Have we ever taken a moment to pause and unravel the intricacies that underlie the construction of “New India”? Have we stopped to take into account the individuals shouldering the weight of titles like “fastest growing economy” and “three trillion economy”? Archana Aggarwal, an economics professor at Hindu College, University of Delhi, has undertaken this task on our behalf, presenting her remarkable and meticulously researched work, Labouring Lives: Industry and Informality in New India.

Harnessing insights gained from extensive field visits to factories and the homes of workers in Gurugram, Noida, and Manesar, Aggarwal deftly entwines empirical data with poignant personal anecdotes. In this enlightening exploration, she delves deep into the complex interplay between industry and informality in contemporary India.

Aggarwal’s narrative unravels the poignant stories of the unsung labourers of India, who play an instrumental but overlooked role in the country’s evolving economic landscape as they occupy the lowest echelons of economic and social wellbeing. As we journey through the pages of the book, we are presented with insights that make an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discourse on labour dynamics, economic structures, and work during the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Landscape of labouring lives

“Labour is not just a commodity – the life and living conditions cannot be left to the vagaries of the market.”  

The author’s deep commitment to understanding the lives of labourers led her to frequently visit Kapashera over four to five years. During these visits, made her journey through narrow lanes and alleys to arrive at buildings that served as homes to the labourers. These structures, often characterised by their cramped and dimly lit rooms, stood as a stark contrast to the massive industries looming in the vicinity. With about four to five buildings housing roughly 15 to 20 rooms on each floor, the living conditions were far from ideal. The facilities were limited, with two to three latrines per floor and a solitary washing area, underscoring the challenging circumstances in which these individuals existed.

In stark juxtaposition to these living spaces were the colossal industrial complexes, concealed behind towering walls that shielded the activities transpiring within. The author’s exploration behind these walls revealed a landscape of disturbing dehumanisation. Here, both robotic technology and human workers coexisted, operating side by side. Notably, the pace of the human workers was closely dictated by the rhythm of their robotic counterparts. For instance, every minute labourers coordinate their efforts with robotic arms to collect a staggering 60 units of a product – proof of the relentless demands of the assembly line.

The author also makes notes of disparities entrenched within this system. While both permanent and contractual labourers toiled together, they were engaged in identical tasks but paid differently. The obvious difference in their wages, working conditions, benefits, and rights paints a vivid portrait of alarming inequality.

New country, old hopes

Delving deeper into the lives of two distinct industrial workers, Mohan and Jairam, Aggarwal examines the undercurrent of uncertainty in both. Despite their position at opposite ends of the industrial spectrum, both individuals are flooded by a disheartening ambiguity that shrouds their futures.

In Mohan’s case, having invested in expensive ITI training and embarking on his early working years, the anticipated dividends of his arduous education remain frustratingly elusive. On the other hand, Jairam’s two decades of unceasing labour as a tailor in a garment factory is a journey defined more by fatigue than fulfilment. Tragically, their tales encapsulate the all-too-familiar chronicles of labourers in today’s India – individuals whose ambitions of escaping the clutches of agrarian poverty through industrial toil have been met with disappointment.

The author puts forth their predicament thus: “What transpired in the evolution of the industrial workforce in India, eroding the promise of prosperity that once seemed attainable?” The question, unfortunately, remains unanswered.

Her study traces the slow yet steady march of liberalisation, an era marked by the dismantling of the public sector and ushering in private jobs with temporary, contractual roles. This seismic shift has unleashed a cascading effect, causing the exodus of jobs from the structured and safeguarded enclaves of the organised sector to the precarious realms of the unorganised sector. This transition has cast a shadow over job security, safe and healthy working conditions, and other employee benefits – commodities that have become increasingly scarce for the majority of labourers.

Jairam laments, “In two decades, I have not had the privilege of purchasing a single new shirt. Instead, I procure second-hand garments from street vendors, priced at a modest 30 to 35 rupees.” The irony of this is not lost on the readers. The very artisans who craft clothes for some of the world’s most well-known brands themselves cannot afford to buy them. With this revelation, the author presents us with a question to think about: Are the wages paid to these workers enough to fulfil their basic requirements of clothing, education, health, or even leisure?

In a time where the State seems to strive for a “New India”, Labouring Lives points to these often overlooked lives. Aggarwal’s writing seamlessly bridges the gap between scholarly rigour and accessible storytelling, making the book an indispensable read for academics, policymakers, and anyone seeking to understand India’s constantly changing economic tapestry.

Labouring Lives: Industry and Informality in New India, Archana Aggarwal, Leftword.