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Keywords:

  • bonded labour;
  • agrarian question;
  • capitalism;
  • labour struggle;
  • consumption;
  • India

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.