Structures of unfree labor have always been at the edge of current and historical discourse on labor, mobility and caste in South Asia. This has been in focus during the COVID-led migrant crisis in India, where around 11.4 million migrant workers were forced into an exodus from urban to rural areas.

In a recent book, RADHIKA SINGHA unpacks the category of ‘menial’ labor as one structured by caste, class and race. She focuses on the massive role of Indian labor—involving 563,369 followers or non-combatants in the British Indian Army—in Mesopotamia and France during World War I.

From the book:

“In colonial civil offices, ‘menial establishment’ was the formal categorisation for the lowest rung of employees, from peons (messengers) down to file-suppliers, bhistis and sweepers. The label ‘menial’ was often used in discussion of their service conditions. In exploring this condition of ‘menial’ status, we have the benefit of a valuable body of writing which has shown how caste norms tended to hem powerless communities into the hardest and most stigmatised sectors of work regimes—even in those which were being refashioned under the drives of colonialism and capitalism. ‘Untouchability’ was thereby recast in new contexts, and low pay, degrading conditions of work, and corporal discipline were ‘naturalised.’ The attached followers found it particularly difficult to challenge their consignment to menial status because of the presence in their ranks of ‘untouchable’ castes who swept, cleaned latrines, washed clothes, and crafted leather. This was work characterised both as a ‘trade’—that is, as a caste structured specialisation—and as ‘polluting.’ Regimental followers, public and private, were, in the manner of domestic servants, expected to be constantly at hand to tend to the physical needs of their institutional superiors, who felt they had a personal right to chastise followers for inadequate service, evasion, or questioning of demands. The fact that regiments found themselves having to supplement the income of public followers and employ ‘private’ followers blurred the line between public employee and domestic servant.”

Link to the text.

  • “War propaganda often focused on the figure of the returning soldier or labourer who was shown as coming back less superstitious, more receptive to modern medicine and sanitary living, more open to new ideas about farming.”’s Rohan Venkat interviews Singha on the geography of the war and her use of archives. Link.
  • Kate Imy provides a different perspective of race and status in the British Indian army through a focus on Gurkha combatants. Link.
  • Sukanya Shantha’s reporting uncovers the continuing segregation of prisoners along caste lines and the institutional entrenchment of caste-determined labor regimes. Link. And a recent roundtable on Rupa Viswanath’s book on the nature of caste in India highlights the durability of caste as a form of labor control of the lowest orders. Link.

This top section of the newsletter was written by guest contributor Meghna Chaudhuri, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Boston College. She is working on a book about agrarian finance in South Asia, global development and the intertwining of ethical and economic subjectivity under capitalism as a form of life. Follow her on Twitter @mformanic.


Financial Inclusion & the State

In a 2020 article, PhD candidate in political science at the University of Western Ontario TYLER GIRARD examines state policies geared towards bank account ownership in the global South.

From the text:

“The dominant arguments concerning the appropriate actions by policymakers to increase financial inclusion, specifically in terms of financial regulations and policy interventions, largely reflect a ‘market-enabling’ policy framework whereby the state is meant to facilitate greater competition within the financial sector, decrease the regulatory burden on firms and avoid the direct provision of financial services through state-owned institutions. This paper will address the following question: what is the relationship between a market-enabling state policy framework and bank account ownership in the global South? This study adopts a novel and more comprehensive approach by using a modified index constructed from expert evaluations. Using ordinary least squares regression, the analysis suggests a positive relationship between a market-enabling state policy framework and increased bank account ownership among the total population, but the relationship diminishes among key subpopulations: adult women, rural adults and the poorest 40 per cent of adults.”

Link to the article, link to Girard’s profile.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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  • Join us this Tuesday, July 27 at 10am ET for a conversation on the past, present, and future of social democracy inspired by our book, Market Economy, Market Society. Featuring Stephanie Mudge, Adam Przeworski, and Wolfgang Streeck, and moderated by Waltraud Schelkle. Register here.
  • “Countries’ exports under the previous era of globalization predict over half of the variance of today’s real GDP per capita. What you exported in the past matters for where you are on the development ladder today.” New on PW, Isabella Weber on the legacy of the two globalizations. Link.
  • “Were those most impacted by COVID-19 likelier to support government interventions in public health and economic stimulus?” New research from JFI, based on polling data collected in 2020, assesses public opinion towards guaranteed income. Link.
  • “We conclude that with sustained strong demand, the US could plausibly reach an employment-population ratio on the order of 68 percent over the next decade. This is equivalent to an additional 28 million jobs beyond the CBO’s projection.” A new Roosevelt Institute report by JW Mason, Mike Konczal, and Lauren Melodia. Link.
  • “The evidence is consistent with the possibility that urgent care centers—which are increasingly owned by or contract with hospital systems—induce greater spending on hospital care.” By Janet Currie, Anastasia Karpova, and Dan Zeltzer. Link.
  • Jacopo A. Baggio analyzes thirty years of research on climate change, between 1990 and 2019. Link.
  • Arindrajit Dube examines the impacts of the expiration of pandemic unemployment insurance programs in 25 states. Link.
  • “We show that growing attention to new macroeconomic research was a reaction to both mounting external criticisms against the Fed’s decision-making process and the spread of new macroeconomic theories and econometric techniques.” Juan Acosta and Beatrice Cherrier on changes in economic analysis at the Fed’s Board of Governors in the 1960s. Link.
  • Michael D. Bauer and Glenn D. Rudebusch on social discount rates and the rising cost of climate change. Link.
  • “The truth is that millions of citizens in the world’s largest democracy go hungry every year, even in the absence of war, famine––or a pandemic.” Mridula Chari on food subsidies, colonial histories, and India’s long struggle against hunger. Link.
  • “After the 1348 Black Death, the Republic of Siena went through a period of recurrent plagues, military threats, and famines. Did the city maintain its fiscal capacity, and, if so, how? Despite the increasing external threats, the coalitions were able to maintain fiscal capacity until the second half of the fifteenth century. They did so by adopting progressive fiscal instruments that allowed the city to raise the resources needed to deal with increasing fiscal pressure. However, these instruments ultimately linked the fiscal capacity of Siena to the economic trends of northern and central Italy. When in the second half of the fifteenth century the region entered into an economic downturn, the fiscal capacity of Siena plummeted and the city lost its independence.” By Mattia Fochesato. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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