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Lords of labour: working and shirking in Bhilai

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At the ethnographic level this paper discusses work and work-groups in the company town of Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh). Though its central focus is on those who have permanent jobs with the Bhilai Steel Plant, a large-scale public sector enterprise, brief comparison is made with current attitudes to peasant agriculture, with contract labour in the plant and with workers in the private sector. At an analytical level, it offers a critique of E.P. Thompson's thesis that modern machine production requires and promotes a new concept of time and a new kind of work discipline, arguing that this thesis not only romanticises task-oriented peasant agriculture but also effaces the extremely variable nature of industrial production. It further suggests that—at least here—public sector employment serves in significant measure as a 'melting-pot' which creates important solidarities between work-mates that transcend the barriers of caste, religion and regional ethnicity, whereas recruitment procedures and the composition of work-groups in the private sector have tended to reproduce such 'primordial' loyalties. The tentative hypothesis is that the dominance of the public sector is not unrelated to Bhilai's history of relative communal harmony, which is potentially threatened by current economic and policy trends.

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