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Abstract

This dissertation examines the politics of labor and livelihood in India’s modernizing construction industry. It focuses on the daily working lives of workers, subcontractors, and engineers on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi marked by its use of innovative building technologies and piece-rate forms of contract and accounting. As construction work has become a central mode of economic development in the country, contributing 8% of the GDP in 2011-12, these “modern” sites have come to embody the hopes and anxieties of development. Industry discourses claim that construction work can not only build the nation’s material infrastructure but also its human infrastructure by employing poor rural citizens in a growing industry. At the same time, academic and journalistic reports note the abysmal conditions of labor on India’s construction sites and the persistence of “traditional” subcontractors (thekedar) who exploit workers through networks of caste, kin and village residence. This contradiction is generally taken up as a sign that India is in a process of transition to a modern future that has not yet been fully implemented. Indeed this is in part why construction sites function as such poignant metaphors for modern India. Yet there is more than just metaphor here; rather I argue that “modern” construction sites in India actively produce this sense of transition through a particular staging of tensions endemic to capitalist production. In making this argument, I introduce the concept of ideologies of labor to describe the implicit models of what labor was that actors appealed to in making sense of their own and others’ productive actions on the site. They were expressed in reflexive comments on work, jokes, and commands but also in labor reports, account books and forms of remuneration. For example, in speaking of their habituation (adat) to a particular trade, workers construed labor as a transformative process produced by repeated contact with specific materials. Stonemasons became particularly capable of breathing the stone dust kicked up by their saws whereas welders developed eyes capable of withstanding the light of the welding torch. In this framework production always depends on a process of translation (and transformation) across divergent ideologies of labor, which is precisely what the thekedar did. The dissertation explores this process by tracing the circulation of paperwork and wages through the production process. With workers, thekedar assigned and remunerated tasks in accordance with their workers’ habits (adat). With engineers, thekedar presented the labor of their men as a homogeneous substance that could be measured and remunerated in accordance with piece-rate contracts and accounting practices. This translation was never smooth as when workers refused to do tasks assigned by engineers because it was not their habit. Without the mediation of the thekedar, the tensions between ideologies of labor came to the surface. Engineers interpreted these tensions as signs of the “backward” or “traditional” character of workers and their thekedar. From the perspective of the piece-rate contract and forms of accounting that marked the site as “modern” the tensions endemic to capitalist production appeared as signs of an incomplete process of transition. This staging maintains a structure of production in which both “modern” buildings and “traditional” workers emerge simultaneously.

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