Swabhumi Workshop Report

Calcutta Research Group December 12, 2011

Ned Rossiter

Fieldwork in Rajarhat-New Town (located on the north-eastern shoulder of Kolkata, West Bengal) carried out by the Transit Labour Research Platform concluded with the Transit Labour Workshop. It remained primarily focussed on the case-study of Rajarhat, with at least four formal presentations exclusively dedicated to the theme. Lateral connections with other material and geographical contexts — China (Shanghai), for example, but also the UK and the USA among others — were, of course, productively drawn and the upshot was a more nuanced understanding of transit labour and how it operates in the space of new townships. Changing patterns of labour and mobility, its precariousness, were discussed conjointly with deliberations on ‘newness’: new political spaces, new processes of global-economic integration, new modes of urban reckoning. However, the discussion spilled beyond the confines of a purely logistical and formal engagement with transit labour to embrace knotty questions of identity-reckoning and belonging, dispossession and resistance, loss and re-deployment of livelihood opportunities. Such a denial of theoretical formalism had to, perhaps inevitably, be the fate of a research orientation which began with a concept: transit labour. For, as Georges Canguilhem tells us in La formation du concept de reflex aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, concepts are “theoretically polyvalent”; the same concept can function in quite different theoretical contexts. Ineluctably, then, discussion of a concept presupposes a distinction from standard discussions that merely trace a succession of theoretical formulations. If this is conceded, the workshop was a success.

The workshop opened with the presidential address delivered by Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, President, Calcutta Research Group, which was followed by the introductory remarks of Brett Neilson of the University of Western Sydney, chairing the first session. He adumbrated the project trajectory of the Research Platform as it has developed in Shanghai, Sydney and Kolkata and followed it up with a summary of the critical concerns that framed the fieldwork in Rajarhat-New Town. The case-study, he explained, had allowed the platform to focus on various intersecting processes: land acquisition, expropriation, logistics of building up a city, construction of housing and an IT sector, and their wired links to global economy. The presentations and discussions that followed moved largely within this grid of issues.


Ishita Dey’s presentation, the first of the day, elaborated, in rich ethnographic detail, the new régime of accumulation at Rajarhat. This story of accumulation, the creation of the New-Town space in Rajarhat, seems to assume, in official missives, a tabula rasa on which the new township was apparently inscribed. This mode of official narrativization has to be challenged; the story of accumulation has to be retold not only in terms of loss of home of the people who already lived there and cultivated land, but also in terms of dispossession of livelihood opportunities. On a parallel register, Dey also detailed an ethnography of construction work. The construction workers — drawn from districts as disparate as Murshidabad and South 24-Parganas (Sunderbans) — build houses on the construction sites but there is an inescapable sense of temporariness in labour, what Dey termed ‘footloose labour’.


Suhit K. Sen’s paper, which followed, continued on the theme of land acquisition by the state and focussed on land question lodged around peasants’ rights versus the state. There is a veritable wave of anti-acquisition movements on a national scale today; but, Sen argued, acquisition in Rajarhat happened over a decade before the anti-acquisition movements gained force. The seeming insipidity of resistance in Rajarhat may have been due to the fact that the area was populated by small landholders with little wherewithal to oppose the concerted attack of the state and its mafia allies. It could also be, as sociologist Dwaipayan Bhattacharya avers, because of the creation of party-society under the supervision of the Left-Front government. But Sen asserted that the apparent meekness and fragmentary nature of the resistance in Rajarhat has also to do with the fact that there was a cross-party consensus over land acquisition here. This explains why, even after a change in political dispensation in the state, the situation continues to be the same. Sen criticized this cooption of political opposition, which, he pointed out, was further bolstered by the fact that elite opinion remained ignorant and the media complacent. The unashamèd proposition that some people be thrown out to accommodate wealthier sections, the methodical destruction of livelihood, and the despoliation of environment with impunity — he found unacceptable.


The last speaker of the first session, Ranabir Samaddar, put the land acquisition in Rajarhat in a broader political-economic context by voicing a number of critical concerns: How does a space like Rajarhat emerge as if out of nowhere? What are the requirements for creating a space like Rajarhat? And, following from it, what are the logistical requirements of a New Town as such? Building on examples from the global context — Amsterdam, France and Pakistan — and also examples from the national context, Samaddar sought to chase questions of governmentality on a wider canvass linking it up to the case of Rajarhat.


The discussion that followed picked up and emphasized the issue of ‘newness’, so to speak, in the idea of a new town. What constitutes this ‘new’? How does power produce ‘new space’? Sandro Mezzadra argued that a search for antecedents of Rajarhat, especially if the field were to be global, would definitely throw up a number of examples. In this sense, nothing, no political or historical event/ phenomenon, can literally be ‘new’. However, the nub of the matter inheres in the nature of emphasis — whether one chooses to emphasize continuity or discontinuity. For Mezzadra, in the case of Rajarhat, what is central is the issue of discontinuity; a disconnect, that is, between Kolkata and New Town, a process of bordering that is at work to carve out a new space that will be unconnected to Kolkata but linked to the global processes of economy. Building on Mezzadra’s comments, Pierangelo Schiera stressed the distinction between town and territory. Territory and land used to be a legitimate precondition to power. However, in politico-economic formations like the New Town this precondition has become irrelevant; the New Town does no longer have to be materially connected to territory. In this inheres its ‘newness’.


Samita Sen insisted on taking a more composite perspective rather than one which severely distinguished between the new and the old, the mighty and the meek. She argued that the inherent assumption in the creation of the New Town was to have a cheap service economy around it to make the IT hub viable. Unlike in the USA, where the idea of new townships was based on the abolition of the poor, here it was based on what may be called the invisibilization of the poor. Of course, this did not work smoothly as migrant workers stepped in and older residents resisted. For Sen, then a comparison between Rajarhat and other global instances can work only if the right kind of question is asked: that is, how does the politics of ‘newness’ work out on the ground in comparable cases?


Mouleshri Vyas picked up the example of the experiment of conurbation carried out in Navi Mumbai. It did not really work out in terms of decongestion of residences and offices in ‘Mumbai proper’; today, in Navi Mumbai, one sees a mixed population of dispossessed original residents and new residents. Drawing from this example, Vyas wondered if it was more fruitful to think in terms of the future these townships promise. Can these ‘new’ townships persist in their clean-green self-image? Or, would they inevitably end up with segregated spaces within themselves, whatever the mighty designs of the powers that be?


The second session began with a brief but incisive elaboration of the logic of labour organization and arrangement by Samita Sen. She spanned the colonial and postcolonial periods to bring out the alternating patterns of attempts at stabilization, on the one hand, and attempts at casualization of labour, on the other. In the traditional (that is pre-capitalist-colonial) logic of labour arrangement, the dominant trope was to settle and stabilize labour. The logic of having guilds, for example, was to tie labour down and stabilize. The idiom of transfer from this form was the idea of freedom, by which what was meant was mobility. This provides an entry into new labour relations in late colonial India — excessive mobility as witnessed among indentured labourers, migrants and those moving between rural and urban contexts. However, the British colonists, who presided over this highly mobile labour, continued to believe that labour was fixed — a paradox which shaped labour perception in colonial India and later historiography. In late colonial India, this paradox also spawned two divergent and dominant kinds of labour régime: one that related to expensive labour, that is plantation and mining labour, which was subjected to huge amounts of regulation; another, cheap labour, which was not deemed necessary to formally recruit or control, thus generating a highly casualized labour force across both the rural and urban industries. Both these labour régimes began to be formalized from the 1920s. The new logic of this stabilization of labour was versed in the idiom of protection of labour. After 1947, this process intensified. As such, the period from the 1920s to the 1990s can be termed, according to Sen, the age of regulations. From the 1990s, however, under the aegis of a neoliberal dispensation, what one witnesses is a new phase of casualization of labour which harks back to older régimes.


Byasdeb Dasgupta, who spoke after Sen, chose to disagree with Sen’s characterization of the ‘1920s-1990s’ period as a period of protection of labour. For him, this was a period of collaboration of capital and labour in the interest of national capital. Since global capital has now spread its wings and become overwhelmingly hegemonic, the older régime of collaboration has become unnecessary and has, therefore, broken down. In the case of Rajarhat, Dasgupta insisted that the mutuality of the global and the local have to be understood: how the global and the local are co-constitutive and how transit labour becomes indispensible for the operation of this ‘new space’.


Mouleshri Vyas took the discussion of the formation and operation of such ‘new spaces’ to Mumbai. Focussing on the planning for poor, she laid down three key aspects: the nature of migration into the city; the sectoral nature of labour; and, governance of labour. Within the grid of these three aspects, she sought to situate migrant labour in Mumbai. Through her study of moving labour for municipal classes, workers on trains (suburban trains, she argued, constitute a fuzzy space between the legal and the illegal) and the 32 resettlement colonies as enclaves in urban neighbourhood, she proposed that transit labour has only a fleeting contact with the city. They may have worked in the city for years but, ultimately, their mode of reckoning with the city was ephemeral as snow on running water. This idea of temporariness and detachment, perhaps, harks back to Ishita Dey’s earlier concept of ‘footloose labour’. Building on this detached nature of transit labour, Vyas asked an interesting question: Do cities really acknowledge that there are large populations in transit, coursing diurnally through their bodies politic?


Response of a kind to this question was articulated in the presentation of the next speaker, Ramesh Babu. His observations were on the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi. He recounted the grim tale of how, on the one hand, Delhi, as an industrial space, is steadily disappearing; workers are gradually being pushed out. On the other hand, the construction boom in the NCR is drawing in major streams of migrant workers through social networks or through recruitment agents. A growing city also engenders middle- and upper-class anxiety about security. So the recruiting agents are also put to work to bring in another type of labour — the security guards. However, the lot of the construction workers is not very different from that of their industrial counterparts. Once they have performed their function, they are mostly pushed out. ‘Mangoes, sucked dry’ (chusa hua aam) is the uncharitable phrase that is used to describe such construction workers who, once they have done their work, are asked to move out. Even while they are engaged in construction, human-rights violation is rampant; accidents are patently underreported. It has also to be noted that many of these workers do not move out of their own volition. The citizens want their city clean and oftentimes the filth is identified in the figure of the ‘dirty workers’. So massive slum-removal drives take place supported by the middle class. The ingrate prerogatives of the middle class do not go unopposed. A lot of labour unrest has burgeoned in the NCR and they are not necessarily unconnected, avers Babu. On balance, however, the state and the middle-class society’s hostile attitude towards workers is the predominant mood in the NCR.


Suhit Sen disagreed with Byasdev Dasgupta’s characterization of the ‘1920s-1990s’ period as one of collaboration between labour and capital. There is, he pointed out, overwhelming evidence of labour struggles, and the fruits they bore, to allow a comfortable subsumption of the period as one of collaboration. Swati Ghosh, on her part, felt that Dasgupta’s global-local binarism was too neat and that both the categories needed to be unpacked to trace out their historical mutuality. Mithilesh Kumar wondered if Ramesh Babu’s argument that Delhi as an industrial space was disappearing was historically tenable. It could be that manufacturing had not really disappeared but had continued, albeit in a changed form. However, it was Sandro Mezzadra who raised a point that had by the end of the first two sessions become patently obvious. He observed that the way in which — the conceptual framework within which — transit labour was originally envisaged by the Research Platform had been expanded and nuanced by the different invocations of it by the various speakers and commentators. It had also become undeniable that transit labour cannot be studied unless various forms of migration are addressed.


The third session witnessed Mezzadra taking a stand against comparison as a method of understanding transit labour. In his opinion, comparison takes the unity and stability of the objects (or ideas) to be compared as granted — an aspect which was, perhaps, in evidence in Byasdev Dasgupta’s global-local binarism. Transit labour, however, maintained Mezzadra, materialized at a moment of instability, marked as it were by process and transition. As such, he felt that the Research Platform will have to provide new tools, devise new methods, beyond comparison to understand the processes of transit labour. Transit labour, and the new political formation of spaces that it aids, need a new theoretical arsenal, so to speak. Mezzadra suggested that one way of devising this new method was in terms of ‘resonance’ rather than comparison: one need frameworks in which one can make concepts (such as transit labour) resonate across material contexts. Rather than a comparison of different material contexts (which presupposes a disjunction) if one were to emphasize resonance, then, perhaps, one can begin to imagine a new politics of labour even after the constitutive heterogeneity of transit labour has been conceded. To illustrate his point, he drew on the productive, yet understated, dialogue between the various speakers of the day and also presented examples from the experiences of the Research Platform in China.


Ned Rossiter echoed Mezzadra in arguing that certain social-scientific categories used to understand labour in the formal sector are no longer germane to the transmuted material context. Yet, they continue to be used because of the hegemonic status they have attained. He made a distinction between labour in transit and labour in situ; the latter has securities while the former presides over the disappearance of the formal sector. As such, the tools that apply to the study of formal-sector labour organization cannot be used for an understanding of transit labour. Anja Kanngeiser and Tatiana Terranova, through discussions of their fields of research, indicated how the ‘new approach’ delineated by Mezzadra and Rossiter could be taken up and applied to varied material contexts.


The day of debate and deliberation on transit labour in diverse material and geographical contexts ended with the screening of Amader Jomite Oder Nagari (Their Township on Our Land), a film by Pramod Gupta and Nilotpal Datta on Rajarhat. It had, perhaps, become clear by then that the question of transit labour, like most vexed categories of social-scientific inquiry, was not amenable to any singular, monolithic articulation — such an articulation rendered all the more impracticable by the inherent slipperiness, so to speak, of the category itself on the ground. The mood was, perhaps, captured best by Samita Sen’s statement. With true epigrammatic brilliance, Sen stated that the term ‘transit’ is situated at an intersection between transition and the transitory: the former, a noun that resists any ontological substantiation; the latter, an adjective that deflects any attempt at rendering ‘labour’ amenable to conceptual-categorical imperatives of older social-scientific modes of analysis.