The Chamar Artisans: Industrialization, Skills and Social Mobility: Book Review

The Chamar Artisans: Industrialization, Skills and Social Mobility 1986 by Satish Kumar Sharma (Author)

A brief abstract of the book

The Chamars, who are the main subject of the book, have traditionally indulged in works like leather tanning, shoemaking, and dealing with the carcasses of dead animals in the village community, which is related to their hereditary occupational calling in Hinduism. As such works were considered to defile one’s ritual status in the Hindu social system, the Chamars were traditionally seen as ritually impure and considered untouchables. Although, apart from purity and pollution, other factors like economic class and political power were other reasons for ‘spatial segregation’ and the stratification between the upper and lower castes, according to the author.

The author explains that, in the pre-industrial era, Indian handicrafts, textiles, metals, leather, etc. enjoyed a high repute in the world trade, although, industrial development was highly localized and catered to a limited market of a specific social strata. Industries functioned or were organized under guilds governed by the heads of hereditary groups. At the same time, village handicrafts were linked to a system of communal ties and the handicraft industry was quite slow (in terms of growth) and less productive.

The advent of industrialization in India led to the suppression of artisan’s interests and of traditional art. Skills of most skilled workers were now irrelevant in the new mode of production, which was characterized by a greater work discipline, dehumanization and alienation of the worker. Although, the negative effects of industrialization cannot be generalized as there have been distinct modes of ‘development’ in every country. For instance, India, author writes, is still in the ‘transitionary phase’.

Under imperialism, Indian handicrafts saw their ruin as imported and machine produced goods started to dominate in the market, although, it did not affect the novelty but the handicrafts, which were valued more by the novelty, hence, the small-scale handicraft industries experienced adverse effects of capitalism. As a result, artisans and workers faced unemployment, and displacement, which affected social relationships and the social structure in the context of Indian feudalism. The British policy of keeping local industries underdeveloped and encouraging feudal relations with the privatization of agricultural land, prevented any kind of change in the existing social order of the Indian society, moreover, it helped in the survival of the existing structures of caste. The author explains how the uniqueness of survival of small-scale artisan units are rooted the in hereditary caste-based institutions.

The main argument or question which the author puts forward is whether industrialization can lead to social mobility and social change among the marginalized castes, and the findings have been really dialectical in nature. Sharma has attempted to look for the aspects of social mobility among the leather workers, specifically the shoe-makers of Karnal district in Haryana (which had been one of the major centers known for leather tanning and leather goods manufacturing carried out by Chamars), through open ended interviews and sample surveys among a sample size of 126 leather workers, working in both government owned (35) and private leather workshops and factories (91). He has collected data regarding migration, social integration and relationships in the urban, changes in family orientation, methods of skill acquisition, education and intergenerational and intragenerational mobility, etc.

Apart from the negative effects of industrialization, author explains how social mobility and change has taken place within certain caste-based occupations, where major factor of emancipation was traditional skills along with economic resources. He gave the examples of Ramgarhias of Punjab, Bisipara distillers, Jatavs of Agra and the sports industry of Jalandhar, etc.

After independence, the Government of India, continued its policy of not expanding the leather industry on a large scale, as the emphasis was on the promotion of small-scale and cotton industries. According to the author, in light of information on small-scale village industries during the first four 5-year plans, industrialization might have helped in providing employment opportunities of specific kind to a specific caste, whose members stuck to their hereditary occupational callings. For instance, Chamars in the pre-industrial era, took care of the dead animals in the villages, sold shoes made of leather in the local markets, Back then, raw material was easily available, the process of production was simple, and shoemaking was only a part-time occupation done on the basis of mutual exchange of services. Whereas, in capitalism, shoemaking is now an organized occupation functioning in local, regional, national, and international markets. The new market provided for greater employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, and also facilitated the entry of certain upper castes like Baniya, etc. into the industry of leather works and shoemaking, which was earlier considered as ritually impure. Although, this has also led to issues regarding raw materials, while the government workshops face a shortage of raw materials due to bureaucratic procedures, the private workshops face issues of quality.

Major findings of the study

In the context of migration, it has been found that it is the young (below 20) and unmarried men who tend to out-migrate the most because of obvious push and pull factors, moreover, the study also highlights the role of network relations besides industrialization in migration. The migrants’ friends, relatives and close acquaintances act as ‘migration facilitators.’

Most importantly, “The spatial mobility is adding to their new experiences in the changing society, through migration, they are not only acquiring economic gains but are also able to make themselves permanent constituents of the factory workforce.” Although, the author also defines their migration as ‘from one slum to another slum’, as they tend to settle down close to their relatives who share the same socio-economic conditions of life.

The industrial development of shoe making in Karnal, has certainly made considerable differences in economic terms, especially with reference to Chamar artisans, as it has been noted that the shoemakers were in a much better economic condition as compared to their previous generations, but at the same time this development has reached in a differential manner even among the workers who work in the same factory, because of differences in family size, marital status, etc. of the subjects and the system of piece-rate wages. In terms of inter-generational occupational change or mobility, more than half of the respondents (54%) reported that they were continuing their father’s profession, which was shoemaking.

In spite of the school dropout problem, author notes that the present generation of leather workers is much more educated than the previous generations. While enhanced level of household incomes enable them to send their children to school, the easy access of earning one’s bread through shoe-making has lured many school going children to abandon schools and join the shoe makers. As time spent in school is also equivalent to time in which a wage could have been earned. This is the reason why most Chamar artisans were restricted to the lower-level jobs and the working class, as they lacked the education qualifications necessary, for instance, for a research-based job in the leather industry. It was also noted that most of the respondents lacked a formal/professional training in shoe making, most (~47%) had acquired their skills from their family, followed by skill acquisition in the form of apprenticeship under a ‘Guru’ (~20%), and only 8% had either a diploma or industrial training in shoemaking.

While industrialization has led to great decline in the practice of untouchability according to the respondents (less than 10% reported of facing untouchability). Moreover, most shoemakers and leather workers faced less untouchability because certain upper castes had also entered the leather business because of its profitability. Although, social relationships were still limited by unchanged social structure and endogamous nature of the Indian society and caste system. Social relationships among shoe makers of Karnal were more characterized by similar occupation and place of origin.

One of the most important findings of the research was that around 70% of the respondents believed that their places of work were ‘highly inadequate’ and none of the workers reported their work place as highly adequate, The major problems they faced were related to hygiene and cleanliness, improper sitting and working arrangements, inadequate space for storing individual finished goods and raw materials, and the non-availability of drinking water and toilet facilities. All this has led to increased solidarity among the workers, which is represented by increased memberships of workers in unions.

Critical analysis

While the author reported an upward inter-generational mobility in terms of wages, education and social relationships (greater interactions and friendships among different castes and decrease in untouchability), he does not fail to enlighten the reader about the drawbacks of this new mode of production, which was expressed in terms of shoemakers’ residence in slums, greater exploitation and alienation of the workers due to poor working conditions, irregular work due to shortage of raw material and a lack of social security which binds the Chamar artisans in a vicious circle or poverty and limits their overall social mobility.

The author only talks about the lives of the Chamars indulged in shoemaking as he was attempting to find out whether social mobility could be achieved by remaining in one’s traditional caste-based occupation. Much broader aspects of social mobility could have been covered if he could have included information or data sets about the representation/participation of the community in other occupations or ‘ritually purer’ occupations. Even though the writer covered a diverse range of aspects of the social mobility of the Chamar artisans, he only writes about Chamar ‘men’, whereas data and information about Chamar women was completely missing, even when more than half of the respondents were married. Hence, the gendered aspects of social mobility among Chamars were missing. Moreover, the book mainly focuses on the artistic skill of the Chamar community which can result in a one-dimensional and incomplete understanding of the community.

In the context of leather, the writer only talks about certain issues of ‘raw materials’ (like shortage and quality issues), he misses to explain the processes which transform the dead animals’ skin into the final product, and also the relations between leather workers and their ‘raw material’ which can provide newer insights, for instance, in the context of a ban on cow-slaughter and cow vigilantism.

This book can be valuable for readers interested in social mobility among marginalized sections of Indian society and how caste-based occupations have evolved in the capitalist mode of production. The book is fairly old (1986) and is very much based in pre-liberalized India (prior to the new economic policy), although, it motivates the reader to inquire about the further effects of privatization, globalization, and liberalization on caste-based occupations (particularly those of the marginalized castes) and social mobility within the caste system.

Source: The Chamar Artisans: Industrialization, Skills and Social Mobility 

Share on:

Debanshu is a first year PhD (Sociology) student at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi, who is planning to work on social mobility and migration in Urban Delhi, NCR. His broad areas of interest are urban sociology, migration, social stratification, and sociology of education.