Nithya Natarajan: Behind the Indian Boom

“Behind the Indian Boom: Inequality and Resistance at the heart of economic growth” is an exhibition curated by Simon Chambers and Alpa Shah.[i] The exhibition draws on research undertaken across India as part of an ESRC- and ERC-funded Programme of Research on Inequality and Poverty based in the Department of Anthropology at LSE led by Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche.[ii] The exhibition also includes contributions from a number of scholars, journalists, and activists.

Following India’s turn to economic liberalization in 1991, successive Indian governments have sought to highlight the country’s apparently unprecedented economic success, understood almost exclusively in terms of its growing GDP, which has risen dramatically over the past 25 years. Yet, as critical scholarship has shown, this growth is characterized by, and in fact relies on, incredibly low levels of job creation, and a concurrently proliferating informal sector, with more than 90 percent of all Indian laborers being employed outside the formal sector (Harriss-White and Gooptu 2001). The Indian growth story is thus one of poor and low-paid work, of exploitation and discrimination, and of entrenched poverty for large swathes of the Indian population. The “Behind the Indian Boom” exhibition offers a stark portrayal of this reality, focusing on how two specific communities that have unarguably faced the highest levels of marginalization under economic liberalization are faring today: Dalits, members of the so-called lower caste or “untouchable” communities, and Adivasis, members of tribal communities.

The Indian boom

The exhibition first and foremost offers a strong counternarrative to more mainstream accounts of India’s success. This is made literally clear as you descend into the gallery, to be greeted by the dulcet tones of one of India’s most prominent Bollywood actors and television presenters, Amitabh Bachchan, as he walks along a misty, industrialized dockland and comments, “While the world is not looking, a pulsating, dynamic India is emerging.” The echoes of a speech made by postcolonial India’s first-ever prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of the country’s independence, are hard to miss: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” (Nehru 1947). Bachchan’s video was made in 2007 by the Times of India group as part of a campaign to suggest that India was “poised” to become a global power and needed only “to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been recently showering upon us” (“Amitabh Bachchan” 2007). This narrative implicitly rests on the conceptual framework of modernization theory, whereby India’s apparent backwardness springs only from its inability to develop within the specific confines of a neoliberal model. It also represents a renovation of similar arguments put forward by Nehru’s Congress Party during the first decades of Indian independence to promote the postcolonial state’s turn toward rapid industrialization (Chatterjee 1993).

Fast-forward to the present day: the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi has launched a media assault on the developed world through its “Make in India” campaign, designed to highlight India’s attractiveness for corporate investors, and the mobility, education, and cheapness of its labor force; the campaign proudly proclaims, “There has never been a better time to Make in India.” The discrimination and exploitation facing India’s labor force is thus recast as a central part of its allure to the canny investor—low wages, low levels of social protection flexible contracts all designed to attract capital, both foreign and domestic, to invest in India’s “boom.” Bachchan’s voice echoes throughout the small exhibition space and serves as a continual reminder of the boom narrative, while the rest of the exhibition serves to contest Bachchan and Modi’s particular rendering of progress, to highlight instead how India’s apparent advancement relies on the exploitation and marginalization of Adivasi and Dalit communities.

Dalits and Adivasis in liberalized India

The central protagonists of the rest of the exhibition are Dalits and Adivasis, India’s stigmatized and brutalized low caste and tribal communities that are “at the heart” of economic growth. Represented through photos, videos, audio, and installations made to resemble the sparse homesteads of Adivasi and Dalit communities, the exhibition offers insights into the communities themselves and into specific areas of work that they engage in, including tea plantation workers in Kerala, brick workers in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, crab collectors in the Sundarbans, cotton workers in Telangana and Maharashtra, and migrant workers across the country, largely pictured on forms of transport. Depictions are sometimes beautiful, sometimes visceral; photos comprise both direct portraits and broader landscape shots. One of the more powerful videos provides looped footage of female construction workers going about their tasks in what is quite clearly a site ridden with occupational health hazards. Audio comprises a BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent report by Alpa Shah (2015) of account by an Adivasi woman who fled from her village in the state of Chhattisgarh to Telangana, leaving behind her young daughter after government counterinsurgency forces burned her house down; this is read by Alpa Shah.

Oraon Adivasi woman from Jharkhand loading bricks, eastern Uttar Pradesh (photograph by Jens Lerche, 2017).

Oraon Adivasi woman from Jharkhand loading bricks, eastern Uttar Pradesh (photograph by Jens Lerche, 2017).

The exhibition offers a remarkable overview of different regions of India, of various Dalit and Adivasi communities across these areas, and of the economic sectors in which they work. The broader themes that underpin its areas of focus take inspiration from a rich legacy of critical literature that documents the complex and often brutal ways in which India’s deepening economic liberalization has drawn on the low-waged labor of Dalits and Adivasis. Themes include the “footloose” nature of labor in seeking opportunities under India’s jobless economic growth (Breman 1996); the violence of state suppression, both in the form of development projects and the ensuing displacement that they engender (Nilsen 2008); and through encounters with state insurgencies in militarized areas such as the forests of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh (Shah 2010); the starkly unsafe and unhealthy work sites of industrial India (Mezzadri 2015); and to a lesser extent the particular ways in which women are marginalized and exploited, both in paid and unpaid work (Mazumder and Neetha 2011). Crucially, in highlighting the fact that it is specifically Dalits and Adivasis who are exploited under India’s boom, the exhibition draws attention to structural nature of caste and tribe in India, and to the ways in which capitalist relations are both shaped by, and further entrench, these structures. Such a depiction contests arguments that depict caste as a more fluid power relation that will either weaken or disappear as capitalist social relations proliferate. Instead, drawing on a burgeoning body of scholarship (see Thorat and Newman 2007), the exhibition highlights how caste and tribe are reproduced by deepening capitalism as a means of extracting surplus.

The exhibits also pay heed to the varied means through which marginalized communities enact resistance. This ranges from protests against the construction of the large dams—marches against the Sardar Sarovar dam in Maharashtra in previous decades, and more recently the Polavaram dam in eastern Andhra Pradesh—to the haunting image of young, female Maoist guerrilla fighters wielding rifles in their struggle against state counterinsurgency forces in the state of Jharkhand. The centrality of such resistance struggles serves to highlight how they have shaped the particular trajectory of capitalist transition across India, thus highlighting the conflictual nature of social transformation. Furthermore, the photographs complicate depictions of Dalit and Adivasi women and men as remaining passive in the face of their oppression; thus, the undercurrent of struggle offers an important counterpoint throughout the exhibition. In addition to resistance however, the exhibition offers brutal imagery and video documentation of violence perpetuated against the two communities in question. Footage and photographs of dominant castes and classes, and state representatives, beating, kicking, and verbally abusing Dalits and Adivasis lay bare the physicality of more euphemistic terminology commonly deployed such as “oppression” and “marginalization.” These are difficult to look at, but represent a relatively rare glimpse into the perpetrators of violence and oppression against these communities, with the majority of scholarship focusing instead on understanding such violence through the subjects of such acts. As such, their inclusion is important in ensuring that acts of violence are not represented in a passive light.

Complexities of audiovisual media

“Behind the Indian Boom” represents an alternative means of conveying the arguments put forward by critical scholarship on India and thus allows the scholarship to reach a wider audience. Yet in seeking to put forward the narratives of marginalized communities, there exists a tension within the exhibition—namely, the relative lack of specific stories and backgrounds for a number of the exhibits.

This is most notable with the inclusion of photographs of corpses toward the end of the exhibition—for example, a photograph of women mourning over the body of another murdered woman, captioned “Channu Mandvi shot dead by the police, Dantewada, 2009.” The photograph is incredibly powerful; an overexposed black-and-white finish serves to highlight the intricate details of female mourners’ faces, of the grief that is etched into their expressions, as they hunch over the corpse. Yet while the photographer is named, there is no explanation as to the relationship between photographer and community, and permissions sought. We are thus left questioning whether those suffering were willing to have their grief showcased in such a manner. Another set of questions arises around the way in which Adivasi homesteads are represented through small installations. Are such installations representative of Adivasi homesteads everywhere, or of a particular community engaged in a particular form of work?

“Behind the Indian Boom” as an intervention

Ultimately, the nature of the issues raised above speaks to the complexity of what “Behind the Indian Boom” seeks to portray. The exhibition certainly brings up questions of context and positionality that are worth reflecting when alternative media are used to translate academic research. Crucially, however, the very fact that photographs of state brutality and other media depicting the material realities of the lives of Dalit and Adivasi communities are exhibited represents a forceful political commentary against dominant narratives perpetuated by the Indian state. As SOAS Pro-Director Deborah Johnston pointed out in her speech at the opening of the exhibition, this form of critique would not necessarily be possible in many UK universities that have closer links to the Indian government. As such, given the broader context of how India is portrayed in the United Kingdom, both in higher education and outside, and how India seeks to portray itself, research and media highlighting the complex ways in which India’s growth trajectory has relied on, reproduced, and even strengthened relations of power such as caste, tribe, and gender remains crucial. Furthermore, in a context where academic writing in the UK and elsewhere is increasingly subject to the punitive rigors of research assessment frameworks and so-called impact analyses, continual experimentation with new media as a means of disseminating stories and arguments that speak to everyday forms of work and resistance is critical. In this light, “Behind the Indian Boom” offers a strong intervention against dominant narratives of India’s growth miracle.

Nithya Natarajan recently submitted her PhD in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, London. She researches tobacco farming and ecological change in Tamil Nadu.


[i] The exhibition is currently running at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS (13 October to 16 December 2017) and will travel to the LSE Arts Atrium (15 January to 15 February). An accompanying visual essay has been published as a book by Adivaani (Shah and Lerche 2017).

[ii] See also Shah et al. (2018).


“Amitabh Bachchan recites ‘India Poised’ anthem.” 2007. Video, 2:13. Posted 3 January by “watzinaname.”

Breman, Jan. 1996. Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harriss-White, Barbara, and Nandini Gooptu. 2001. “Mapping India’s World of Unorganized Labour.” Socialist Register 37:89–118.

Mazumder, Indrani, and N. Neetha. 2011. “Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993-94 to 2009-10.” Economic and Political Weekly 46 (43).

Mezzadri, Alessandra. 2015. “Garment Sweatshop Regimes: The Informalisation of Social Responsibility over Health and Safety Provisions.” Centre for Development Policy and Research Working Paper 30/15.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. 1947. Tryst with Destiny. New Delhi.

Nilsen, Alf Gunvald. 2008. “Political Economy, Social Movements and State Power: A Marxian Perspective on Two Decades of Resistance to the Narmada Dam Projects.” Journal of Historical Sociology 21 (2–3): 303–330. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6443.2008.00339.x.

Shah, Alpa. 2010. In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shah, Alpa. 2015. “Uprooted but Unbowed.” BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent.

Shah, Alpa, and Jens Lerche. 2017. Behind the Indian Boom: Inequality and Resistance at the heart of economics Growth. Kolkata: Adivaani.

Shah, Alpa, Jens Lerche, Richard Axelby, Dalel Benbabaali, Brendan Donegan, Jayaseelan Raj, and Vikramditya Thakur. 2018. Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in 21st Century India. London: Pluto Press.

Thorat, Sukhadeo, and Katherine S. Newman. 2007. “Caste and Economic Discrimination: Causes, Consequences and Remedies.” Economic and Political Weekly 42 (41): 4121–4124.

Cite as: Natarjan, Nithya. 2017. “Behind the Indian Boom.” FocaalBlog, 14 November.