Professor Alpa Shah’s research has increased awareness and understanding of the economic and social oppression of Adivasis and Dalits in India.
What was the problem?
Of all the human rights abuses committed globally, caste and tribe oppression in India are among the most widespread.
In recent decades, India has been one of the world's fastest-growing major economies. Proponents of growth have argued that its benefits would “trickle down” through Indian society. However, not only have the redistributive fruits of economic growth been negligible for vast swathes of India's population, some have even fared worse as a result of growth policies.
The demographics of the poor are starkly socially marked. Dalits (stigmatised as “untouchable” castes) and Adivasis (indigenous tribal people, stigmatised as “wild and savage”), account for almost 25 per cent of the country’s population and a staggering four per cent of the world’s population. These communities have been shown by economists to suffer disproportionate levels of poverty, being worse off than all other groups almost everywhere across the country. Whilst it is possible to make this case, however, quantitative analysis is unable to explain it.
What did we do?
Research carried out jointly by LSE and SOAS has revealed the socio-economic processes that perpetuate the oppression and disproportionate poverty in the worst-off groups in India.
LSE’s Professor Alpa Shah and Dr Jens Lerche (SOAS) jointly led a team of anthropologists conducting detailed ethnographic fieldwork in five different sites to understand the impact of India’s political and economic transformation on the country’s oppressed minorities. The anthropologists lived with Dalits and Adivasis in Himachal Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra between August 2015 and September 2016.
In the resulting 2018 book, Ground Down by Growth, the research team revealed the specific ways in which the expansion of capitalist growth in India has entrenched, rather than erased, social differences based on caste and tribe. It shows how traditional forms of identity-based discrimination have transformed into new mechanisms for exploitation and oppression in the labour market, dispossessing people of their land for mining and industries. Three interrelated processes underpin the persistence of this social oppression. First, earlier power inequalities are inherited in the new economies, as control over factors adversely affecting Adivasis and Dalits remains with locally dominant groups. Second, the vulnerability of Adivasis and Dalits is perpetuated by their disproportionate representation in a cheap, seasonal, casual migrant labour force. Thirdly, the resulting class relations involve overlapping forms of oppression based on caste, tribe, region, and gender that fragment unity amongst the oppressed and so stymie social change. This supports the conclusion that policy solutions would need to focus on land and labour rights, as well as discrimination based on caste, tribe, and gender.
Professor Shah’s 2018 monograph on Adivasis and the Indian economic boom, Nightmarch, expands on these revelations in a deep, immersive study of Adivasis living in the mineral-rich forests and hills of central and eastern India. Shah lived with those communities for more than four and a half years (from 2000 to 2002 and 2008 to 2010) to conduct this research. The book explores the relationship between India’s economic growth, Adivasi mobilisation in one of the world’s most intractable and underreported rebellions (a 50-year long, armed, Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgency), and state repression of the Adivasis. The rebels are overwhelmingly portrayed by the Indian state and the international media as “terrorists”, or else romanticised by activists as indigenous eco-rebels fighting the mining companies.
Offering a rare insider perspective, Nightmarch presents a fundamental challenge to these conventional narratives. It reveals the multiple and contradictory ways in which the emotional intimacy that developed between guerrillas and the local communities attracted Adivasis to the movement, while simultaneously undermining its appeal. The book also shows how, in the name of counterinsurgency, the Indian state is violently and forcibly clearing Adivasis from their land to make way for mining companies. The nuanced approach taken in Nightmarch has been recognised as making a significant contribution to the polarised debates that dominate Indian media on this conflict, as well as to the understandings of insurgency globally.
This research has contributed to enhanced awareness, improved understanding, and new policies supporting collective action for Adivasis and Dalits.
Ground Down by Growth led to a new UN-International Labour Organization (ILO) report, co-authored by Shah and Lerche, highlighting the structural nature of discrimination in the world of work, providing policy recommendations and extending research impact from India to Nepal, Bangladesh, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon. The research also provided evidence of how India was in breach of two ILO Conventions on employment and occupation discrimination and indigenous and tribal populations. As a result, several ILO departments raised formal concerns about Dalit and Adivasi discrimination to its Committee of Experts, which oversees ILO liaison with the Indian government.
Anti-Slavery International (AI) works to address forced and bonded labour in informal work. The research has significantly shaped its understanding of the caste and tribe-based dimensions of this in India and underpinned its 2017 flagship campaign publication “Slavery in India’s Brick Kilns”. The India-based Aajeevika Bureau, which focuses specifically on migrant labour, has also used the research to support its advocacy relating to the structural discrimination faced by Adivasi labourers.
Every year since 2014, Professor Shah and Dr Lerche have been invited to present their findings on caste discrimination to the UK’s House of Lords by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits. In May 2017, Shah explicitly extended the concerns of this group from Dalits to Adivasis, who appeared on their agenda for the first time. The group’s Co-Chair Lord Harries has since tabled two parliamentary questions regarding labour discrimination and land alienation of Dalits and Adivasis, so including these marginalised voices in UK parliamentary debate.
The research has enhanced wider public awareness of the inextricable relationship between economic growth and social oppression in India. This was achieved principally through a major photography exhibition at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS in 2017 – Behind the Indian Boom – curated by Shah with Simon Chambers and based on visual imagery emerging from the research. The exhibition has since been displayed in Turin, Italy, and received significant audiences and media attention in both destinations.
Nightmarch has also received extensive media coverage in India, the UK, US and Italy. It won the 2020 Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize and was a finalist for the 2019 Orwell Prize for political writing and the New India Book Foundation Prize. Nightmarch featured in several 2018 Book of the Year lists, including the New Statesman, History Workshop, Hindu Year in Review, Scroll India, and the Hong Kong Free Press, with numerous positive reviews featured across international news media. Professor Shah was interviewed about Nightmarch for, among others, the Times of India and BBC Radio 4, so bringing visibility to the issues faced by the very poorest in India to a large, international audience.