Bonded Labour, Agrarian Changes and Capitalism: Emerging Patterns in South India


  • Isabelle Guérin

    Senior Research Fellow
    1. University Paris I – Sorbonne, Paris, Cedex 05, France
    2. Institute of Research for Development (Research Unit Development and Societies), French Institute of Pondicherry, Pondicherry, India
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  • I sincerely thank my co-researchers, G. Venkatasubramanian, S. Ponnarasu and Marc Roesch, with whom the fieldwork on which this paper is based has been done. The fieldwork was carried out between 2004 and 2013 within the Labour, Finance and Social Dynamics research programme of the French Institute of Pondicherry. The latest fieldwork has been supported by the IOW project (Human Bondage in the Indian Ocean World: Roots, Structure and Transformations) funded by the French National Agency for Research (ANR). I also thank G. Muthusankar and G. Venkatasubramanian for their support in the elaboration of the map shown in Figure 1.
  • This paper was initially presented in the workshop ‘Agrarian Transformation in India: Its Significance for Revolutionary Politics’, held in Oxford in July 2011. Comments from participants in the workshop are gratefully acknowledged, and subsequently from Judith Heyer, David Picherit, Marc Roesch and G. Venkatasubramanian. The paper has also greatly benefited from comments of the editors of the Journal and the editors of the special issue (with, in particular, very careful readings from Jens Lerche and Alpa Shah) as well as two anonymous reviewers. I sincerely thank them for their helpful criticisms, comments and suggestions.


Drawing on a number of case studies from Tamil Nadu, this paper shows that bonded labour is not a relic of the past, but surprisingly contemporary. Refuting the tenets of the semi-feudal thesis, we argue that unfree labour can go hand in hand with capitalism, and that it can be initiated and sustained by capital itself in order to accumulate surplus value. Going against the tenets of the de-proletarianization thesis, we suggest that bonded labour is not always the preferred working arrangement for capitalism. Bonded labour should be examined in connection with specific historical contexts, the changing nature of the economy, the evolution of political forces and modes of socialization. I argue that bonded labour results from a specific regime of accumulation characterized by cheap labour, increased domestic demand sustained through household debt, as well as modes of conflict, contestation and worker identity formation that engage with both governmental programmes and consumerism.