Social Scientist. v 17, no. 192-93 (May-June 1989) p. 2.

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In the net, while the pressure of population on land is resulting in fragmentation of operated area and, combined with the process of economic differentiation, in an increase in the share of wage-paid casual labour in total rural employment, the volume of employment available to these sections is not growing at anywhere near an adequate rate. This results in underemployment as well as a spill-over into low paid non-agricultural activities and reflects itself in a growing mass of casual wage employees, who form the bulk of the rural poor, with low per capita monthly expenditures and a high proportion below any poverty line.

Jeemol Unni's accompanying piece focuses on these households dependent on wage labour and the strategies they adopt to eke out even their woefully inadequate incomes. These strategies involve relying on female participation in wage work as well as on a wide range of activities as buffers when fluctuations in agricultural output render the primary incomes of the household inadequate to meet even a minimal target income. In fact, given the socially and historically determined limits to diversification of womens* work, when choosing to allocate a part of household labour to earn additional incomes from wage labour, it is predominantly the women who turn to such work as their principal activity, while men continue to be engaged in the primary activity of the household and turn to wage labour only as a subsidiary activity. It is the net effect of survival strategies of this kind, in the face of a path of development that marginalises the poor, that shows up in indices of rising casualisation and increasing female participation.

For those who seek to escape from this vicious circle by migrating to urban centres in search of factory employment, the opportunities are by no means better. Imrana Qadeer and Dunu Roy show how, barring those from among middle and upper caste cultivators, who because of their skills and social links find permanent or temporary jobs in industry, the bulk of the migrant labour force has access only to contract or casual work. These workers not only work longer hours at lower wages, but are also 'selected', because of their lower bargaining power and organisational strength, to perform the most hazardous tasks in an industrial world that is seeing an increase in the share of hazardous activities on account of higher-speed machinery, use of new and unfamiliar technology and the intensification of work. This increase in the threat to the health status and life of the industrial worker, legislation to the contrary notwithstanding, is partly the inevitable fall-out of the large surplus workforce caught in the struggle for a decent wage, and yet unable to fight for a more congenial work environment and adequate social security.

It is this stagnation and even deterioration in the quality of life of the labouring poor, amidst the euphoria that high growth and pockets of affluence generate, that shows up the real character of the path of development being pursued—a character that assessments based on growth figures tend to conceal.

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