An excerpt from ‘Nine Rupees An Hour’, Aparna Karthikeyan’s book examining the the disappearance of livelihoods from an entire state.
P Sainath. | Wikimedia Commons
This interview with journalist P Sainath appears in the book.
How do we keep the skills associated with traditional livelihoods alive, even while dismantling the caste hierarchies that kept them going for so long?
It’s a very difficult question. There is no simple answer to it.
Destroying the caste hierarchies, to my mind, takes precedence over everything else. That said, caste in many ways represented the feudal relations of production. That’s how they formed caste around occupations. That makes it uniquely different and negatively different from many other relations of production, like capitalist relations of production.
For instance, a leather worker in Milan, Italy – for many Europhiles the centre of the fashion universe – would be recognised as a master leather worker, earning more than the CEOs of some of the smaller companies there. He would have a client list of some of the great names across the world. But his son or daughter would not be compelled to be a leather worker. They could be a rocket scientist or pizza baker or whatever. But should the child choose to take it up, they have a tremendous advantage and a great deal of respect that they earn from being part of a family that is so highly esteemed in that field.
The son of a mochi in an Indian village leads, as his father and sisters and brothers do, a wretched and miserable life stripped of any dignity, condemned to untouchability. And if he wants to try and be something different, there are powerful forces in the village that will teach him why that cannot be. Even today, it often leads to that person migrating out of the village, the countryside; but what does the person meet in the city? Class contempt. (Not that caste is absent – that is there, too). And not having other skills needed to bring them a life of dignity and fulfilment.
So what we need to do is not just destroy the caste hierarchy but simultaneously create respect for the work and labour that people do, for what they produce.
At a time when aspirations are at odds with availability of jobs, how can livelihoods absorb and employ the workforce?
Millions of people have been driven out of agriculture and agriculture-related livelihoods, in the name of development, in the name of capitalist society’s claim that those removed from agriculture would be shifted to industry.
A marginal farmer dislocated in Mandya, Karnataka is unlikely to get absorbed in the Infosys workforce even though it is an hour’s drive away. So, we have systematically destroyed existing occupations and livelihoods without creating any alternatives. This has happened to farmers, weavers, to the agrarian society at large, in some stupid illusion that industry will absorb them. No such industry exists. What manufacturing jobs have you created in the last twenty-five years of the neoliberal economic policies ruling this country?
Second, there are going to be fewer and fewer jobs in the kind of development we have undertaken. On the one hand, a lot of jobs are automated, robotised. And on the other, Artificial Intelligence is going to wipe out, on a scale we cannot imagine today, even many middle class occupations. Not just those of workers. In banks, ATMs have replaced so many jobs.
But earlier, they destroyed you in one area, because they needed you in another. Now, they’re going to have people they don’t need anywhere. Huge sections will be completely dispossessed. You haven’t a hope in hell in addressing this question within the current policy framework. You cannot address it when you’re grooming and nurturing inequality. Inequality is the womb of violence, the cradle of fundamentalism, the playground of unelected power, and the graveyard of secularism and democracy.
So there’s no chance for any of the aspirations to be met when all that ordinary people do is destroyed or discredited.
Author Aparna Karthikeyan
Why are time and skills never factored into any calculation of profit and loss, for most traditional livelihoods? Skills that involve the mind/head always factor that in; but rarely those that involve the hand.
Welcome to capitalism.
Also, it’s not just time and skills, it’s labour itself that they will not respect, because they’ve got to make their money out of the product of that labour – by exploiting that labour, by keeping the wages down. Untouchability itself is such a weapon to perpetuate a permanently demoralised gene pool of labour, whom we can exploit at will and command.
By the way, no matter what the theory on paper, one shorthand definition you can take of “unskilled” in Indian society – anything that a woman does is unskilled. In agriculture, everything that the woman does is unskilled. Problem is, women do more work. If you’re going to start paying fair, civilised, living wages, your costs are going to go up incredibly.
It’s to do with labour as a whole; their work isn’t respected, and increasingly, we’ll use weapons to break that down further. You broke that down by destroying their collective bargaining power and smashing all their unions, which did them a great deal of good. You did all that and now you suffer. What’s factored in the calculation, in the capitalistic framework, is profit. And profit depends on how much you can push your costs down. You’re going to do everything you can to see that those costs go down.
Why are the 70 per cent of Indians living outside the great metros so poorly represented in the media? Why are their stories not recorded?
Not only the poor living outside the great metros, even the poor living within are not represented in the media. National dailies publishing from Delhi devote, on average, 0.67 per cent of their front page to rural India, where 69 per cent of the population lives. Why do they do this? Because corporations have reduced journalism to a revenue stream in the last thirty years. For me, paid news, fake stuff, is not an aberration. It’s entirely true to the characteristic and logic of profit-seeking corporate media.
It’s a very different media from what emerged in the freedom struggle – the Indian Press was the child of the freedom struggle. It was idealism-driven. Its owners, its editors, were in and out of prison much of their lives. The existing media has converted itself into prisons for employees and re-education camps for their audiences. The richest man in your country is the biggest media owner. It is a continent-sized conflict of interest.
There are lots of independent journalists in those institutions; increasingly, they’re being weeded out and thrown out.
The fundamental feature of the media of our time is the growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality. Occasionally, there will be times like the Gujarat earthquake or the Kerala floods that forces them to cover things. Once in five years – we still happen to be an electoral democracy – they have to cover poor people. That’s what makes the average 0.67 per cent. You remove the election year, it falls to 0.24 per cent.
The media is the most exclusionist institution of Indian democracy, caste-wise, class-wise, gender-wise. And the kind of corporations that own them are rent-seeking, profit-seeking. There’s a huge need for diversity in the media, for democratisation of the media. The only genuine efforts that can happen are if there are major non-corporate, non-status media houses which can cover the poor and enable them to find their place in it. When that happens, it also has a forced impact on the corporate media. That they have to suddenly broaden a few things in order to meet the challenge. That’s how some of it gets into the corporate media as well.
When or how do you think traditional livelihoods can be made appealing/aspirational for the younger lot?
I think it’s not enough to make just the livelihood appealing; you have to make the idea of justice appealing. I believe it’s there in every young child and among young people, and we spend a lifetime socialising them into losing that value. Growth cannot be only in terms of output and figures. Economists who place people at the centre of their thinking tell you that you have to get your growth through justice. Not with justice, not justice as an afterthought, but growth itself has to come through justice.
Excerpted by Scroll with permission from Nine Rupees An Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu, Aparna Karthikeyan, Context.
First published by Scroll.in on 10 Oct. 2019