Urban informal sector: the work culture of Silversmiths in Odisha.

AuthorMohanty, Rabindra K.
PositionBy Contribution - Abstract

The Problem & Objectives

The urban informal sector (UIS) refers to certain economic activities and/ or enterprises characterized by ease of entry, smallness of investment and operations, reliance on indigenous resources, family ownership of enterprises or household business, manual operations and adapted technology, skills acquired outside the formal school system, unregulated, unorganized, unremunerated and unprotected labor and a competitive market system. The basic reason for introducing the concept of the UIS in Ghana and Kenya (Hart, 1973) and subsequently in other parts Africa, Latin America and Asia was the need felt by ILO to develop a conceptual scheme by which it would identify the whole variety of income generating activities and target groups thereof, many of which were of novel kinds. The scheme of classification and nature of analysis has varied across countries as well across subject disciplines (Gershuny, 1979; Bromley, 1978; Gerry, 1979; House, 1984; Sethuraman, 1985; McGee, 1996). Conceptual controversies (Sethuraman, 1974; Breman, 1980) theoretical issues (Bromley & Gerry, 1979; Moser, 1978; Lewis, 1979; Lozano, 1983) and measurement of informal sector employment (Sethuraman, 1976; 1977; Joshi, 1980) are still being taken up on a large scale by academia, planners and researchers in the field.

In the early eighties there was a move from a macro-economic approach to a more structural-sociological and empirical understanding in order to demonstrate the contextual relevance of the UIS (Portes, 1987; Wilkinson & Webster, 1982, Douglas, 1998). Several country studies have been conducted (Denton, 1985; Amin, 1996; Hill, 1985; Hoffman, 1986; Scott, 1986). A careful look at the literature has revealed that the task of understanding the concept of the UIS in all its dimensions and manifestations is not yet accomplished. There is a need to identify the traditional segment of the UIS, which may present certain characteristics radically different from those found in its non-traditional counterparts. Similarly the current interest of people in the subject is to look at the household as a multi-functional unit (Onyebueke, 2001:419), treating it as a place of 'work' (Tipple, 1993:521-39) and employment generation (Williams & Windebank, 2002:231).

The present paper deals with an empirical account of silversmiths in Cuttack city, one of the oldest major business centres in the state of Odisha in eastern India. The silversmiths, who are locally called "Ropyakaras'produce silver filigree items, made of silver drawn into fine wires and foils, which are artistically joined together in a framework of delicate designs. The silver filigree is distinguished from other ornaments and jewellery by its exquisite finish, dexterous foils, fine texture and snow gloss. The typical socio-structural characteristics, the work culture and the very nature of human relations at work vis-a vis the general assumptions of the UIS have been analysed. Taking the under-explored dimensions and issues into account, this paper presents the results of an empirical investigation and analysis of:

  1. How the traditional segment of the UIS can be distinguished from its non-traditional counterparts?

  2. How the socio-structural characteristics of a traditional occupation in the UIS can account for the very nature of resilience or dynamics of the household as a place of work?

  3. In what ways are they exploitative relations of production?

  4. How the empirical materials on the work culture, occupational dynamics and human relations at work relate themselves to the general characteristics of the UIS?

The Nature & Sources of Data

The database of the study comprises primary data collected through an interview schedule of structured and quite a few unstructured questions and focus group discussions and secondary data drawn from a variety of sources. The study covers all the silver filigree artisans of Cuttack city. Care has been taken to cover as many artisans as was possible. Before finalizing our universe we proceeded in the following manner.

As attempts to seek records about the filigree workers' population from the Directorate of the Census Operation, the Directorate of the Bureau of Statistics and Economics (Bhubaneswar), and the Deputy Registrar of Industrial Cooperatives (Cuttack) and his section office failed to yield any worthwhile information, the researcher went to the field to locate respondents from the main Bazaars where artisans are located. In the process, we identified 16 Bazaars where there was a greater concentration of artisans such as (1) Alisha bazaar (2) Bangali sahi1 (3) Bania sahi (4) Bholamian bazaar (5) Buxi bazaar (6) Chandni chhowk (7) Chauliaganj (8) Chowdhury bazaar (9) Dagarpada (10) Durgha bazaar (II) Firing bazaar (12) Kaji bazaar (13) Mahamadia bazaar (14) Mansingh patna (15) Shaikh bazaar (16) Tulasipur. Some other 'Sahis' and 'Gali' (Localities and lanes) such as Ramgarh or Makarwa sahi, Machhua bazaar where no more than one or two artisan units were located, have not been taken into account. They have been left out for the sake of convenience and with the assumption that it will not have significant effect on the representative character of the cases taken into consideration. The sample was purposively random and in all 172 respondents was interviewed, drawn from above said 16 main bazaars.

The artisans have been categorized under three groups on the basis of their job involvement and engagement of family labour (household as a place of work) i.e. self-employed-85 (49percent), family businessmen-22 (13 percent) and ca sual workers-65 (38 percent). For the purpose of the present work, self-employed artisan refers to those single and only entrepreneurs from a given family, owning the capital, having their own organization, running the risk of incurring losses and employing paid-workers from outside the family on necessity. Family businessmen on the other hand run the business as a family co-operative employing workers largely from inside and occasionally from outside the family and drawing the capital resources from the joint family. The head of the family has more of supervisory work to perform. Casual laborers are those who sell their labor (without having capital of their own) to a wage-paying employer, who may be a self-employed or a family businessman. Thus self-employed and family businessmen can be called entrepreneurs while casual laborers can ordinarily be called 'workers'. The degree of manual work increases as one moves from family businessmen to the self-employed ones and finally to the casual workers.

The Structural Characteristics

Although the business is conducted in the household itself, involvement of family labor has come down to the bearest minimum. Engagement of family labor is confined to the family businessmen only. 18 percent of the family businessmen engage one additional member from the family, 36 percent engage 2 members while the remaining 46 percent engage 3-4 additional members from the family. The relative increase in the size of the self-employed is a consequence of decline in the number of family businessmen. Casual laborers are largely employed by the self-employed and occasionally by the family businessmen, as the former do not have a workshop or capital of their own. Thus the obvious employment status in the filigree industry suggests that while the...

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