The moral standard of state and society: T.G. Narayanan Memorial Lecture on Social Deprivation – Gujarat

By Jan Breman

The moral standard of state and society can be deduced from the way people are treated who are not productive anymore and have no assets of their own. Missing the means for self-providence includes all those among the labouring poor who are disabled either because of old age, defective health or other handicaps that prevent them for working for their livelihood. With the introduction of the Informal Workers’ Security Act the Government of India seemed to acknowledge that people without means of livelihood were entitled to state provisions if they had lost their labour power to gain an income. However, the act passed by the end of 2008 was not the beginning of a right-based approach to solve the problem of improvidence. It merely enabled states to incorporate various schemes and programmes which were already in place in different parts of the country for vulnerable categories in a nation-wide framework and back them up with central funding.

What were the arrangements made in the past for providing sustenance to the labouring poor when they lost the capability to work? My presentation will focus on West India where I have carried out fieldwork in both rural and urban localities during the past half century. From the pre-colonial era onwards members of the tribal Halpati caste in south Gujarat used to be attached as farm servants to the main landowners of higher castes. Engaged in a condition of bondage they had a right to livelihood and received social benefits in exchange for serving their patrons dutifully and loyally in a relationship of life time duration which was passed on from generation to generation. In addition to their daily wages paid in kind, the labouring poor were entitled to their basic needs in the slack season or when they were not fit to work due to illness or old age. The terms of engagement extended to provisions which enabled the halis to take care of life cycle events and other social obligations. Thus, patronage and exploitation were the opposite ends of an arrangement which allowed for the cost of social reproduction at the bottom of the agrarian economy and facilitated a culture of domination imposed by the high-caste landowners in the peasant society that was India. Labour bondage, of course, also implied that people without access to land had to relinquish their freedom and to accept subordination in order to be secured of their livelihood. Once agricultural production became more capitalist in nature, and not labour but land became a scarce commodity, a process of depatronization started which left the former clients in a condition of isolation. The landowners did not feel obliged any longer to guarantee the livelihood of their subordinates. The government turned out to be reluctant to take over the functions of patronage, especially the provision of protection and security. The landless class was excluded from the land reform operation that was carried out shortly after independence and had no other option but to continue working for wages that were barely enough to survive. Thus, at the start of my village-based fieldwork in the early 1960s, I found the rural proletariat of south Gujarat in a state of pauperization.

In the long transition to a monetized and more diversified economy structured along capitalist lines of production the small contingent of the workforce which found access to the slowly emerging formal sector of employment in the urban economy qualified for benefits meant to improve the plight of the working class. Mahatma Gandhi, as the founding father of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad which emerged as the leading trade union in colonial India, insisted that the worker’s pay should be enough for the basic needs of his family. Gandhi’s demand for a fair wage included social care provisions such as retirement benefits, health insurance as well as a dearness allowance to compensate for the rising cost of living. The benefits gained in the first decades after Independence were the outcome of legislation introduced to strengthen the bargaining power of labour, in particular of the small segment which got organized. […]

The garib kaliyan mela have the character of poor out-relief which is haphazardly distributed or denied. What have been announced as statutory rights are downgraded as favours and doles in practice. My conclusion is that the social welfare package as handled by the government of Gujarat is no substitute for the shortfall in income and work and hardly makes a dent in the misery of the most vulnerable. How to improve the fate of a massive army of reserve labour which is structurally redundant in a thoroughly liberalized market economy and beyond the protection of a government which condones rather than resists a social hierarchy based on an ingrained ideology of inequality? Fair enough, what is going on in Gujarat cannot be generalized for India as a whole. For the reasons stated, dynamics which are more hopeful can be detected elsewhere. While conceding that the poverty of the down and out seems to be addressed with more success in some other parts of the vast South Asian subcontinent, mainly in the southernmost states, I also have to point out that Gujarat is not a unique case of growing prosperity at the top and ongoing misery at the bottom. To suggest that she social question in India is held in a state of abeyance is an understatement. In my perception the economic and political trend is still marked more by a morale of exclusion than of inclusion.

Source: “Caring for destitution or not?”: T.G. Narayanan Memorial Lecture on Social Deprivation by Jan Breman, The Hindu, January 19, 2013
Address :
Date Visited: 13 December 2021

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Backup file: Read the entire lecture by Jan Breman here (PDF, 100 KB)

Publication by Jan Bremen

Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present
280 pages; ISBN13: 978-0-19-568521-3ISBN10: 0-19-568521-0

About the Author

Utilizing his fieldwork done in south Gujarat between 2004 and 2006, Jan Breman critically analyses the historical roots of the ongoing subordination of the rural poor in what has come to be recognized as a booming economy.

Jan Breman, Professor of Comparative Sociology, Amsterdam School of Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam (Emeritus)

Source: Oxford University Press: Labour Bondage in West India: Jan Breman
Address :
Date Visited: Tue Jan 29 2013 01:15:29 GMT+0100 (CET)

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India ( | Learn more >>
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“The contribution of [over 200,000] charities—which range from small concerns to vast India-wide networks—to development and the individual lives of millions of poor Indians is incalculable. Activist groups helped India gain independence in 1947 and have since helped restrain the state’s excesses and compensate for its weaknesses.” – Civil society in India >>

“Doctors in the region [Palakkad district] argue that while the proportion of people with mental illnesses is not unusually high, the problem is a crisis because of their socioeconomic vulnerability.” […] “The non-inclusivity of Adivasis is nothing but racial discrimination. Adivasis were always ruled.” | In-depth analysis ( 5 April 2023) >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

[…] Jan Breman, having studied cultural anthropology and non western sociology was highly critical about mainstream development economics and about policy planning, development programming and shaping society in general. […]

Jan Breman never resorts to a superficial critique of global capitalism, but presents a well documented analysis of its devastating effects. The high quality of his studies, his persistent analyses, and the example that he has given as a consistent and dedicated field researcher, determined to render the voice of those who, in the view of others, hardly count on the social and economic scale, have made Jan Breman a unique scholar.

Source: Laudatio delivered on the occasion of the award to Dr. Jan Breman of the degree Doctor Honoris Causa on the 57th Anniversary of the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, 29 October 2009. Promotor: Dr. Jan Pronk
Address :
Date Visited: 13 December 2021

Learn more: Bondage | Bonded labour | Childhood | Human trafficking | SlaveryZamindari >>
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+91-11-42244224, +91-9582909025 or the national helpline Childline on 1098.

“As per a study on human trafficking, the state of Jharkhand has emerged as India’s trafficking hub with thousands of tribal women and girls being trafficked out of the state each year to Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and beyond [while] human traffickers are also involved in many cases of missing children.” – The Wire | Shakti Vahini | Tourism locations | Adivasi tribal bondage slavery trafficking (Safe search) >>

“It was assumed that tribal people have same health problems, similar needs and hence the uniform national pattern of rural health care would be applicable to them as well, albeit with some alteration in population: provider ratio. The different terrain and environment in which they live, different social systems, different culture and hence different health care needs were not addressed.” – Abhay Bang in Report of the Expert Committee on Tribal Health >>