Penn Anthropology Colloquium: Durba Chattaraj, 'Roadscapes' (2/20/2012)

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As part of India's neoliberal economic transformation, rural spaces are urbanizing in-situ, while peasants shift away from agriculture. This paper examines a vast, informal industry of sari embroidery spreading along National Highway 117, from the city of Kolkata to rural West Bengal, which is a form of what I term 'rural outsourcing.' I describe the commodity chain which links wholesalers in Kolkata to embroiderers living over eighty kilometers away. I argue that growing urban middle-class demand has contributed to the spread of this industry from city workshops to faraway rural spaces. Focusing on everyday economic life in the village of Kulpi, I analyze the transformations caused by the spread of sari embroidery. Embroidering has created a new class of rural entrepreneurs, and strengthened cash economies and consumption practices. Is rural outsourcing then to be celebrated as a form of production which has generated much-needed employment in rural areas? Is it to be condemned because it is inherently exploitative? I argue that before the specifics become obscured in a rush to normative judgment, we must analyze what domestic industry is: an expanding form of production in India which has deeply transformative effects on rural space, economies and lifeways.