Tracing the Trajectory of Informal Migrant Labour

From the precolonial to the postcolonial period

Picture Credit – Anirban Paul

The blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifices of the cities are built.

Mahatma Gandhi

Growth and prosperity of any nation-state are dependent heavily upon its working-class population. Labour acts as the vehicle of development not just for the advancement of the state’s economy, but also in the transformation of social relations along with the changing modes of production.

While labour as a strand of history has been studied in great detail, its ambit of study remains limited. The thrust of the scholars has largely been confined to trade unions and industrially organised labouring class. The lives of the informal migrant labour have hence come to be overshadowed despite constituting the bulk of the Indian working class. In this paper, thus, I would attempt to trace the historical development of the migrant labour from the precolonial to the postcolonial era in parallel with the historical development experience of India.

The independence struggle marked a watershed movement in Indian history. But the independence of the country did not mark a clear disjuncture from the previously accepted normative functioning of the society. Breaking away from the fetters of the colonial way of life meant redefining the political and economic mindset of the country. A reassessment of the past was important, hence to study the conditions of the populace not from the imperialist or the nationalist framework of the colonisers and the elite Indian class and its leaders, but the experiential lens of the people themselves. However, the concept of ‘people’s history’ came to be pioneered much later in the 1970s and 1980s through the rise of the subaltern school. As D.D. Kosambi put it, history from below takes into cognizance the “essential ways of life of whole people”, as opposed to the history of colonial events of wars, battles, and treaties.

Hence, the subaltern school marked a decisive shift in the study of the Indian working class. It moved away from the documentation of trade unions to documenting the experiences of the unorganised labour in the backdrop of an increasingly changing socio-economic society of the colonial period.

In the purview of the unorganised labouring class, migration as a social reality has recently garnered interest with scholars charting out migratory patterns, hardships of the rural labour in urban settings, and the gendered division of labour in the face of migration. Ian J. Kerr has, in his work “On the Move: Circulating Labor in Pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial India”, made a vital differentiation between migratory and circulatory labour. While circulating labour can be seen as a subset of migratory labour, both are fundamentally different since the former denotes a much more frequent pattern of movement from one settlement to another. The difficulty in capturing this movement thus magnifies and explains the absence of literature on a vast population of circulatory workers, such as weavers, artisans, and most importantly, construction labourers.

Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Period

The study of construction workers from the pre-colonial era itself constitutes a large but ignored a subset of unorganised labour in the history of India. Construction as a tool of development from the 1800s onwards mobilised large swaths of rural labouring poor to the urban centres. It is imperative to note at this juncture that our understanding of the transition of migratory labour from the pre-colonial to the colonial period remains porous. The assessment of the historical continuum of the development of the construction workers serves to fill this deficit. In the pre-colonial period, migratory patterns of the construction workers were equally split between rural to rural and rural to urban migration.

In the Mughal period, the construction labourers formed a heterogeneous group, some being locals and others having been brought from far-flung areas. Women and children performed unskilled labour such as carrying of construction material from one place to another. Another distinct feature of labour in the precolonial and especially the Mughal era was their mobility along with the court. Merchants, artisans, chefs, household servants, and army men who were dependent upon the patronage of the king for their sustenance accompanied him and his mobile court to different cities and capitals. This regular flow of labour was a testament not just to the loyalty of the subjects to the ruler, but to the secure livelihood that his patronage guaranteed to them.

One such community was the Banjara community. They transported arms and ammunition to the battlefield and enjoyed a special status under the Mughal and the Sultanate rulers. However, at the turn of the century, colonial forces came to exercise more power and control over the migrating population and aimed to reduce communities like the Banjaras to a sedentary peasant lifestyle.

Mobility of labour as a consequence of capitalist development is restricted through the use of direct coercion or contracts (such as indentured labour). This is especially true for societies going through a transition from pre-capitalist to a capitalist mode of production. Thus, there was a three-pronged reasoning behind the colonial masters envisaging a sedentary agricultural lifestyle for the rural population. (i) Firstly, It was easy to establish and impose regulatory governing structures over a settled population. (ii) Extracting revenue from the agricultural land thus becomes systematically simpler. (iii) Furthermore, the British could administer based upon their needs and demands the type of crops that were to be grown on the agricultural land. This, in turn, further entrenched the roots of capitalism in the then society.

Logically then, the migrant lifestyle of communities like the Banjaras and Wuders did not fit into the ambit of the society as envisaged by the British. Their livelihood patterns were seen as a threat to the existence and sovereignty of the regime. The implementation of provisions like the Criminal Tribes Act (Act XVII of 1871) was a manifestation of this fear. Through such provisions, the British managed to create a stigma around these communities by adopting a less accommodating stance on them and going to the extent of notifying them as criminal tribes and clans. Their activities were watched and legal mechanisms to control them and mould their lifestyle into an ‘acceptable’ way of life were stringently implemented.

The working conditions of this sedentary agricultural way of life, however, were subpar. The wages in the high colonial period of an average farmer wasn’t sufficient for him to sustain his household. Deprivation of proper wage made the male of the family look for another job away from his land and village, making him a ‘slave in the city, and a sharecropper in the village’, thus experiencing the worst of both worlds. The demand for a large number of workers required for constructing canals, reservoirs, commercial and private infrastructure in cities such as Delhi was fulfilled by this migratory labouring class emanating from villages of Bikaner and Rajasthan, as well as rural areas of North India. Their deplorable condition is highlighted in the findings of the Royal Labour Commission Report wherein a member of the commission found an emaciated, naked 11-year-old boy working for 2 annas per day.

It is argued by many that the pre-existing mobile and wage work economy had allowed the labourers to transition into an increasingly capitalist mode of production brought in by the British. This is remarked by Marx as the formal subsumption of labour under capitalism. But this subsumption led to a definite loss of the culturally distinctive lifestyle of the migratory communities. The loss of their unique way of life is best traced in their oral history of folk songs sung in residential spaces like the bastis of East India, chawls of Maharashtra, and ahatas of Kanpur. These songs narrate the lament of a simpler life back at home, and a longing for their agricultural land. In these oral histories, push factors like famine, crop failure, and seasonality of crops have also been blamed for the labourer’s misery. The oral history documented from the weaver class talks of the ruthless competition faced by them due to the displacement of mechanised handloom by the industrial mill, which forced them to seek employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, the village artisans had to share the same fate.

Later, through the shared thread of a common fate, industrial workers drew a sense of community and solidarity during periods of hardships. The workers at times, especially during the high points of the Indian National Movement, united as a cohesive front against the exploitative conditions of the industrial mills, ranging from bare minimum wages to hapless working conditions which at times also manifested into violent struggles against the established status quo. Just like in the 1770s when the thousands of weavers in South India had abandoned looms to protest the changes in the structure of merchant contracts that had reduced the weavers’ profits, the workers of the Kanpur Mill went on a strike against the increasingly regressive wages in 1919. Such strikes and protests became a common occurrence during the high points of the Indian National Movement.

Post-Colonial Period

India attained independence during the tumultuous post-second world war period. The economy of many parts of the world was in shambles. The reverberations of the economic downfall of India due to its exploitative colonial experience were felt throughout all Indian industries. The culmination of the Indian National Movement, it was hoped, would bring inequitable development to all strata of the society including the informal labour class.

Within the ambit National Planning Committee set up in 1940 and led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a working group comprising of R. Mukerjee, V. V. Giri, A. Sarabhai, and N. M. Joshi–a prominent trade union politician–was constituted to deliberate upon the question of labour. Despite Gandhi’s continuous thrust on the village community and labour, the rural agricultural class and the interwoven crafts and trades were largely ignored. These communities also formed a major chunk of the migratory workers. The working group’s recommendations for advancing the prerogative of the first five-year plan were limited to reforms in the industrial sector, as it was believed by the planners that India’s GDP could grow only with a strong backbone of the industrial labour class behind it. In lieu of modernising the economy, a deliberate shift was made from the agrarian-rural way of life to the one earmarked by urbanism and industrialisation.  Labour, thus, came to be understood merely in tandem with industries, and benefits of health, safety, and labour rights were extended only to the industrial class.

The factory workers in the post-colonial period then formed a small part of the migratory class and an even minuscule part of labour in total. Plantation coolies, mineworkers, hawkers, artisans, weavers were the disregarded class who many-a-times settled on the periphery of the urban towns to where they had flocked in hope for a stable living. Their living conditions were inadequate and were highly dependent on the fragility of demand and supply in the market. Prolonged periods of low demands forced many of these worker classes to accept the exploitative terms of mill and factory employers. In Kanpur, for example, weavers daily commuted from their place of residence in the countryside to work under the wretched conditions of the garment factories.

Despite the enactment of the Minimum Wages Act of 1948, the factory owners dispersed wages below the minimum fixed wage. The situation seems direr when one takes into account that the first ones to flock to the city mills and factories were the poorest of landowners or the landless. In terms of the social demography of the factory workers, Morris D. Morris notices a shift from the pre-colonial period. In his work ‘Labour Market In India’, he sheds light on the heterogeneous nature of the caste of the workers in the Bombay Cotton Mill, wherein the workforce reflected the caste composition of the urban centre and did not necessarily belong to the lower strata. It can be said then, that in the post-colonial period concerns of caste earlier raised by the employers were now replaced with consideration for the education level of the workers.

The reassessment and realignment of parameters by the employers rendered the uneducated female workforce who had migrated from their rural villages to the urban centres as jobless. Women also bore the brunt of progressive measures of the state namely the fixing of the minimum wage which necessitated their retrenchment back to the villages or to the countryside where they performed menial, informal labour functions of stitching, weaving, construction work, etc.

Persistence of such informal and non-proletariat forms of labour suggests continuities in the life of labourers for decent, dispersed, and casual forms of production and employment even after independence. Even when the envisaged Nehruvian socialist framework of the economy failed and the productive forces had driven away from the socialist ordering, the term labour continued to hold the connotation of the urban, organised economy.

The changing perspective and the broadening of the Indian labour history from the factory labour to the vast informal sector from the liberalisation period onwards is, but merely a consequence of steady casualisation of labour. Major policy shifts from 1991 have led to deregulations and consequent restructuring of production patterns and employment relations. The security of employment is a thing of the past. High levels of growth have been marked by low levels of employment leading to large scale distressed rural-urban migrations.

Programmes like MNREGA have managed to arrest the scale of migration to a certain extent by guaranteeing 100 days of work in a year to the rural poor. Loopholes in the provisions of the programme, however, have been exploited by the states. Unevenness in the program’s on-ground implementation across states also poses a problem. In states such as Tamil Nadu, while social welfare measure like maternity care, free gas stoves and gas supply, have been enacted, the state remains lax in implementing schemes like MNREGA and labour laws in general. Wage payments below the fixed minimum wage coupled with high inflation rates have thus led to an otherwise effective scheme becoming redundant.

We thus trace how the historical development of the labour class has been riddled with economic haplessness and an ever-increasing uncertainty of employment. Even after seventy-three years of independence, the informal and migratory labour of the Indian workforce has been unable to realise the sentiment of freedom in the ambit of their personal lives and continues to be exploited by the nexus of the state and private corporations.

(Chitra Rajpal is a First Year student of Master’s Programme in Public Policy at NLSIU. She has pursued her undergraduate in History from Hansraj College, DU. She is interested in the domain of labour and education within policy’s ambit, and likes to describe herself as a people’s person. She can be reached at )


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