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Perhaps no other scholar in the social sciences has studied India’s poor and its informal economy as intensively as Jan Breman. The sheer temporal span of his research is mind-boggling. He began his study in south Gujarat 15 years after India’s Independence — in 1962. And he was in south Gujarat in 2014 as well — that’s more than half a century of field work. In his latest book, On Pauperism In Present and Past, published last month, Professor Breman, 79, argues that what is being ‘Made in India’ right now at an impressive rate are paupers. Professor Emeritus at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Prof. Breman was in Delhi recently, and in a freewheeling interview discussed, among other things, pauperism, the Gujarat model, and the return of social Darwinism to mainstream discourse. Excerpts:
Where is the need for terms such as ‘pauper’ and ‘pauperism’ as analytical categories, when we already have ‘poverty’?
There is a difference between poverty and destitution, or what I call pauperism. In poverty, it is difficult to make ends meet. You somehow cope, do your level best to add to your income. So you also have your wife and children working along. In destitution, you are simply unable to cope. You are so utterly poor that it is difficult to even survive. And if you survive, you need outside support. Unfortunately, the poverty debate in India has more or less been appropriated by economists. So we look at income or consumption or employment levels, and not at the social or political dimension of poverty. A category such as ‘pauperism’ is needed to capture these non-economic aspects as well.
“There is a difference between poverty and destitution, or what I call pauperism. In poverty, it is difficult to make ends meet.
You argue in your book that India’s poverty line is a destitution line. Are you saying that those below poverty line in India are not poor but destitute?
Not all but a good number are. According to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), the poverty line fixed by the Planning Commission is a joke: 76 per cent of the Indian population is living in poverty. If you have such a vast mass of poor, you have to differentiate between levels of poverty. Certainly a big number is close to the poverty line. But in my estimate, about 25 per cent of India’s poor are destitute, or paupers.
So from an economist’s perspective, do we need another line, below the poverty line, to identify the paupers?
The poverty line is a sort of magical construction. If you cross it, you are suddenly out of poverty. So the policy focus is always on those who are able to go past that threshold. As a result, there is absolutely no interest in those at the bottom, those way beneath the poverty line.
So who is a pauper, in sociological terms?
In the first place, the paupers are the non-labouring poor, those who have no earning capacity. They never had or have lost their labour power and therefore can’t make a living. These include the elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill, but also widows with small children, divorcees without any support from others. Basically, in order to survive in poverty, you need a household. You cannot manage on your own because the flow of income varies with the seasons. You need to pull the household together to bring in the income — this is why you have child labour in India, isn’t it? But paupers also include the labouring poor, especially those whose income and employment are erratic or seasonal.
But Indian economists don’t believe in terms like ‘pauper’.
That’s true. It was only Gandhi who wrote about paupers in an article published in Young India in 1928, when he was in south Gujarat. He argued that we cannot fight colonialism if we do not fight colonialism in our own society. He pointed out that paupers had been around in India for a long time. I use the term pauper to evoke the conditions in Victorian England, where the casual poor were driven out of the countryside to work in the mills during the industrial revolution. In the same way, the casual poor are being driven out of the countryside in 21st century India.
England amended its Poor Laws in 1834 to pauperise the rural labour and drive them to the cities. What is India doing to create an exodus from the countryside?
Your agrarian crisis. Agriculture is not able to provide livelihood for the land-poor and the landless classes, who have lived in the villages from time immemorial. So they are forced to leave the villages. But the city doesn’t want them either.
How can you say the city doesn’t want them? India is building a hundred smart cities. Who will live in them if not migrants?
Talk to policymakers, talk to municipal officials of any city. They will tell you they don’t want the poor around, that they are a burden on our modern, beautified, smart cities. The policy of the municipality in every Indian city has been to periodically evict the poor. I have studied this phenomenon closely in Ahmedabad, where the poor are evicted from their homes that are close to their worksites and displaced to the outskirts of the city where no work is available. They try desperately to find employment but are unable to establish themselves even in the slums. They hang around in the labour chowks, they become pavement dwellers because there is no shelter for them in the night. When weeks pass by without any work at all, they go back to the villages. I use the term ‘circular migration’ to describe this movement — from villages to cities and back to villages, in an endless cycle. This is widespread in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu. But you find it in every State.
Do you see the Gujarat model being successfully implemented across the entire nation?
That is clearly the agenda of the National Democratic Alliance government. Is it possible to do it? We’ll have to see. Maybe some concessions will be made, but they will never be adequate because the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology does not permit pro-poor policies.
But the BJP government has an ambitious skill development programme to make the poor employable.
The stated emphasis may be on skill development but what investment is there on skill development? The BJP has cut the public education budget. What I see, among the people living in the slums, is not skilling but deskilling. In Ahmedabad, I meet workers dismissed from the mills where they used to be skilled weavers. They have lost not only their job, wages and the benefits of belonging to the formal economy but also their skills. They are now looking for employment as casual, unskilled labour. Deskilling is a bigger phenomenon in India today than skilling.
But the NDA is not doing anything very different what from the UPA was doing, is it?
Well, I would blame not only the current government but also the former one. We have to understand what’s going on in India in a globalised frame. India’s economic policies are determined by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They are therefore pro-capital, and anti-labour. Today the World Bank is at the end of its tether. Its formula of formal capital in the informal economy failed because the poor don’t own much capital. Then came the whole microcredit phenomenon, which was also a failure. Then came cash transfers, which is about bringing the poor into the market. But all these recipes have failed to raise the incomes of the poor. Having run out of ideas, they have now started blaming the poor for being poor.
How can the poor be blamed for being poor?
If you look at the World Bank’s latest World Development Report, it says that the basic problem with the poor is that they don’t save. Really? If you are poor, you are desperately trying to get enough food for your family, you don’t have money for housing, or for education, or for health, and on top of all this, it now appears that you carry the defect of not having an ‘accumulating mind’!
But India is a democracy, and the poor can mobilise politically, can’t they?
Yes, the saving grace in India is democracy. It has given some power to the poor to claim rights. But can democracy continue in an economy where the gap between the haves and have-nots is constantly growing? Around the world, with inequality growing, democracy is also facing a threat.
What are your thoughts on the proposed labour reforms?
India is basically in a race to the bottom in terms of offering the lowest possible wage rates for labour, and thereby attract investors. This policy was already in place under the UPA – it is about outdoing China as far as wage levels are concerned.
How is migrant labour faring in China as compared their counterparts in India?
I visit China every ten years to get a sense of what’s going on there. My first visit was in the early 1990s, and I’ve been doing research among migrants coming to the cities. I found three big differences between the migrant workers in China and those in India. Firstly, the Chinese migrants had some property in the village, whereas in India, they are mostly landless. Second, the Chinese migrants have been to school, but the Indian ones are illiterate. Thirdly, you won’t see children at work in China, and in India, you do.
So when Chinese migrants come to the city, they have some economic holding back in the village, and they are schooled, and this makes a big difference. When I first came to China, the migrant’s dream was to buy a sewing machine or a bicycle. When I went back ten years later, they not only had sewing machines and bicycles, they also had a fridge, an electric rice cooker, a TV set. When I went back a third time, around the turn of the century, they had a motorbike. This was possible because China has been focussing on the domestic market by increasing the purchasing power of the working classes. But the Indian government is not interested in increasing the purchasing power of the poor – this is what I meant by a race to the bottom. India wants to pay its workers the lowest possible wage rate, in the hope that it can compete better with the Chinese in export markets. But this has resulted in there being more pauperisation in India, which is not the case in China.
But today the Chinese economy is in troubled waters.
So is the Indian economy.
Of course not. Haven’t you heard — we are growing at 7.6%
(laughs) There is so much wishful thinking in Indian policy circles. The Chinese economy is slowing down, yes, but it is not stopping. What is more critical is the slowing down of the economies in the West. In India, prime minister Modi promised a 100 million jobs in his election campaign. Not only is this impossible to deliver, today even the middle classes are insecure about their future. The whole Hardik Patel phenomenon – it’s because they are desperate for work, and they can’t find any because they want work with dignity. The Kanbi Patels don’t want employment in brick kilns or stone quarries or as construction workers.
So how would you describe the present government’s approach to the poor?
Not only are the poor being blamed for their poverty – that it is their own doing, or lack of merit or whatever – attempts are being made to establish that they are a burden to society. So it is not poverty that needs a solution but the poor. The question as framed by policy-makers and urban planners is: how can we get rid of the poor? That is social Darwinism, and that’s why the comparison with Victorian England is so important.
So you see an Indian avatar of social Darwinism?
How else do we understand smart cities? They are basically about social exclusion – they are not meant to cater to the poor. As the state is getting privatised, a new kind of landlordism – as happened in feudal times — is coming back, but in the avatar of Special Economic Zones, private townships, etc. Another example of social Darwinism at work are slum evictions, where you say we don’t want these people around – they have to be driven out, they are useless, they create traffic problems, they are anti-social — for instance, the rape cases in Delhi.
How do you understand the recent incidents of rape in Delhi?
I am more interested in how the middle class reacted it, because the accused were young migrants from the hinterlands — poor and belonging to the bottom of the social ladder. Of course, it’s a horrible crime and must not be justified. But their crime gets portrayed now as the typical behaviour of the scum that is invading our cities, and why the cities should be cleansed of them. I can see a future where India will not allow the workers who gather at labour chowks to settle down in the cities even though there is no livelihood in the villages.
Recently there has been a debate on reservations in the private sector. Is this a good idea?
In fact, it is required because the public economy is shrinking. We talk about reservations already being there in the public sector but we know that government jobs are being slashed, the public economy is shrinking. With privatisation and disinvestment, employment on the basis of reservations only in the public sector is over and out. Given this, private enterprise should make up for this erosion in public sector jobs by being brought under the ambit of the reservation policy.
Then what happens to merit?
Well, here’s a typical social Darwinist argument – that potentially the OBCs and SC/STs do not have merit; it’s just the high castes who have it.
You have been doing field work in India for over 50 years. What would you characterise as the single biggest change in the sphere of development?
The most striking change is the disappearance of the development paradigm itself.
How can that be? We’ve just elected a Prime Minister who campaigned on the plank of development.
By ‘development paradigm’, I mean the promise of development as seen in the West — through modernisation, industrialisation, and a welfare state that offered prosperity for all and an easy life. You were promised that this would be followed in the Global South. Now we know it’s a myth.
The contrast is no longer between nations but between social classes within every nation – whether you are included or excluded. You see this inclusion-exclusion paradigm growing with the informalisation of the economy. If nine out of ten workers in India are in the informal economy, it means not only that the formal economy is shrinking in size, it also means that it is getting informalised.
Can the poor in India hope for inclusive citizenship?
Citizenship is about rights and obligations. It is about being able to make claims on the state, and at the moment this is a privilege afforded by a minority of the Indian population. Also, inclusive citizenship not only means offering employment (inclusion in economic terms) but also creating space for them in terms of housing, health, schooling, skilling, and inclusion in social terms — which means focussing on equality. But we don’t see pro-equality policies, only pro-inequality policies. The mindset of the Indian elite is: the poor are different from me and I don’t want them around.