of informal workers while taking into account their structural locations within the political economy of the state. It compares ‘legitimate’ and claimed spaces of political mobilisation, critically analysing the historical development of state–labour relations in post-colonial India. In the context of the disempowerment of labour and the shrinking of legitimate spaces of dissent, it asks what the future of labour activism might hold, and argues that while some spaces of democratic dissent are shrinking, new avenues, offering the possibility of new forms of resistance, are simultaneously opening up.
informal workers’ politics – social movements – industrial relations – India – informal sector – labour
Manjusha Nair, (2016) Undervalued Dissent: Informal Workers’ Politics in India, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
It is surprising that notwithstanding the predominance of the informal sector in India, there have been relatively few studies on informal workers’ politics. Scholars interested in the study of workers’ movements have usually focused on formal employment and trade-union movements. However, the very nature of the informal sector, located outside of governmental regulations and yet being intricately drawn inside of it, as a huge mass of labour floating in a land with no laws and always being implicated by it, makes it quite a challenging task to grasp informal workers’ politics. Manjusha Nair’s book is a valuable contribution towards understanding the precariousness of informal work, and the possibilities and challenges of informal workers’ politics in the context of transformations of the economy and the state. Nair explores how shifts in the domain of interventions of the state during neoliberal globalisation closed channels of mobilisation for informal workers. In this essay, I investigate whether these very processes of transformation of the state and economy may not only close channels but also have the potential to open up new avenues of mobilisation, making way for new forms of resistance.
Manjusha Nair explores informal workers’ politics in India by studying two different labour movements in Chhattisgarh, a regional state in Central India. One was a mine workers’ movement that emerged in 1977, which succeeded, and the other was an industrial workers’ movement that arose during the 1990s, which failed. She explains the success and failure of the movements by analysing the nature of the state–labour relations in two different time periods. She argues that the second movement failed because of de-democratisation of dissent in state–labour relations in the wake of the 1990s. In other words, the rise of a new kind of state driven by market fundamentalism and right-wing ideologies de-democratised labour politics in India.
The book is a result of eighteen months’ extensive fieldwork in the mining town of Dalli-Rajhara and the city of Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. Dalli-Rajhara mines would supply iron ore to the Bhilai Steel Plant, one of the first public-sector steel plants in India, built in 1960. In spite of the presence of trade unions in the Dalli-Rajhara mines, the workers formed a new union called the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) under the charismatic leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi. CMM was a successful movement and it led to the formalisation of employment of the informal mine workers. After thirteen years, workers in the Bhilai industrial area started a strike when they learned that the Associated Cement Company (ACC) was planning to reduce the number of workers. They sought the help of CMM as it was a similar movement, and Shankar Guha Niyogi agreed to mobilise these workers. However, the movement of the industrial workers in Bhilai did not succeed; it was suppressed by the police and paramilitary forces, many lost their jobs, and Shankar Guha Niyogi was assassinated. Manjusha Nair considers these events as ‘two bundles of phenomena that represent the two movements’ (p. 23), which she studies with a comparative and historical methodology. Her book tries to answer a single question: why did the first movement succeed and the second fail, even though they had similar concerns and composition. The only marked difference is the time-period of the two movements. Hence, she concludes that the state–labour relations had transformed to such an extent by the 1990s that the movement of the Bhilai industrial workers was set to fail.
‘Cultures of Democratic Dissent’ and Agency
Overall, the book is well-organised and lucidly written, with a systematic presentation of its analysis. While reading it, one keeps hoping to discover more layers and complexities in the analysis, but finds instead the application of neat categories which are not problematised adequately. This is possibly because of the theoretical framework that she employs. She observes that a ‘culture of democratic dissent was embedded in these otherwise despotic state–labour relations’ (p. 8) and the mine workers succeeded because they used the space and culture of democratic dissent well. ‘Democratic dissent is the ability of workers to organise contention through the channels of trade union activism, political party formation, and social movements’ (p. 6). Using Frances Fox Piven’s concept of ‘interdependent power’, she argues that the mine workers of CMM had interdependent power which came from simultaneous engagement in militant unionism, social-movement repertoires, electoral politics and community-building. In the case of the first movement, economic nationalism, redistributive development within a framework of political rights for citizens provided a legitimate space for democratic dissent. Whereas, in the case of the second movement, market fundamentalism, the ideology of growth and the rise of the right wing led to withdrawal of the legitimacy of dissent. In this simplistic model of two time periods, one is left with a lot of questions. Can one explain the success or failure of a movement by the presence or absence of certain conditions alone? What else was different (if at all) in the movements themselves? Did workers’ perceptions concerning their lives and engagement in politics in the two different time periods make the movements different? Were those differences not significant enough for the success and failure of the two movements? From the perspective of the author’s theoretical model, it seems that success and failure are always structurally determined. It is as if the informal workers had a ‘space’ which was given to them (by the state) but which was taken away later (again, by the state), and hence the second movement could not succeed.
Social-movement scholarship has several strands, and one strand emphasises the ‘political-opportunity structures’ available for movements that facilitate their emergence and success. The author clearly follows this particular theoretical perspective. But, in social-movement scholarship, a unilateral application of the ‘political opportunity structure’ perspective is considered inadequate. Perceiving movement strategising as a balance between ‘opportunities–threats’ for challengers and ‘facilitation–repression’ for authorities gives insufficient attention to the discursive and dramaturgical practices that shape understandings of movement participants. However, in subsequent chapters Nair gives an account of how the subjectivities of mine workers were integrated with the ideology of nation-building and electoral politics. Drawing from experiences of the mine workers, the author describes how the Dalli-Rajhara mines were constructed and imagined as a national space, and how ‘the boundaries between workers and citizens, and between formality and informality, reached beyond the workplace and shaped the geographies that the residents inhabited’ (p. 72). She argues that, while the Chhattisgarhiya workers did not physically belong to this ‘national space’, the hegemonic nation-construction process was the dominant political culture which brought within its fold the subjectivities of the mine workers. She demonstrates that the mine workers were successful because of the ‘presence of a democratic space of contention that the workers used to the fullest extent’ (p. 76) by challenging the different arteries of the state simultaneously. One wonders, however, what role did the subjectivities of workers play in the use of this available space for contention? What was the sense of collective identity, how did they make sense of their lives, how did their discontent get shaped and how did that enable the efficient use of the democratic spaces? It seems as if the movement was one homogenous entity, where the structural potential of the political climate after the Emergency led them to act upon the spaces provided to them by the political-opportunity structures.
In a previously-published article, Manjusha Nair explores some of the above questions, which do not feature in the book. She delineates the narratives of the workers’ contention in the two movements where she argues that ‘unlike the vivid collective memories of the Dalli mine workers, the Bhilai industrial workers’ memories were fragmented and personalised’. Nair accounts for the weak sense of collectivity and agency in the memories of the industrial workers, which, she perceives, emerged from the different lived experiences of being workers and citizens, from facing different opponents (the state and industrialists) in different times (1977 and 1990) and in different spatial contexts (the mining township and urban town). She argues that the differences in their narratives and their construction of identities were ‘due to the temporal changes in worker rights and social citizenship in India’ (ibid.). Even though she delves into how workers made sense of their lives in changed contexts, the differences in their sense-making is posited as a result of structural conditions alone, clearly decapitating the agency of actors. The industrial workers exercised a ‘passive agency’ characterised by ‘fraternal signifiers and filial emotions rather than one of action and direct agency’. Incidentally, the Maoist movement was strong in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh around the same time. From the accounts of the industrial workers, the author shows that the industrial workers (with their passive agency) were ‘happy’ at the growth of the Maoist movement, as it gave them a sense of another imagined future. But the radicalism of the Maoist movement did not fit well with the industrial workers’ politics of ‘nationalist’ trade unionism. If workers’ agency in the current context is passive, then we are led to the question: can any form of resistance emerge from workers in the current context of neoliberal globalisation and the transformed nature of the state? Does this imply that forms of resistance which may emerge in the current context are necessarily outside of the state, as the state is no longer the protector of the rights of its citizens, the ‘giver’ of legitimate political spaces of contention, and because actors can no longer realise their agency in the changed structural conditions?
Legitimate vs. Claimed ‘Spaces’
The author compares two movements that occurred in distinctly different eras. Earlier, the state established plants in the region of Chhattisgarh as public ventures, ideologically located within the logic of the nation’s growth. The marked shift since the 1990s has been informed by a ‘singular logic of profit and growth from both state and business’ (p. 105). Nair employs David Harvey’s framework of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ to understand the new mode of development in Chhattisgarh. The author highlights the ‘role of the local state in engendering this accumulation through extraction of mineral resources’, and that this had been possible because of the close association of the local state with Indian capital. It is undeniable that there has been a shift from the Nehruvian socialist state to a state which is predominantly pro-capitalist, with a neoliberal ideology since the 1990s. However, the extraction of mineral resources in both periods has not been strikingly different. Whether for the sake of the nation’s growth under the Nehruvian project of modernity, or guided by a neoliberal ideology dominated by the market, mineral resources were extracted in both these periods. The author maps out the number of projects that were sanctioned in the state of Chhattisgarh since 2000, facilitating an extractive economy within the neoliberal developmental regime. Not only from the author’s account but also from the numerous struggles that have erupted against displacement in the recent past in the country, it is evident that in the neoliberal era there has been a marked increase in dispossession. Dispossession from rights over natural resources such as land, water and forests has consequently given rise to struggles on the part of various marginalised populations all over the country. The argument that market fundamentalism during the 1990s, characterised by an extractive economy, contributed towards the failure of the movement is problematic on two grounds. One, extraction of mineral resources has only increased during the 1990s and is not a new process. Two, accumulation through dispossession has intensified since the 1990s, and, consequently, we have seen numerous protests and struggles by marginalised populations, quite regardless of whether there has been any legitimate space of democratic dissent, and some have been surprisingly successful.
To take the case of the protests of Dongriya Kondhs in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha against the mining company Vedanta: where does one locate the democratic space of dissent? Through a memorandum of understanding between the government of Odisha and Vedanta Aluminium Limited, and an environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the state facilitated the extraction of mineral resources in the region in 2003. The Dongriya Kondhs, the adivasis of the region, through sustained mobilisation emerged victorious and Vedanta’s mining project was rejected. This is only one such instance of resistance against dispossession that has erupted in the country on the part of various marginalised populations, who do not have any ‘space’ of democratic dissent but rather have claimed such spaces through political mobilisation. Of course, informal workers’ politics and resistances against dispossession have different sets of actors, histories and contexts, but their success and failure probably cannot be explained by reference to the changing nature of the state during neoliberal globalisation. The actual situation is quite possibly the contrary; these very changed contexts have paved the way for new forms of resistance.
Shrinking Spaces and Growing Informal Labour
The distinctiveness of informal workers lies in their complex relationship with formal trade unions on one hand and the state on the other, and consequently their politics is located in the spaces between the two. Manjusha Nair, through her detailed ethnography of the two movements, unravels this particular characteristic of informal workers and their politics. To understand this, four inter-related and overlapping contexts are important: one, the trajectory of trade-union movements in India; two, the relationship of globalisation and labour; three, the changing nature of the state during globalisation; and four, the state–labour relations. Supriya RoyChowdhury comments on the nature of labour in these contexts:
In a period of marketisation, labour is disempowered on several dimensions: the numerical decline of the organised workforce; weakening trade unions; and, frequently, the politically right-ward turn of social democratic parties which shift to neo-liberal, market oriented policies. In such a context, there is a political vacuum in terms of agencies, which would advocate and struggle for labour rights.
The disempowerment of labour and the growing informal sector are two sides of the same coin. The growth of the informal sector since the 1980s is a result of the way the global production process is being organised by transnational capital and notions of flexibility, mobility and impermanence. In fact, in the near future one can expect greater deregulation and informalisation of work. ‘In India, decline of employment in the organised sector may be due to reasons which predate liberalisation, but liberalisation has created an enabling environment for cutting down regular, salaried jobs through VRS, contractual employment, subcontracting, outsourcing and so on.’ Unfortunately, the trade-union movement did not accommodate the concerns of the growing informal sector at a point where the majority of the working population in India was in the informal sector. As Sharit Bhowmik argues, the workers in the informal sector were invisible to the labour unions, government and the policy makers, despite the fact that four of the seven unions were associated with the communist parties. Simultaneously, the trade-union movement itself was declining as the national government and the private business groups felt the need to tame labour activism.
Informal workers are caught between all these different trends, and in this context Manjusha Nair focuses on the state–labour relations. She argues that the labour regime in India
represented a cultural shift in the Indian economy, where the incorporation of labour demands became irreconcilable with growth. Therefore, I claim that the Bhilai workers’ struggle was perceived and interpreted as a class-cleaved dissent, distinct from the struggle of the Dalli-Rajhara mine workers, which was embedded in a state–citizen relationship. (p. 144; emphases in original.)
It is undeniable that there has been a shift in the Indian economy, and according to most scholars the state went pro-business resulting in the changing state–labour relations. Before economic reforms, within a pro-capitalist industrial-relations framework, labour demands manifested themselves through trade unions (which were completely dependent on the state) and a ‘peaceful labour force’ was maintained (p. 37). But, was the seemingly ‘protective’ state, which allowed a space for democratic dissent, also a means of taming the militant activism of trade unions through their incorporation into the folds of the state system? How much actual dissent was ‘allowed’ in this space of democratic dissent that existed before the neoliberal reforms? Vivek Chibber has investigated how post-colonial industrial relations were shaped, incorporating labour into the political economy and in effect demobilising it. He shows how, within ‘state paternalism’, labour rights and welfare were respected, without allowing any ‘real power in the political economy’, where the labour question was dealt with via coercive mechanisms while the state allied itself with domestic capital. Labour interests as such were merely accommodated. While Nair emphasises the distinct disjuncture between the two periods, it is likely that a critical exploration of the historical development of state–labour relations would have highlighted continuities between the two periods. This would also assist in understanding how much the space of democratic dissent prior to the economic reforms allowed for the mobilisation of labour.
The trade-union movement, and social movements more generally, functioned within the ‘master frame of democratic socialism’, within the state system and dependent on it. After the 1980s, there is a distinct shift in the nature of movements, away from the state and electoral politics. That was not only because of the changing nature of the state, but also because social movements were disillusioned with electoral politics and the state system, exemplified in the numerous and diverse kinds of struggle. There were also new challenges, in this case the transformed relations of labour and capital evident in the growing trend towards informalisation of work. It seems likely that understanding of transformations in the state–labour relations could be enriched by embedding it in the larger transformations in the relations of labour and capital during the neoliberal reforms.
Multitudes of Isolated Activisms Ahead?
The author concludes that the ‘era of twentieth-century institutions of labour representation is probably over’ (p. 183). In contemplating the future of labour movements, she follows Ching Kwan Lee’s notion of ‘cellular activism’. In fact, a multitude of isolated activisms, with no leaders, which do not develop into organised dissent, is probably the form that labour protests will take in the future. Hardt and Negri show how these multitudes of isolated activisms are ‘biopolitical’ struggles that are subversive in and of themselves. The hegemony of immaterial labour is transforming other forms of labour, where immaterial labour is oriented towards production of forms of social life, and we are moving towards greater flexibility, with no long-term contracts, and with mobility between different locations. For Hardt and Negri, we have arrived at a juncture where ‘the distributed network structure provides the model for an absolutely democratic organisation that corresponds to the dominant forms of economic and social production and is also the most powerful weapon against the ruling power structure’. While Manjusha Nair argues that new forms of labour-protest are indicative of a shrinking of the space of democratic dissent within the state system, it is interesting to note how Hardt and Negri point to possibilities of greater democratisation through network structures. These different views only indicate the simultaneous closure and opening of different spaces of politics, and the contradictions that arise out of such simultaneity.
It is possible that engaging in such networks is the way in which new spaces of politics will open up. ‘The most likely path to effectively counter the erosion of labour rights for rural migrants seems to be broad-based coalition with often transnational social movements, rather than depending on the conventional unionism, which lacks moral hegemony in India.’ (p. 189.) But, is it possible to conceive of a unitary global labour movement? Possibly not; rather labour protests will continue without forming one consolidated movement. These probably will be a swarm of protests, and this might turn out to be a strength rather than a weakness. Manjusha Nair’s book is located at this juncture, announcing the end of the institutional politics of labour and hinting at the possibility of a hopeful future, and is a valuable contribution to the literature on informal workers’ politics and social movements.
Agarwala, Rina 2007, ‘Resistance and Compliance in the Age of Globalization: Indian Women and Labor Organizations’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610, 1: 143–59.
Bhowmik, Sharit K. 2009, ‘Labor Sociology Searching for a Direction’, Work and Occupations, 36, 2: 126–44.
Chibber, Vivek 2005, ‘From Class Compromise to Class Accommodation: Labour’s Incorporation into the Indian Political Economy’, in Ray and Katzenstein (eds.) 2005.
Edelman, Marc 2001, ‘Social Movements: Changing Paradigms and Forms of Politics’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 285–317.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri 2000, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri 2004, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Harvey, David 2003, The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Kohli, Atul 2006, ‘Politics of Economic Growth in India, 1980–2005. Part I: The 1980s’, Economic and Political Weekly, 41, 13: 1251–9.
Lee, Ching Kwan 2007, Against the Law: Labour Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Nair, Manjusha 2011, ‘Differences in Workers’ Narratives of Contention in Two Central Indian Towns’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 79, 1: 175–94.
Piven, Frances Fox 2008, ‘Can Power from Below Change the World?’, American Sociological Review, 73, 1: 1–14.
Ray, Raka and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein (eds.) 2005, Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power, and Politics, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
RoyChowdhury, Supriya 2004, ‘Globalisation and Labour’, Economic and Political Weekly, 39, 1: 105–8.
Sinha, Aseema 2005, The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India: A Divided Leviathan, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
 See Agarwala 2007.
 See Piven 2008.
 Edelman 2001, pp. 290–1.
 Nair 2011, p. 176.
 Nair 2011, p. 177.
 Nair 2011, p. 185.
 See Harvey 2003.
 RoyChowdhury 2004, p. 105.
 RoyChowdhury 2004, p. 106.
 See Bhowmik 2009.
 See Kohli 2006
 See Kohli 2004; Sinha 2005.
 Chibber 2005, p. 37.
 See Ray and Katzenstein (eds.) 2005.
 See Lee 2007.
 See Hardt and Negri 2000.
 Hardt and Negri 2004, p. 88.