South Asia Brown Bag Series Spring 2020: The Political Economy of Casual Labour: Work, Famine, and Public Works in the North-Western Provinces of Colonial India 1860-1920

Event time: 
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Henry R. Luce Hall (LUCE ), 203 See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Calendar Speaker/Performer: 
Amal Shahid, International History, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
Event description: 

During the colonial era, the Indian subcontinent suffered repeated scarcities, droughts, and famines. Besides charitable relief, the way the government provided relief to the famine-affected population was by placing them on construction of public works, especially construction of railways and irrigation systems, and sometimes roads. My research analyses the colonial famine policy of employing labourers on public works, and, in the process, explores conditions and nature of work in construction for casual famine workers from 1860-1920. By examining recruitment practices, work supervision, labour supply, and labour resistance, I aim to assess famine policies of the colonial state.
The timeline of my research is c.1860 to 1920, a period marked by scarcities and famines in the following years in North Western Provinces alone: 1860-1, 1869-70, 1874, 1877, 1892, 1896-7, 1899-1901, 1907, 1913-14, and 1918. I use the case of the North-Western Provinces in India which had the highest investment in public works, 1 and, given the protective and preventive aims of the public works construction policy, paradoxically, the most famines. I will show how famine periods provided favourable conditions for construction of public works by reducing labour costs: that is, lowering wages, as well as costs of mobilisation and supervision. This was done by paying the workers a subsistence wage to prevent death, for menial and unskilled work such as digging or carrying. For this I rely on published committee reports, official publications, public works department and famine department papers, minutes of proceedings, newspapers and private correspondences.