Impressions from a visit to Babripur Village, connected to the Delhi industrial belt by two generations of labour migration.
There are lot of ‘village case studies’ being published, contributing to the debate on ‘class stratification’ and general changes of the old village structure. There is less debate – and less empirical work – on the question of how urban wage work impacts on village conditions and vice versa. Based on his research in Gujarat, Breman states that ‘the landless lack resources in order to make the jump into urban wage work’, but this might not be the general case.
A classical position states that the ‘landed’ worker, who comes to the urban industrial landscape and shares the same experience of work with his landless co-worker, will mentally and materially relate to the wage as ‘future capital’. He acts in the hope that the urban wages will help him to secure his social position back in the village – as a peasant or petty bourgeois engaging in trade or other business. He will be less inclined to ‘act as a worker’, he has more to lose, he doesn’t depend solely on ‘better wages’ in order to survive.
This position – although sound from a materialistic point of view – seems to lack the ‘historic dynamic element’. It reduces the experience of factory work to the relation of the worker towards his monthly payment and it does not take into account the changes within the village and the changing aspirations of ‘peasant-workers’ after the urban experience.
With similar questions we went to visit our friends village in the North-East of Uttar Pradesh, Babripur near Kadipur, about 80km from Sultanpur. The following is a rather impressionistic account between ganna harvest and buffalo grazing, less of an empirical study.
There are about 5,000 people living in Babripur. Around half of the village population own around 0.5 hectar, there are few ‘landless’. Electricity and tube wells arrived around 20 years ago, there are only three to four tractors in Babripur. Most peasants engage in multiple agricultural production: sugar cane, pulses, wheat, potatoes, mustard, vegetables. Although Delhi is quite far away – around 800 km or 14 hours by train – labour migration from Babripur area towards Delhi and Faridabad started in the mid-1960s and has been passed on to the next generation. We met two old workers who both left Babripur area in order to work in Faridabad factories in the 1970s. One worker belongs to the Brahmin caste, the other to the ‘Scheduled Caste’ (Dalit).
“My grandfather – besides working as an artisan – had an additional income as an exorcist. This had been a family tradition for some 150 years or so. As a kid I would gather people around him, sometimes up to 100, and he would perform his miracles. On his deathbed he told us that we should not continue this family tradition, that it was useless work. My father had too little land to work on, he got engaged in leather contract work. I myself managed to get a government job, I would go around and collect certain kinds of taxes. I then worked as a bus conductor. There were problems – a lot of wheeling and dealing connected to this types of jobs – so I decided to go to Faridabad to work. Initially I was rather na•ve, I thought that I would not have to stick to one job too long, because there seemed to be many jobs on offer. I had a dozen different jobs during the first years. Then Emergency came, they erased the slum settlement where I used to live. We built a new place a bit further out. At that time it was not too expensive to ‘but some unauthorised land’ and to build a small house. I got a permanent job and stuck with it till the company closed in the 1990s. I am retired now, I still live in Faridabad, we have two small houses here. My children had a good education, they now all work, one is an engineer, the other runs a shop”.
“My grandfather performed religious ceremonies, he was also the head of the village council of Babripur after 1947. He implemented the land reform, some land was redistributed. Before the land reform hardly any of the Scheduled Caste members had land, after the reform around 60 per cent had at least some land. My father did farming. He built the house we now live in. He had three sons, there were about eight hectares of land. I decided to leave the village and work in Faridabad. I started working in a plastic factory. In the late 1980s I returned. My daughter got married, both sons live in Delhi. What is our situation now? We have four buffalos to take care of, they give us milk and we can sell some. We have four hectares of land, some potato, some rice, some sugar cane and so on. Most of our food comes from the fields – what we don’t consume, we sell. The money income from agriculture is unstable. Take the example of a 0.5 hectare potato field. A good harvest will provide you with 10 to 12 tons of potatoes. You might manage two harvests a year, depending on weather. Production costs are around 20,000 Rs, this includes the labour we hire, the seeds, the fertilizer, the petrol for the tube well and so on. You can imagine the market rate for a kilo of potato? It will hardly be more than 3 Rs. So this is our basic situation: there is little surplus, my wife and me still work either around the house or taking care of the machinery and organise the field-work. The actual field-work is done by wage workers. We pay them 100 Rs a day. We used to pay them 50 Rs, but when NREGA came in, they demanded 100 Rs and we paid them. They obviously live in worse conditions here in the village, in smaller huts – and they depend on wage work, having little land themselves. Our situation as small peasants depends on previous wage work: some of the machinery has been bought be wage savings. If prices change – either of produce or of wages of the rural labourers – we might be forced to either reduce hired labour or to compensate the loss by our own wage work. Our condition is the suicidal condition of millions”.
The routes of labour migration have been inherited by the next generation. By chance, during a stroll through the fields, we met several ‘(ex-)workers’ from Gurgaon and Delhi.
“I am from the same (Brahmin) family. I worked seven-eight years as a metal polisher in an export company based in Okhla. I came back to the village two years ago, I think I came back for good. I am 28 years old now and I run this mobile phone shop.”
“I belong to the same caste. I left Babripur in 2000 and started working as a supervisor at FCI. I came back last year, I bought some extra-land. I don’t think I will go back to Gurgaon.”
“I normally work at Orient Craft in Gurgaon. I am here for a short visit, my family has little land in Babripur, I help with the harvest, although it does not amount to much. I also do some extra-work repairing machines for other people in the village.”
“I worked as a temporary worker at Honda HMSI in Manesar. The company interrupted my employment two months ago – they enforced a break of one, two months in order not to have to grant permanent employment. I will stay here for another month or so and then go back to my uncle in Manesar. I might try to get a job at Honda again.”
While the old ‘peasant’ comrade says that the ‘progressive’ industrial workers’ consciousness is wiped out as soon as workers get back to their village and re-enter the old village hierarchies, we think it is quite astonishing how direct the exchange between the village and the industrial zones have become. We can also see that ‘the land question’ clutches the new generation of workers from two sides and defines the more precarious status compared to their fore-mothers-and-fathers: it is not only more difficult to survive as a small scale peasant, it is also near to impossible to buy land in Delhi-Faridabad-Gurgaon area in order to ‘settle down’ in a family home. Wages are relatively lower and land prices have gone up.
A week after the return from Babripur we distributed Faridabad Majdoor Samachar in Manesar and asked workers whether they have heard of the 24 hours wildcat strike at Honda HMSI in December. Most workers haven’t heard of the incident, even those workers who work in the main supplier just across the road from Honda factory. It seems that proletarian organisation will not only have to be based – and can be based! – on the urban and rural exchange, but that it sometimes will have to help crossing the street…