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Nitty-Gritty of Capitalist Growth

Ashwini Deshpande

By Sharad Chari
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. xxv 379, Rs. 695.00


Can the subaltern accumulate capital? Are small town capitalists drawn from wealthy, land owning castes? This book addresses these questions and many more in the context of the knitwear industry in Tiruppur (the Banian capital) in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu. Based on meticulous field work, it provides fascinating insights into strategies of capital accumulation, capital-labour relations, patterns of social mobility, organization of the production process, multiple patterns of contracting, gendered organization of the production process, how caste translates into class in the specific context of the knitwear industry and several other issues. In doing so, it tries to address certain vexed issues of long standing: why South Asian business clusters are dominated by particular castes or communities; the link between agrarian change and industrial capital accumulation – the agro-industrial linkage and “new forms of agrarian mobilization linked to the rising power of rural capitalists in prosperous regions”; impact of globalization on gender and caste inequalities – the suggestion that technological and economic development might strengthen the subjugation of Dalits and women, rather than weaken it, and so forth. The author locates his arguments in the context of the historical as well as the contemporary literature on all these issues, both in the context of the region and more broadly, about India or large agrarian economies.   Chari explores Tiruppur that is dominated by small-firm networks to understand whether the capitalists there have forged a “local culture on innovation” based on new forms of work organization. The majority of owners are Gounder (the dominant peasant caste in western Tamil Nadu) men from modest caste backgrounds and worker-peasant origins. Several of these are ex-workers from the industry and the entire industry is ‘regulated’ both by employers’ and employees’ unions. He finds that there is a wide gap between remarkable collective bargaining mechanisms set up and revised every three years by unions and employers’ associations and their dismal level of enforcement. He explores the peculiar “work culture” of Tiruppur that seems at first glance, totally unprofessional, but that has an underlying logic, understood by insiders.   He cites instances of “elite failures” of groups/classes that tried to enter the industry but failed despite being owners of capital. These were one, the rural aristocracy, who were large landowners with wide political and economic power; two, the old-guard business elite of Southern owners, whose strategies were routed by wider transformations in industrial structure; and three, those ...

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