Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Alienating margins: Study of small-scale leather factory workers in “New India”

Saddam Hussain and Nafis Haider write

Karl Marx’s Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844 asserts that under capitalism, the worker is alienated fourfold. Alienation is the process whereby the worker is made to feel “alien” to the products of their labour and their surrounding. Marx argues that because the worker no longer owns the labour they sell, the product of work becomes an object that is both alien and hostile to the worker. Capitalism appropriates the worker’s labour; it reifies the existing social formation such that the oppression of daily life appears normal.

This can be seen very vividly in the context of Agra leather factory workers, who traditionally consisted of lower caste/class social groups like Muslims and Jatavs. Through neo-liberal policies, the traditional occupation of these social groups was institutionalized into factory units oriented towards export production. This process of institutionalisation allowed dominant social groups with the power of capital to enter into this occupation and simultaneously subjugate subaltern social groups who were bereft of any social and economic capital.

With the coming of Modi, this process of institutionalisation and alienation intensified in tandem with the rise of an aggressive politics of cultural nationalism. 

Central to Marx’s argument is that labour is an essential defining feature of humans. Marx explains that the capitalist who owns the worker’s labour belongs to a society that is predicated on the work produced by the worker. However, the worker cannot enter the world of the capitalist. Thus, the more time and effort the worker invests into the product of his labour, the more estranged the worker becomes. Necessary to this process is the construction of a political economy that is meant to conceal the estrangement intrinsic to labour by overlooking the relationship between the workers and what they produce.  


Whose growth? The facade of Neoliberal India

With the coming to power of Modi’s assertive Hindu nationalist government, however, we have seen a departure from the inclusive neoliberalism and moderately secular orientation of the prior government. Other scholars have likened this “aggressive corporatized economy” to a form of “expedited neoliberalism” that promises quick returns on investments, business-friendly policies, and overall pro-capital economic measures to benefit dominant class interests. Among the many initiatives where this is visible, Modi’s flagship “Make in India” programme with its emphasis on ease of doing business indicators and FDI inflows is probably the most well-known. Modi’s centralizing thrust thus currently puts major capitals and specific capitalists- especially those on friendly terms with Modi’s political project, in an increasingly comfortable position within the evolving political economy. Small industries and traditional workspaces, in contrast, find themselves increasingly marginalized within Modi’s strongly centralized government.

As per the scholar Epstein, capitalism in the era of neoliberalism has been “increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of domestic and international economies”. Siddiqui expands on this notion stating that the “neoliberal and corporate-led growth, with a heavy reliance on market forces for employment and welfare, have displaced the earlier policies of state-sponsored equity and created increased insecurities and tensions that scapegoat vulnerable minorities, tribal peoples and Dalit, all of whom have become easy targets for collective violence”.

The complex fusion of neoliberal economics and cultural nationalism of Hindutva has been the new narrative led by the BJP government. But this new narrative is not devoid of contradiction. This study centres around the alienation of workers and the decline of the leather industry in India to delineate the fault lines between Hindutva and neoliberalism. 

In the name of Holy Cow: Segregating workers from their work.

Since the 19th century, the Leather industry has been one of the earliest manufacturing industries which has domestic as well as international demand. In New India, this industry has come into acute trouble primarily because it is centred around the slaughter of animals, primarily cows and buffalos. The prohibition and ban on cow slaughter have therefore posed a significant threat to the small-scale leather industries and the livelihood of people associated with the leather and associated industries. They are primarily composed of Muslims and Dalits who sustain themselves through slaughtering, and tannery business. Since the decline of small-scale industries and the simultaneous rise of capitalist, Multinational corporations which feed off the export of leather, the workers are forced to move to work in MNCs where they are merely estranged/alienated labourers, detached from their product and themselves in general. The disintegration of their traditional livelihood has created a sense of alienation from themselves.  


Over 80% of the reported events of violence related to the protection of cows have been directed towards civilians. The victims of these attacks are usually those working in the cattle trade and people belonging to minority groups, including Muslims, Dalits, or Adivasi communities. The rise in stringent laws across the country has enabled the targeting of minority groups, many of whom are already particularly vulnerable to targeted violence, in the name of cow protection. Muslims and Hindus belonging to lower castes (Dalits) have often been the subject of hate speech, threats, and attacks since the BJP government came to power. These minority groups have traditionally relied on the leather, beef, and cattle industry for their livelihood, with Dalits taking on what was considered to be the lower-caste roles of disposing and skinning cow carcasses, while Muslims have traditionally run slaughterhouses and meat shops. Both Muslims and Dalits have worked in the leather and beef industry by carting cattle and as labourers in tanneries.

Cow vigilantism and new legal restrictions imposed on the transport and slaughter of cattle have amounted to a comprehensive clampdown on the cattle trade, the partial collapse of animal markets, and a concomitant inability of classes of labour to dispose of their cattle in economically sensible ways. Even in places where sales formally remain legal, the violence of vigilante groups has instilled fear among rural classes of labour who often no longer dare to sell their buffaloes or aged milk-yielding cattle for fear of reprisals. Muslim cattle transporters have become favourite targets for self-appointed cow protectors, who often work in close conjunction with the police and with the blessing of the BJP MLAs, MPs, and Ministers. Such groups have also targeted Dalits. In contrast, caste Hindu cattle and cattle transporters are generally spared. 

In Maharashtra, it has had a crippling effect on the backward caste Muslim Qureshi community of butchers, as well as animal traders, transport workers, and leather workers whose livelihoods are based on the hides, leather and cattle skins of the post-slaughter economy. The production cycles of purchase and sales of animals, crucial both for farmers’ livelihoods and sustaining cattle in the agriculture economy, have effectively collapsed, as have markets for bullocks and cows, causing huge losses to farmers.

It has been reported that the value of its meat exports dropped by USD 90 million in March 2017 alone, compared with the same month of 2016. Yet while the fall in meat supplies evidently in the short term hit the formal market of large, export-oriented actors running mechanized and well-equipped slaughterhouses, trade data suggest that cow vigilantism affected domestic consumption much more than exports. Most large actors, including several units owned by Allanasons, possessed required permits and could continue to operate legally while the informal sector collapsed. According to Ramdas, this meant that the big private players in beef in Uttar Pradesh that were created as export points have, because of the collapse of the informal sector catering to domestic consumption, now made considerable inroads also into domestic beef markets. In other words, the closure of the municipal slaughterhouses by the state government facilitated corporate concentration, insofar as small butchers selling beef became vertically integrated into export companies.

Moreover, given that buffalo meat for domestic consumption used to be overwhelmingly based on the production of fresh meat processed and sold daily, the sudden dearth of fresh meat in the market means that a market shift towards corporate producers of frozen meat products who operate at scale cannot be ruled out. Ramdas argues that we should seriously consider that government attempts to disrupt the beef trade may in effect be “a sinister mechanism for the wealth in this trade to be captured by the organized industry” at the expense of rural classes of labour.

Case study of Agra Leather Industry: Alienated being and estranged labour.

The traditional leather workers – Jatavs and Muslims continue to dominate the domestic or household footwear industry in Agra. However, they hardly have any presence in the export segment. The export industry is dominated by upper-caste Hindus, mainly Punjabis and Sindhis; upper-caste Muslims and the new entrants who are mostly the educated middle class and belonging to castes such as Baniyas and Kayasthas. Punjabi and Sindhi families entered this trade after the partition. 

Entrepreneurs from the traditional leather-making castes have not been able to make inroads into the export segment due to controlled access to resources and the inability to make huge capital investments. This is how the development of the earliest caste involved in leather production has been sidelined by upper caste/class social groups. The systematic restriction of this social group of Muslims and Jatav who were early involved in leather production whose labour value is not proportionally fulfilled with the exchange value of the commodity. 

The labours of these social groups including Muslims and Jatav are devalued and exploited in the neoliberal state under the capitalist mode of production which forms a sense of economic disenchantment among them resulting in what Marx called several forms of alienation. 

The workforce in the leather industry is dominated by the Jatavs, both in the domestic and export segments. It is very difficult to describe the industry’s workforce in numbers as no formal survey has been done and there remains a lot of ambiguity. 

In the studies conducted by the Centre for Education and Communication, India, workers of Agra have claimed that they had worked for big export units as well as in the small workshops also catering for the domestic industry or ‘civil’ as they called it. The usual trend was to start work with ‘civil’ and after gaining about a couple of years of experience, join the export units. 

Many of the younger workers noted that they still kept fluctuating between ‘export’ and ‘civil’ work. Workers had different perceptions about these. In civil, they have the freedom of movement whereas in the export unit, there is a sense of imprisonment. There is a sense of personal satisfaction attached to the civil workspace, where they do not mind working overtime since all the work is piece-rated, but in export, this is not the case. Yet the only reason for working in the export unit is the availability of work around the year whereas in civil, work is available for a maximum of 6 months in a year.

In Agra despite laws being in place, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining remains a distant realization for the workers in the leather industry. There is no unionization in the entire footwear manufacturing units in Agra. The workers are not unionized and if they try to form a union, they are removed from the work that very moment, seeing this the other workers do not try to form a union but they think that there should be a union to represent their voice regarding wage negotiations, dispute resolutions and about social security benefits. 

This decline in the small-scale tannery industry in India in general and Agra in particular firstly needs to be understood in the context of the larger policy framework of the Government of India. The thrust of the government of India’s leather policy has been employment generation and promoting the export of value-added leather products. However, it is the export focus that has consistently received more attention from the government. 

The government through its policies and incentives on the one hand promoted growth and diversification of the industry in clusters like Chennai but, on the other hand, allowed a slow decline of traditional leather tanning clusters all over the country. In the year 2000, the government dereserved tanning from the small-scale sector and also launched the Tannery Modernization Scheme (TMS). 

But this only benefited the export clusters. Centres like Agra were reduced to doing job work for export-oriented units in Chennai. This had a detrimental impact on the traditional tannery workers who were primarily involved in civic work. While they were losing their traditional occupation, entry into occupations remained restricted due to their disadvantageous status in society and low levels of education and awareness. 

The exclusive policy initiated by the government, oriented toward the export unit which is majorly owned by the dominant social classes and excludes the traditional leather tannery run by subaltern groups signifies the current condition of social formation. 

Under the capitalist mode of production, Marx states that the State is only a managerial board that keeps and balances the social system intact. The prevailing neo-liberal state system in India is no different from what has been anticipated against it. The formulation of policies like the tannery modernization scheme is a deliberate act from the state to institutionalise this traditional occupation of subalterns into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Hence, this process of systematic abolition of subaltern means of production and institutionalizing it into the hands of the bourgeoisie tends to create a sense of socio-economic disenchantment among the leather factory workers. 

Under the condition of traditional tannery production, the subaltern social groups like Muslims and Jatav are actual producers and sellers of their products in which the generation of surplus value is not exploited by any third party.

The value of labour is accompanied by the value of commodities in the market. But policies of this kind are designed or formulated in a way that seems to serve the interest of the upper strata. It systematically turns the traditional tannery production in which subalterns are actual producers, into an institutionalised system of production that easily makes the actual producer a mere labourer who can only sell their labour for their subsistence.

Saddam Hussain is a Postgraduate in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Nafis Haider is a Postgraduate in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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