DFG project “Divisions of Labour. Histories of Formalisation and Informalisation in the Transition to Postcolonial India”

Prof. Ravi Ahuja, head of the research group “Modern Indian History”, was awarded € 408.000 for a research project on the divisions among India's labour force.

The divisions among India's labour force are deep by any comparison, but how did they emerge historically? By examining this question, the project interrogates an entrenched orthodoxy that informs contemporary global debates on ‘informality’ and ‘precarity’: the notion that India's contemporary labour market is cleanly split into a binary and static structure: a (modern and miniscule) formal and a (traditional and titanic) informal 'sector'.

Through a historical reconstruction of the connected processes of formalization and informalization, two hypotheses will be tested:

I. that labour laws and other regulatory structures, often created in the middle decades of the twentieth century, were instrumental for the emergence of sharp, multiple and only relatively stable divisions within the wage-dependent workforce in terms of work relations, social security, mobility, status and income;

II. that these regulatory structures had no unmediated and uniform impact on social relations but were articulated divergently by contending social actors resulting in further differentiation.

The research is thus conducted at two levels: (a) at the level of regulation in order to identify major structures conditioning labour market segmentation and (b) at the level of articulation in order to grasp how these regulatory structures were applied in a conflictual process to variegated social settings.
At the first level, the project examines two key aspects of the regulatory scenario that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s: first, the impact of legal complexity on the creation of multiple divisions within the workforce—specifically of the wide array of conflicting labour laws enacted by the central and state governments; second, the effects the regulation of wages had for differentiation processes.
At the second level, one regional case study and one cross-sectional study investigate how this regulatory scenario was articulated in a plurality of forms under the vastly differing conditions of Indian regions and industries. The case study focuses on the Delhi region that acquired industrial significance comparatively late and where processes of formalization and informalization occurred simultaneously. It recovers how this history is remembered in the neighbourhoods of non-agricultural workers. The cross-sectional study confines itself to a single aspect, namely the increasing juridification of industrial relations in early postcolonial India and the concomitant marginalization of ‘informally’ employed workers in trade unions, while comparing the differential articulation of this process according to regional and political conditions.
The project will involve several cooperation partners to integrate other regional perspectives and preserve its collections for future research in a Digital Repository of Indian Labour Law.