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Sheths, Sahibs and Workers: Interdependence, Exclusion and Repression


Amiya Kumar Bagchi

LOST WORLDS: INDIAN LABOUR AND ITS FORGOTTEN HISTORIES
By Chitra Joshi
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003, pp. xiv 359, Rs. 695.00

INDIA WORKING: ESSAYS ON SOCIETY AND ECONOMY
By Barbara Harriss-White
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. xx 316, Rs. 950.00

WORK AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN ASIA: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF JAN BREMAN
Edited by Arvind N. Das and Marcel van der Linden
Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 277, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 8 August 2004

With the loss of livelihood in their earlier occupations in agriculture and craftwork, workers moved into the growing trading and industrial centres. But from the beginning workers were segregated from the ‘respectable’ part of the population. In colonial countries such as India under the British or Indonesia under the Dutch, the most respectable were the colonial civil and military officers; the next social rank was occupied by the big European merchants and industrialists. The social segregation was spatially enforced by keeping the ‘natives’ as far away as possible from the elite and making repeated attempts to keep the latter from being contaminated—in a social as well as a biological sense— by the pullulating mass of workers. When the native elite in turn stepped into the shoes of the erstwhile European rulers, they tried to maintain the sanitizing distance from the workers whose labour sustained their lavish life-style.   Chitra Joshi, in her well-documented book, tells the grim story of the more than two-century long segregation, exclusion and abandonment of the workers of Kanpur by the European and Indian elites whose fortunes had been built up by the labour of the cobblers, carpenters, weavers, porters and mill-workers. The latter were forced into the horrendously insanitary slums that made up the real life of the cantonment, turned into the duality of the Civil Lines and native quarters. (Incidentally, the Europeans mimicked in Kanpur the segregation of the City, that is, the business quarters of London, from the neighbourhood of St. James’s Palace where the landed magnates and wealthy bankers built their town houses).   Kanpur’s factories and workshops specialized primarily in the production of cotton and woollen textiles and hides and leather goods, with cotton mills employing the majority of factory workers. The main factories catered to government demands for blankets, saddlery and boots, and to the domestic market for cloth of the coarser varieties. But from the late 1930s, there was insufficient investment in new machinery; the years of World War II saw further depreciation of the capital stock through full capacity working and lack of supplies of machinery to replace the worn-out equipment. Many of the new cotton mills that came up in the 1920s and 1930s seem to have been equipped mainly with second-hand machinery. Independence provided the Indian merchants and industrialists of Kanpur with new pastures to invest in, in places outside the region. This led to ...


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