The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Literacy will salvage manual work from its links with defilement

The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

Work is an important part of life in all societies although there are some individuals everywhere who manage to get by without doing very much of it. Societies differ in their organization of work, including the division of labour and the ranking of occupations. These are much more rigid and elaborate in some societies than in others. Work practices and norms change, though not as much as one might desire, with changes in technology, in material resources and in the size and density of population, and with the emergence of new ideas, beliefs and values.

Two hundred years ago, Henri de Saint-Simon, who was one of the precursors of socialism, believed that a new type of society, which he called industrial society, was emerging in Europe, in which only those who worked would be esteemed, unlike in earlier societies in which work was disdained and left to be done by social inferiors. Further, all work that was socially useful and productive would be equally esteemed. Saint-Simon may be regarded as the prophet of the secularization of work. Industrialization did bring about significant changes in work practices and norms, but this does not mean that all occupations are equally esteemed in even the most advanced industrial societies today.

Indian attitudes to work differ significantly from attitudes even in other Asian countries such as Japan. I had noticed in Osaka that police constables and taxi-drivers wore white gloves. I made fun of this to a young Japanese anthropologist who was with me. She put me in my place very politely but effectively. She said, “In Japan, people respect the work they do, even if it is of a policeman or a taxi-driver. In India, there is respect only for the well-born and the well-to-do; there is no respect for useful work”. The middle-class Indian’s contempt for manual and menial work has no equal anywhere.

In pre-industrial civilizations, the allocation of work was governed more or less strictly by ascriptive criteria such as race, caste, creed and sex. Even in simple tribal societies, men and women did different kinds of work; women were excluded from some occupations, and others were only for them. The major agrarian civilizations, whether in Europe, India or China, were hierarchical in character, and their populations were divided into estates or castes whose members were not expected to do to same kinds of work. Menial and manual work was left to the lowest strata, and there were sanctions against the performance of such work by the well-born and the well-to-do.

In medieval Europe, a person belonging to a superior estate might suffer derogation or loss of rank if he habitually engaged in menial work. Loss of rank in medieval Europe was nothing compared to the loss of caste that might follow in India from doing the wrong kind of work. Even 50 years after the adoption of a constitution that guarantees equality and freedom to all, the fear of losing caste, metaphorically if not literally, affects the choice of occupations among middle-class Indians more than among middle-class people elsewhere.

Still, having to lose caste only meta- phorically is an improvement on being made to lose it literally. At least among the educated urban middle class, upper-caste Indians no longer need to fear expulsion from caste for adopting occupations whose adoption would have led to such expulsion in the not-too-distant past. Modernization has not solved all problems, but it has certainly extended the horizon of possibilities in the sphere of work.

The caste system gave a distinctive, not to say a unique, character to work practices and norms in India. Not only was work elaborately differentiated and graded, but the gradation was sustained by ideas of purity and pollution that had deep roots in religious belief and practice. Elsewhere, the lowest types of work might be considered degrading or demeaning, in India they were treated as ritually defiling. Nowhere in the world was the idea of work as a source of defilement, even permanent and hereditary defilement, carried to such extremes as in India.

The stigma of pollution that was attached to such work as scavenging, tanning and flaying cast a shadow over many, if not most, kinds of manual and menial work. Oil pressing, distilling, laundering, fishing and even ploughing the land were all considered as tainted in varying degrees.

Attitudes to work change, although the inertia of age-old habits of the mind should not be discounted. Economic change has loosened the association between caste and occupation, but its effect has been uneven rather than uniform. New occupations have emerged that are not directly associated with caste. This does not mean that they are not socially graded, but their gradation tends to be based on secular rather than ritual criteria.

Manual work is rated lower than non-manual work in all societies although the disparities tend to be larger in agrarian than in industrial societies. In India, manual workers prefer factory to farm work which they find unclean, tedious and exhausting. In areas of wet paddy cultivation, the lot of female agricultural labourers who have to do the bulk of the weeding and transplanting, often through heavy rain, is indeed very hard; it is no surprise that they prefer factory work to farm work.

Many factors have contributed to the moderation of the disparities between manual and non-manual work. In India, the movement of people from the village to the city and from the farm to the office and the factory has been accompanied by what I have called the secularization of work. In the office and the factory, work continues to be differentiated and graded, but the gradation is no longer governed by the ritual opposition of purity and pollution. It is far from my argument that the social ranking of occupations is disappearing or will disappear. The point simply is that the ranking acquires a new character when ritual criteria are displaced by secular ones.

Two important factors that are contributing to the secularization of work in our time are technological innovation and the spread of education. Good examples of the former may be found from the field of leatherwork. As is well known, it was considered highly polluting in the past and is still considered so in the rural areas where traditional processes continue to be used. Revolutionary changes in leather technology, some of them initiated in India, have largely removed the stigma of pollution from leatherwork in the modern factory. There are many areas in which technological change is obscuring the very distinction between manual and non-manual work.

Modern education introduces secular as against ritual criteria for distinctions of rank among occupations. Some occupations require high educational qualifications while others do not; the former enjoy higher esteem than the latter. Fifty years ago the gap between manual and non-manual workers was reinforced by the fact that the former were generally uneducated, if not illiterate, whereas the latter were educated. This is no longer true to the same extent. As manual workers become literate and educated, they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the thought that their work and their life itself is defiling. This will not amount to equal remuneration or equal esteem for all work; but it will be something.

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