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Knowledge, Gender, and Production Relations in India's Informal Economy

In this study I explore two understudied aspects of India's informal economy, viz. the institutions that sustain informal knowledge, and gender disparities among self-employed workers using a combination of primary survey and interview methods as well as econometric estimation. The data used in the study come from the Indian National Sample Survey (NSS) as well as from fieldwork conducted in the city of Banaras (Varanasi) in North India. The vast majority of the Indian work-force is "uneducated" from a conventional point of view. Even when they have received some schooling, formal education rarely prepares individuals for employment. Rather, various forms of apprenticeships and on-the-job training are the dominant modes of knowledge acquisition. The institutions that enable creation and transfer of knowledge in the informal economy are poorly understood because informal knowledge itself is understudied. However, the rise of the so-called "Knowledge Society" has created a large literature on traditional and indigenous knowledge and has brought some visibility to the informal knowledge pos- sessed by peasants, artisans, and other workers in the informal economy. The present study extends this strand of research. In Chapter Two, taking the weaving indus- try as a case-study, work is introduced into the study of knowledge. Thus informal knowledge is studied in the context of the production relations that create and sustain it. Further, the family mode of production and apprenticeships are foregrounded as important institutions that achieve inter-generational transfer of knowledge at a low cost. Clustering of weaving firms ensures fast dissemination of new fabric designs and patterns which holds down monopoly rents. In Chapter Three taking advan- tage of a recently issued Geographical Indication (GI), an intellectual property right (IPR) that attempts to standardize the Banaras Sari to protect its niche in the face of powerloom-made imitation products, I investigate the likely effects of such an at- tempt to create craft authenticity. Through field observations and via interviews with weavers, merchants, State officials and NGO workers, I find that the criteria of authenticity have largely been developed without consulting artisans and as a result tend to be overly restrictive. In contrast, I find that weavers themselves have a more dynamic and fluid notion of authenticity. Homeworking women are widely perceived to be among the most vulnerable and exploited groups of workers. Piece-rates and undocumented hours of work hide ex- tremely low hourly wages and workers themselves are often invisible. Though women form a crucial part of the Banaras textile industry, to the outside observer they are invisible, both because they are in purdah and because women's work proceeds in the shadow of weaving itself, which is a male occupation. In Chapter Four, using field observations, interviews, and time-use analysis I show that women perform paid work for up to eight hours a day but are still seen as working in their spare time. Because the opportunity cost of spare time is zero, any wage above zero is deemed an improvement. Hourly wage rates in Banaras are found to be as low as eight to ten cents an hour, well below the legal minimum wage. In Chapter Five, I use Na- tional Sample Survey data on the informal textile industry to test the hypothesis that emerges from ethnographic work in Banaras. If women are indeed penalized for un- dertaking joint production of market and non-market goods, women working on their own without hired workers are expected to perform much worse than men working by themselves. I find that after accounting for differences in education, assets, working hours, occupation and other relevant variables, women working by themselves earn 52% less than their male counterparts. This gender penalty disappears in case of self- employed women who can afford to employ wage-workers. I also show that women in the informal economy are more likely to be engaged in putting-out or subcontracting arrangements and suffer a gender penalty as a result.