AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 611

[ South Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 611: Rural Modernities in Contemporary India

Organizer: Shaila Seshia Galvin, Yale University, USA

Chair: Uday Chandra, Georgetown University, Qatar

The rapid growth of India’s economy in recent years, accompanied by unprecedented socio-economic change, has sparked a surge of ethnographic interest in globalization and neoliberalism, much of it centered on India’s metropolitan and satellite cities. This panel draws together diverse cases from outside the hubs of ‘growing’ India, urging exploration of the meanings and changing formations of rural modernity in the context of India’s neoliberal reforms. Often treated as on the margins of globalization, these places include: rural Jharkhand, where growing resistance and insurgency may arguably be understood in the context of local or regional histories and wider processes of politico-economic change; a Southern Bengal village that has become the site of ‘village outsourcing’ for Kolkata’s rapidly expanding sari embroidery industry; a mountain village in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border whose residents fashion themselves as modern global citizens by participating in international ecotourism activities in the adjacent tiger reserve; Howrah, where intellectual efforts of peri-urban citizens of West Bengal create a sheltered modernity; and villages in Uttarakhand’s lower Himalaya that are drawn into a state-initiated program on organic agriculture that aims to ‘bring markets to the mountains’. Relying on long-term ethnographic and/or historical research, these papers unpack the often black-boxed terms of the neoliberal and the global . As a collective, they seek to stimulate discussion of how we may begin to further theorize the varied connections among, tensions and enticements produced by, and sometimes paradoxical effects of, engagements with neoliberal reforms and globalization in seemingly ‘out-of-the-way’ places in India.

The State, Popular Resistance, and the Political Economy of Forests in Contemporary Eastern India
Uday Chandra, Georgetown University, Qatar

This paper probes into the complex and contradictory interactions between the modern state, civil society, and adivasi subjects in the forest state of Jharkhand in eastern India. By studying the political economy of lac, a valuable forest product that links the local to the regional, national, and international, I explain three interrelated puzzles that arise out of the interactions between this triad of political actors: firstly, how the paternalistic Indian state and its adivasi subjects engage with each other at different levels that ironically reproduce structural conditions of subjecthood and resistance; secondly, how civil society actors such as NGOs and middle-class activists engage with the state and its subjects to paradoxically reinforce subjecthood as well as resistance; thirdly, how subject communities define themselves in relation to the state and civil society by exploiting crevices in the structures of domination to negotiate their political claims, both peacefully and violently. Examining this triad of social relations of production illuminates a distinctive form of rural modernity in contemporary India, namely, popular resistance by rural subjects enmeshed inextricably in contradictory everyday relations with the modern state and civil society.

Sari Embroidery in Rural Bengal
Durba Chattaraj, Yale University, USA

As India's economy grows, one observes increasing linkages between rural and urban space, not just through rural to urban migration, but also through "village outsourcing" – the spread of formerly urban-based industries to rural areas. In this paper I analyze the informal industry of sari embroidery in South Bengal. I describe the commodity chain which links wholesalers in Kolkata to embroiderers living up to 80 kilometers away. I argue that growing middle-class demand has contributed to the massive spread of this industry from city workshops to faraway rural spaces. Focusing my fieldwork in the village of Kulpi, I analyze the transformations, primarily through job creation in a vast unregulated, informal sector, caused by the spread of sari embroidery. As participants in the industry shift away from agricultural production, embroidering has created a new class of rural entrepreneurs, strengthened cash economies and consumption practices, and contributed to the growth of urbanized tastes and dispositions. I present cases of middlemen living in Kulpi whose lifestyles have become increasingly affluent, as well as widespread instances of the use of child labor within the industry. This industry could be viewed as a neoliberal success story, an example of job creation and growth in rural India as a result of the country’s globalization and economic liberalization. I argue that while it creates new opportunities for some, sari embroidering also closely, and disturbingly, echoes the “domestic industry” of lace-making in 19th century rural England, which Karl Marx described as a “hierarchically organized system of exploitation and oppression.”

Green Modernity in a South Indian village: A Case Study of Kumily in the age of International Ecotourism.
Tapoja Chaudhuri, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

The current paper is based on the village of Kumily in the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border of the Western Ghats region of South India. Kumily was considered to be remote and sparsely populated, and even ‘a dangerous place,’ just a few decades ago. And yet in ten years the village has become a bustling little place boasting internet cafes and shops flaunting signs in multiple European languages every few steps. Such transformation is due to both the introduction of the World Bank sponsored India Eco Development Project in the adjacent Periyar Tiger Reserve in 1997, as well as the concurrent neoliberal policies of Indian government which led to considerable growth in domestic and international tourism that soon drew the Tiger Reserve within the well-trodden tourism routes of ‘Incredible India!’ The paper specifically focuses on the processes of identity formations amongst the local residents who emerge as modern cosmopolitan subjects through their involvement with international ecotourism in Kumily. For these residents it is the juxtaposition of their proximity to wild nature – long seen as a mark of their backwardness– and their familiarity with conservation science, which makes them ‘modern’ as they engage in such activities as banning of plastic bags, cultivating organic pepper, and tracking wild animals in the forest. The paper, then, traces the specific socio-economic factors responsible for the emergence of an alternate (green) modernity as a result of the current forces of globalization, while at the same time questioning the sustainability of such a paradoxical social phenomenon.

Transcending the Political: Modernity and Ethical Humanism in Peri-Urban Howrah
Atreyee Majumder, Azim Premji University, USA

This paper will speak of the ethico-political stance of intellectuals in peri-urban Howrah in West Bengal, India. Ethnographic accounts of these personalities reveal a constantly felt desire among them to rise above ‘party politics’ and embrace higher ideals of humanism. Hence, engagement with politics takes place alongside one’s participation in the arts, in philanthropy, community service and so on. Politically engaged persons of distinction voice their role as being different from those that pettily embrace party-patronages. The speaking and enacting of a complete humanity through writing, speeches, political alignment, social leadership, the harking back to a pristine past of Bengali nationalism and the critique of the contemporary in terms of loss of ‘values’ forms a crucial link between the discourse of humanism and those of the ‘political’ in peri-urban Howrah. The limits of the peri-urban lettered worlds, as insignificant and obsolete in comparison with those of the wider world, are constantly re-interpreted and re-drawn by creating ‘universals’ out of localized sign-systems – local architecture, local organizations, local celebrities, local histories and conflicts. In conversation with Habermas’ seminal work on public spheres and the circulation of printed literature as having a distinct contribution to the making of the modern self, in this paper I draw out a theory of peri-urban modernity through membership of spaces of letters and words and the imagination the peri-urban as an active member of a larger metropole.

Making Markets in the State of Nature: Organic Agriculture in the Uttarakhand Himalaya
Shaila Seshia Galvin, Yale University, USA

In the late summer of 2002 the Forest and Rural Development Commissioner of Uttarakhand crafted a memo outlining a new agrarian future for this recently emergent state in northern India. It lay, he suggested, in gradually and systematically making Uttarakhand’s agriculture and horticulture sectors entirely organic, a vision now being executed by the state’s organic commodity board through its self proclaimed ‘challenge of bringing markets to the mountains.’ This paper explores the notion of making markets in the Uttarakhand Himalaya, considering how this challenge is taken up in bureaucratic offices, farmers’ fields, and buyer-seller meets. Drawing on fifteen months of ethnographic research, the paper tacks between examination of landscape-level efforts to subtly transform Himalayan agriculture through the formation of village commodity clusters that specialize in the commercial production of specific crops, to more micro-level analysis of the encounters between hill farmers and metropolitan companies as they negotiate the terms and conditions of contract farming. Such engagements with neoliberalism in the Uttarakhand Himalaya have both material and affective power, as efforts to re-order agrarian landscapes are attended by expressions of aspiration, expectation, and disappointment. The paper concludes by considering the relation of the state’s vision of organic agriculture to rural modernity in contemporary India, suggesting that the idea of organic is itself a crucial vehicle for the pursuit of neoliberal dreams.