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Deadwood and paternalism: rationalizing casual labour in an Indian company town


  • The entirety of this research was funded by an Economic and Social Research Council Studentship (October 2004-September 2008).
  • In addition to the feedback received during the workshop ‘Neoliberal Crises in Post-Reform India’ at the Max Planck Institute in September 2009, the following colleagues provided comments on drafts of this article: Laura Bear, Victoria Boydell, Henrike Donner, Elisabeth Lund Engebretsen, Fraser McNeil, Jonathan Parry, Hans Steinmüller, and Christian Strümpell. An early version of this article was subjected to a reliably rigorous critique in the ‘Friday Seminar’ of the London School of Economics anthropology department, and also at the University of East London. The comments of participants at these seminars and of three anonymous reviewers are much appreciated.

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale), Germany.


This article is based upon ethnographic research in the Indian company town of Jamshedpur, in the Tata Motors and Telcon companies. I relate the local shift towards casual labour since the 1990s to managerial discourses that rationalize this development. I argue that whilst flexible accumulation may represent a global transformation of employment regimes, the local implementation of this process relies upon a discursive continuity with the past. Referencing a historical language of cultural poverty, predominantly Bengali managers in Jamshedpur continue to claim paternal authority over their mainly Bihari employees, despite no longer fulfilling their traditional ‘parental’ roles vis-à-vis the provision of permanent employment. In the latter sections of the article, I discuss the managerial spectre of inefficient permanent workers; ‘deadwood’ whom it is perceived that casualization can prune from the workforce. I argue that whilst permanent employees may exhibit less commitment to the work process than their casual counterparts, their presence on the shop-floor suggests continuity with the company town ideal and forestalls resistance among casual workers. Far from disembedding labour from social relations, neoliberal employment regimes in Jamshedpur exploit company town paternalism and cultural prejudices.