Comparative Studies in Society and History

Frontier Patrol

Provincializing Capital: The Work of an Agrarian Past in South Indian Industry

Sharad Chari a1
a1 Geography, London School of Economics, and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, Tiruppur town in Tamilnadu state became India's centerpiece in the export of cotton knitted garments. Between 1986 and 1997, Tiruppur's export earnings skyrocketed from $25 million to $636 million, the number of garments exported increased more than nine-fold, and Tiruppur shifted from basic T-shirts to diversified multi-product exports of fashion garments. This industrial boom has been organized through networks of small firms integrated through intricate subcontracting arrangements controlled by local capital of the Gounder caste from modest agrarian and working-class origins. In effect the whole town works like a decentralized factory for the global economy, but with local capital of peasant-worker origins at the helm. What is more, these self-made men hinge their retrospective narratives of class mobility and industrial success on their propensity to ‘toil’: the word ulaippu is distinct from the conventional Tamil word for work. How did Gounder peasant-workers remake the dynamics of work through their toil, to make Tiruppur a powerhouse of global production?