Industrial Labor Force in Colonial Bombay

A review of Creating a Healthy and ‘Decent’ Industrial Labor Force: Health, Sanitation and Welfare in Colonial Bombay, 1896-1945, by Priyanka Srivastava.

Priyanka Srivastava’s dissertation makes a promising intervention at a time when studies of urban labor in South Asian history have been few and far between. Her work foregrounds discourses of welfare in colonial society, especially in their gendered manifestations, as fundamental to understanding the history of laboring lives in Bombay. She analyses fascinating historical actors, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, Bombay Sanitary Association, and the Social Service League that were perpetuating ideas of “sanitised” and “decent” workers as desirable in colonial urban life. Srivastava’s focus on such “non-confrontational” actors, as opposed to bodies like trade unions and the influence of Bolshevism in the interwar period, introduces significant non-state voluntary formations and their role in influencing the everyday realities of an industrial labor force, to the existing literature on colonial labor and gender relations in South Asia.

In chapters 1 and 2, Srivastava argues that the political economy of textile labor in colonial Bombay cannot be entirely understood without accounting for the structural disregard of worker health and physical well-being, which were essential to the global dynamics of the textile markets and the competitive practices of capitalists in Lancashire and Bombay. Furthermore, the negligence towards workers’ lives is also crucial for understanding processes of collaboration between indigenous and colonial capitalists which led to the dominance of elite Indian capital in Bombay’s textile industry, and the region’s later centrality in the politics of economic nationalism. Srivastava places this larger economic process in perspective against other histories of agrarian distress in neigboring regions, which led to mass urban in-migration. The labor force initially faced deeply structural problems such as old and inefficient machinery, unhealthy work routines between eleven and sixteen hours a day, in addition to oppressively low wages. Such conditions took a deep toll on worker health, especially that of children, who were heavily employed even after industrial reforms in 1891.

Using worker testimonies to the Factory Commission and other accounts by administrators and industrial elites, Srivastava describes how cramped spaces, bare lighting, little ventilation, and lack of toilets and sanitation at factory sites were complemented by similarly unsanitary housing and dismal sewage management in the chawls (residential tenements), hastily built to accommodate a burgeoning immigrant workforce. Industrial effluence and carbonic acid emissions, besides malaria and cholera, were other imminent threats to workers’ lives. Srivastava grounds her deep archival reading within both imperial and local contexts to argue how Bombay mill owners evaded responsibility for workers’ health, often in the face of international pressures such as those from the 1890 International Labour Conference held in Berlin, and the British Parliament’s imperialist tariff policies.

Chapters 3 and 4 highlight how the bubonic plague of 1896, and the resulting deaths and worker exodus from the city brought matters to a state of acute crisis. Mill owners and the colonial bureaucracy were subsequently forced to intervene in the working and living conditions of laborers. However, schemes for urban reconstruction, Srivastava argues, were marked by a “modernist disgust” (p. 79) and apathy towards the structural conditions that lay at the root of poor living and working environments. This was in marked contrast to the emerging politics of spatiality in 19th century Bombay, which were shaped by dynamics of race and class, as wealthy Indian capitalists and white European settlers carved out prime sea-facing neighbourhoods for themselves, besides investing in beautifying sites of privilege like Victoria Museum and Elphinstone College.

Srivastava’s analysis of spatial politics, urban segregation, and discourses and practices of “improvement” are complicated further by her inclusion of mainstream nationalism. Congress nationalists, influenced by the rhetoric of conscientious service, were complicit in perpetuating the idea that the working classes lived in a culture of vice and poverty, thus requiring temperance activism and the voluntary service of others. Srivastava argues how colonial schemes for sanitation and worker welfare were mostly under-financed, leaving further room for voluntary non-state forces to intervene in the lives of laborers. The Social Service League, inspired by Gandhi and Gokhale, appealed to workers to rise to the standards of “responsible citizens,” thus also echoing colonial discourses of civilizing the backward. The YMCA, on the other hand, occupied a welfarist presence “between the employer and employee” (p. 155) by introducing workers to informational campaigns using lantern shows, and newer habits such as regular sporting competitions, which could help manage the available leisure-time and keep workers occupied in competitive cultures among themselves.

However, discourses of political advocacy aimed at making “better” workers represented women only as mothers. In chapters 5 and 6, Srivastava explains how several local leaders argued that women workers needed better pre- and post-natal care in order to produce healthy children, thus reiterating concerns of reproducing an ideal labor force. Extending the scope of previous scholarship by Samita Sen on maternity and industrial labor, Srivastava argues that such moves deflected attention away from women’s concerns over wage differentials between the sexes, and their interests in safeguarding their presence as employed bread-winning members of society (Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Given that women consistently occupied between 20% and 25% of the workforce since the 1880s, their activism demanding shorter working days, higher wages, and other benefits was historically key to successful worker movements. However, such contributions were elided by bureaucrats, mill owners, and local politicians, who chose to engage with women only on issues such as nursing on the shop floor and creches. Campaigns by male labor representatives to secure maternity benefits highlighted the urgency of such moves in the interests of the ‘children of the nation’ (pg.190) something that was enthusiastically taken up by elite women’s organisations such as the Women’s Indian Association. While Srivastava appreciates such advocacy, she is deeply critical of their inability to incorporate female workers, and their uncritical relaying of nationalist stereotyping of women.

Srivastava also highlights how the provision of “scientifically-trained” midwives in chawls, the desire for women doctors specialising in childbirth, and the creation of infant welfare centers and “Baby Week” campaigns with the support of white British women, resulted in the vilification of indigenous midwives who came to be considered primarily responsible for prevailing high rates of infant mortality. Extending Antoinette Burton’s previous argument on the complicity of white feminism in the British imperial project, Srivastava argues that such imperial collusions also allowed initiatives such as charitable pediatric hospitals and creches, set up by capitalists like the Wadias, to present themselves as saviors, despite the fact that the key reasons for lacking standards in women’s health were systemic deprivations caused by indigenous capitalists and colonial rule, not individual or natural incapacities (Antoinette M. Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915, University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

Srivastava’s dissertation opens up multiple points of productive dialogue. Its effort to critique gender-neutrality in South Asian labor history and shift focus away from the Bengal-centric studies that populate the field, is very persuasive and deeply welcome.

Utathya Chattopadhyaya
Department of History
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Primary Sources

Bombay Municipal Corporation and Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation Records
Factory Commission Records
Papers of the Young Men’s Christian Association
Reports of the Bombay Mill Owners Association
Bombay Presidency Women’s Council Records

Dissertation Information

University of Cincinnati. 2012. 294 pp. Primary Advisor: Barbara Ramusack.

Image: Physical Exercise. Collected by the author with permission from the Kautz Family Archives, University of Minnesota.

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