Book Review: Ground Down By Growth by Alpa Shah et al.

Tuesday 13th November, 2018

Review by Rashné Limki

Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First-Century India by Alpa Shah, Jens Lerche, Richard Axelby, Dalel Benbabaali, Brendan Donegan, Jayaseelan Raj and Vikramaditya Thakur was published by Pluto Press in November 2017.

In the lead-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi – now Prime Minister of India – inaugurated the slogan, “achhe din aane wale hain (good days are coming)”, words that have since become mantra for his administration and supporters. The arrival of good days was to bring an end to corruption, a decrease in unemployment and an increase in productivity, wages and standards of living – good days assured through growth and progress. Of course, Modi’s mantra while novel perhaps in its articulation is hardly so in its spirit. “Growth” and “progress” have long been the keystones of Indian political and economic discourse, from the early post-independence vision of public development to the faith in market liberalisation and corporate developmentalism of the 90s on.

Ground Down by Growth is the story of India’s perennial and illusionary promise of achhe din (good days). Its argument follows in the line of global critiques of development that refute economic growth as panacea for the eradication of inequality (x-xiii). The central thesis of the book, however, is that the persistence of inequality in the Indian context is not merely a consequence of the false promise of development but, more crucially, of ‘the continuities of inherited inequalities of power’ (9) along the lines of tribe and caste.

Accordingly, each chapter in the book presents an anthropological account of the conditions of specific Dalit and Adivasi communities in order to demonstrate how historical lines of oppression endure in the unfolding of the contemporary social fabric. This collection of studies is of particular import because of both, the failure of Indian economic policy to fulfil its promise of creating a casteless society as well as the insistence of contemporary bourgeois society that this vision has in fact been achieved. Departing from this motivating faith in a casteless economics, the book highlights instead how ‘global patterns of capitalist accumulation… [have sought to] appropriate (rather than negate) social differences and entrench them’ (13). Chapters 1 and 2 of the book provide the conceptual and empirical underpinnings of this argument.

Interestingly, the following 5 empirical chapters focus on Indian states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra – whose economic policies have been amongst the most successful in alleviating multidimensional poverty (i.e. facilitating improvements in general standards of living, increasing access to education and health care, etc.). Yet, as these studies demonstrate, the benefits of such progress have accrued primarily to non-tribal, uppercaste communities often at the cost of Dalits and Adivasis. (It is important to note here that the authors do not necessarily dispute the reality of poverty reduction across the board but rather highlight the differential distribution of this reduction that intensifies inequality). This argument is substantiated in each chapter through an account of the historical and institutional discrimination, indeed degradation, confronted by Dalit and Adivasi communities. 

The studies presented in the book are similarly organised: each begins with an overview of colonial and post-independence era policies and practices that facilitated the material and social marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis. Prevalent throughout is a history of the forced movement of Dalit and Adivasi labour and the settlement of new capitalist/land-holding castes. Next, the studies address how the weakening of post-independence protections of Dalit and Adivasi labour and land rights, alongside the intervention of corporate capital, has entrenched exploitative social relations. Beyond the exploitative effects of social prejudice, Dalit and Adivasi workers are also subject to institutional discrimination and violence. This is highlighted variously in the chapters through discussions of caste-and-clan-based nepotism in access to positions within government, the nexus between industrialists, politicians and the police, as well as corruption within and ineffectualness of unions.

The starkness of inequality in India is evidenced by the fact that 92% of workers do not have secure forms of employment (33) and are therefore required to ‘enter into multiple strategies of livelihood’ (203). Each study thus highlights the new, generally seasonal, migratory patterns of Dalit and Adivasi across the country. This circumstance is, no doubt, abetted by capitalist appetites for a docile workforce and is achieved through ensuing linguistic isolation, non-access to government schemes that offer basic economic and social safeguards to the poor and lower economic classes and exclusion from union representation. Despite these dispiriting accounts, each chapter offers examples of radical struggle waged by Dalit and Adivasi workers against the exploitative classes. While not always successful, these instances serve as a reminder of the social complexities of labour struggle in India.

To be sure, the data and narratives specific to each study are significant on their own and merit proper engagement. Yet, for the purpose of this review, more compelling are the somewhat secondary narratives that bring to bear the deep indignities and the ubiquity of psychological harm that underlies economic and social exploitation. For instance, Chapter 3 discusses the conditions of Tamil Dalits in Kerala, descendants of indentured workers initially transferred by the British to work on tea plantations. Here, Jayaseelan Raj describes how contemporary plantation owners have, over time, sought to remove access to all personal land – such as kitchen gardens cultivated by plantation workers for their own use – thereby ‘inculcat[ing] a sense of psychological alienation in which workers control nothing in the plantation’, a reminder that they were ‘alienated labour only’ (60). In Chapter 4, Brendan Donegan outlines how the shift from an agrarian to industrial economy rather than undoing caste-based dependencies has merely reconfigured them through the control of factory work. Dalits and Irula Adivasis, once dependent on uppercaste landlords, remain subject to these dominant castes who now operate as factory owners and labour contractors. Here, Donegan comments on the case of the single Dalit contractor in his study who, due to political pressure exerted by uppercaste contractors, lost 5 out of his 6 initial contracts with the local bone factory. The only contract that he was allowed to retain was of the lowest grade and involved ‘cleaning bones and packaging waste material’ (103) – a circumstance that highlights the persistence of notions of im/purity as related to caste. This chapter also provides an important account of ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics used by factory bosses through expedient use of migrant labour to impede worker actions and their deceit and brutality in breaking strikes by local workers. 

The treachery of uppercaste control is evident as well in Chapter 5 wherein Dalel Benbabaali introduces us to an uppercaste Kama landlord in Telangana who obstructed the efforts of a school teacher to educate Dalit and Adivasi children up to grade 10. This landlord, being educated only up to grade 7, was averse to local Dalits and Adivasis to be better educated than him. To be sure, many Dalit and especially Adivasi parents, such as the Gaddis and Gujjars of Himachal Pradesh and the Bhils of Maharashtra considered by Richard Axelby and Vikramaditya Thakur in Chapters 6 and 7, respectively, do not believe in the emancipatory potential of education. This is because, regardless of educational attainment, access to secure, mainly government, employment for these communities remains elusive. In many cases, this situation is exacerbated in cases where local authorities challenge the authenticity of claims made by Dalits and Adivasis to Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe (SC/ST) status. Without this recognition, Dalits and Adivasis lack the documentation that would, amongst other rights, allow them access to employment reservations (quotas). This situation is an effect of both, colonial and post-independence categorisations that communities themselves dispute and also of migratory histories that have resulted in Dalits and Adivasis losing status in jurisdictions not native to them. The studies in this book thus also effectively highlight the role of governmentality in ongoing oppression.

Overall, the book successfully fulfils its purpose of demonstrating the inseparability of caste, tribe and class oppression. To be sure, these are not the only important co-ordinates of conjugated oppression and the book does also acknowledge the role of gender and religion in the production of social marginalisation and economic exploitation. While each chapter, to a greater or lesser extent, addresses the differential impact of unequal social relations on women, this is less so the case with religion. Chapter 6, however, stands out as an exception with its comparative study of the ‘nomadic’ Hindu Gaddi Adivasis and the Muslim Gujjar Adivasis.   

The book should be of interest not only to economic researchers concerned with India but more so to left political economists and labour researchers who seek to challenge the privileging class analysis over all other forms of social difference. Similarly, the book would benefit scholars of race and ethnic studies in the global north interested in how the logic of ‘conjugated’ race and class oppression is replicated in the global south.

 Ground down by Growth is undoubtedly a timely text. It is notable that the associated studies were conducted between 2014-2015/16 – i.e. during the first year of Narendra Modi’s tenure as PM. It is becoming increasingly clear, at least to non-loyalists, that the achhe din promised by Modi have not materialised. Moreover, the social situation for Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, in fact, seems to have worsened with physical violence, to the point of lynching, against Dalits and Muslims especially, becoming more pervasive and perhaps more politically acceptable. Like the failed promise of achhe din, this situation is not new but rather represents the intensification of a historical condition. The book thus provides much-needed context for comprehending the political situation unfolding in India.

Review by Rashné Limki, University of Edinburgh. 

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