Books Chapters

Uneven and Combined Development and the Politics of Labour in an Eastern Indian Coalfield: Shifts and Changes from Late Colonialism to Neoliberalism

De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2023

Trotsky’s notion of uneven and combined development has been discussed extensively in the literature on extractive industries in the Global South. The debates originated in studies on Latin America but they are equally relevant for any other country of the Global South. In the Indian context, the development of extractive industries such as coal mining rests on, reproduces and constantly re-combines unevenness between India and other countries as well as within the country. This was the case when large-scale industrial mining began in India during the colonial period, primarily for railways, such as the East Indian Railway, and for local industries and export trade (Ghosh 1977). Mining continued to set the trajectory after the country gained Independence in 1947, when the state expanded the extraction of coal to feed its ambitious project of rapid industrialization in the name of ‘development’. Both, the ‘temples of modern

India’ – as the first Prime Minister Nehru called the large integrated steel mills – and the large coal mines were concentrated in the subnational states in central and eastern India, such as Odisha, Jharkhand (formerly part of Bihar) and Chhattisgarh formerly part of Madhya Pradesh) (Das 1992; Adduci 2012; Adhikari and Chhotray 2020). As is well known, the expansion of open-cast coal mines entailed a plethora of environmental degradation as well as the large-scale dispossession and displacement of usually marginal agriculture-based communities and the dismantling of their agrarian structure (Nayak 2020; Noy 2020). The changing industrial policies since Independence also re-created and re-combined unevenness in the labour regimes, first by expanding the formalization of the erstwhile almost exclusively casual mining labour forces and later on by re-informalizing them.

The chapter focuses especially on the question of how the uneven and combined development of India’s coal industry since the late colonial period shaped its labour forces. As Kasmir and Gill (2018), as well as others (cf. Herod 1997), emphasise Trotsky’s notion in understanding these questions, the theoretical concept of uneven and combined development is particularly helpful for that purpose, because it conceptualises unevenness as emerging from struggles between capital and labour, and hence focuses also on the role that labour plays in the process, not only capital.

Taking as an example the Talcher coalfields in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, where the author conducted ethnographic research between 2015 and 2020, the chapter shows how uneven and combined development has led to the fragmentation of the local labour forces along the way. It argues that the character of unevenness and their combination has changed from the late colonial to the current neoliberal period and that these changes are reflected in labour formations as well as labour politics in the Talcher coalfields.

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