Royal Commission on Labour in India: Report(1929)||
3) THE FACTORIES AND THE VILLAGES.
We have referred to factory labour as drawn from rural areas and, as often as not, from areas at long distances from the factories. This is the case even when the factories are situated in or close to a great city. It is here that we strike perhaps the most fundamental difference between the Indian factory workers and the corresponding class in the West. The latter is drawn mainly from persons brought up in the towns, and partly from those who have abandoned the country for the towns. The Indian factory operatives are nearly all migrants. But the difference does not end here. In India the migration from the rural areas to the factories is not in the main a permanent exodus; it is, in the minds of those who undertake it and to a large extent in fact, a temporary transfer, and the recruit to industry continues to regard as his home the place from which he has come. A true understanding of this position is a necessary approach to nearly all the problems affecting this type of labour, and we must go on to examine in greater detail the character of the contact between the village and the factory.
Those anxious to emphasise the importance of this phenomenon are apt to suggest that the Indian factory worker is essentially an agriculturalist, and the student unfamiliar with the facts is led to picture the main industries of India as manned by a mass of agricultural workers, temporarily forsaking the mattock and the plough to add to their income by a brief spell of industrial work in the city. It would not be unfair to say that this picture is in the minds of some employers, whose attention is focussed on the rapidity with which their own labour force changes. But it is not an accurate representation of the position, and has been responsible occasionally for a mistaken attitude to labour questions. In the seasonal industries, dealing largely with the treatment of agricultural products in the raw state after they have been harvested, there is an intimate connection between industrial and agricultural work; and in the collieries too there is a substantial class directly interested in agriculture. But in the regular factory industries which offer permanent work, the employer has generally got past the stage of being compelled to employ those who are prepared to work only for a few months of the year.
The truth behind the assertion of the agricultural character of the factory population—and it is a truth of primary importance —is that the great majority of those employed are at heart villagers; they have had in most cases a village upbringing, they have village traditions and they retain some contact with the villages. This does not necessarily mean even that they arc all drawn from agricultural classes. There are in the villages important sections of the population whose occupation is not primarily agricultural and may not be agricultural at all; the weaving sheds of textile factories, the tanneries, the railway workshops and other scenes of urban industry contain many who look back rather to village crafts than to village fields. But agriculture has naturally supplied the bulk of the recently established industrial population. Some factory workers, but far fewer than is frequently supposed, may have a direct interest in agriculture, in that they derive some pecuniary benefit from it; more have indirect interests, in that members of that very variable group, the joint family, or other close relations have agricultural holdings. A larger number still have a home and members of their own family in the village and the latter may secure an income from agricultural work. Occasionally members of the same family relieve each other by turns in factory employment. Even where workers live with their families in the factory areas, many of them look to some village as their home and do their best to retain contact with it.
The residue, who have no village ties and look upon the city as their home, are only a small percentage of the total labour force. In the most industrialised areas such as the Hooghly area and Bombay Island, this class forms a small proportion of the factory employees. It is proportionately most numerous in such centres as Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Madras. Each of these cities has, in its cotton mills particularly, an appreciable number of employees who form part of the permanent urban population. It is worth noting that these are composed largely of classes whose interest in the land was always slight or precarious, namely, Musalman weavers in Ahmedabad, and members of the depressed classes in all three centres. In the last two centres the owners of the most important mills have made special efforts calculated to build up a permanent population. Statistics of this permanent element are not available; but it has been estimated as constituting in Ahmedabad 20 per cent of the working class population. Elsewhere the figure is generally much smaller.
The points we desire to emphasise at this stage are:—
(1) on the one hand, the factory population, generally speaking, is not divorced from the land, as in the West;
(2) on the other hand, it cannot be regarded as composed of a
mass of agriculturalists serving a short term in industry. The relation of the workers to the villages is perhaps best expressed by the legal conception of domicile. In so far as an analogy is helpful, the position of many Englishmen in India has essential similarities. For the Indian factory worker is in most cases a man who has taken up definite work in a place which he does not regard as his own (in many cases even its language is foreign to him), who cherishes the hope of returning to his country now and then and of retiring there ultimately. He is as a rule prepared to abandon the factory if work offering adequate opportunities becomes available in his native place or if the climate makes serious inroads on his health. The popular and, as we believe, misleading conception of the short-term recruit from agriculture has arisen mainly from experience of the past, which is no longer valid. It is kept alive partly by the fact that a number of new recruits revert quickly to the village, and partly by the fact that the continuous period spent by the average worker in an individual establishment is brief.
What, then, is the nature of the contact between the factories and the villages? It will be obvious from the preceding paragraphs that it is a variable quantity; with some the contact is close and constant, with others it is slender or spasmodic, and with a few it is more an inspiration than a reality.
But in most cases the contact has begun at birth; the proportion of industrial workers whose birthplace is the city is small. Many workers leave their wives in the country, and of those wives who come to the city, all who can do so return to the village for their confinement. The steady expansion of Indian industry year by year and the higher mortality in cities increase still further the numbers that have to be supplied from rural areas. Generally, too, childhood is spent in the villages; the raising of the minimum age for industrial employment has strengthened this tendency. After industrial employment has commenced, the worker returns to the village as often as he can. Financial considerations form the principal obstacle to frequent returns: the man who succeeds in the mills returns more regularly as his income rises. In the Bengal jute mills and the Bombay cotton mills, a number secure an annual holiday of anything from one to three months' duration: others may go every second year. Yet others, owing to lack of money or for various reasons, may not go back for many years. But at any time illness or urgent family affairs may compel a return, even when it has to be financed by borrowing. The returned industrial worker may give assistance in agricultural operations, or he may prefer to remain unoccupied. It is interesting to note, for example, that the holiday exodus from the Bengal jute mills is at its height during a slack season for agriculture in the workers' villages. The duration of the holiday is usually limited only by the money available; more rarely it is determined by the necessity of complying with the instructions of the employer in the city. At other times, if close relatives remain in the villages, remittances may be sent regularly to them and serve to maintain contact, but apart from these, correspondence is usually infrequent. Nor are relatives the only ones who look for money orders. The village money-lender may have claims which have to be met, and occasionally his assistance is sought to meet the initial expenses involved in the exodus to the city. Finally, the worker looks forward to a time when his work in the factory will be over, and he can return to the village for good.