Communities and collective security


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IN its original usage, the term ‘collective security’ referred to the defence of the nation. It implies that people identify with a group (in this case country) and accept a measure of control (in this case by the state) in order to meet a common need (defence). The interpretation of collective security in peace time is more complex. According to Standing, ‘Collective security reflects the human need to identify with (or belong to) particular social groups, usually to exert control over the behaviour of others or to limit their control. This may be an identification with a class, occupational group, or local community. One should not narrow it to identification with only one group, for security comes from multiple forms of identity’ (Standing 1999: 37).

Underlying the notion of collective security is a sense of inter-dependence and group identity. The well-being of an individual is bound up with the well-being of others around him/her. The relevance of the concept to informal workers thus depends first, on the extent to which they derive their identity and status from being a part of a group. (If so, how far are existing or traditional groupings – or communities – relevant; to what extent have these been displaced by new forms of organizing). Second, the extent of control which is acceptable that the group can exercise over the individual worker to meet common needs.

Both government and non-government development interventions have tried to draw upon group identities in the implementation of development/labour related interventions. The brief discussion below tries to see how far ‘communities’ have been significant in these efforts.

The term ‘collective security’ has not been used in Indian planning and policy documents. Nevertheless, it is possible to find some traces of the concept in the thinking relating to social welfare. A quick review of the plan documents shows that communities were initially seen as being important partners to the state effort, although the First Plan recognised that economic development would require the development of new forms of social identity.

Corresponding to each stage of development, there tends to grow a certain economic and social stratification which is conducive to the conservation of gains from the use of known techniques. Such stratification has a part to play in social progress. But, beyond a point, it hampers innovation and change, and its very strength becomes a source of weakness. For development to proceed further, a re-adaptation of social institutions and social relationships thus becomes necessary (GOI 1952:7).



However, the effort in the First Plan was clearly one of trying to build upon existing group identities. By the time of the Third Plan, there was fairly widespread concern that the planning process had failed to elicit people’s participation in the measure necessary, and that as a consequence, ‘the de-accumulation of social capital that has taken place, and is taking place, has probably more than negated the good that the capital accumulation, such as has occurred, has done to our economy’ (Gyan Chand in GOI 1961: 81).

As the implementation of the plans proceeded, it seems to have been increasingly felt by Indian planners that people/communities did not have the self-awareness required for active cooperation in planning. They were also divided: ‘Provincialism, casteism, linguism and what not come in the way of planning and break up a united approach’ (GOI 1961: 48). As a consequence, a shift away from the previous faith in community action took place.

The Sixth Plan noted that the spread of social welfare services had been uneven across states. Voluntary action had also developed and concentrated in certain areas of some states. In general, ‘There has been a tendency to depend on schematic patterns in the implementation of the schemes by government or voluntary organizations leaving little room for flexibility or ability to respond to the requirements and variations in local situations. The involvement of the local community in planning and programming has been inadequate and their participation has been more in the nature of minor partners (GOI 1980: 431).

Over the years, then, the emphasis upon the role of the community as an active partner and contributor to the development effort (in particular social welfare) can be seen to disappear. Subsequently, there has been a renewal of interest in decentralization, but this time largely to newer groups that could help to monitor resource allocation and contribute to human resource development efforts.



As the impact of development began to be felt in different ways by various groups over the country, a number of protest groups emerged. These include short-lived protests, as well as some more durable movements (examples range from the Chipko movement to Naxalite groups). These groups have sought to change the direction of government policy and the experience of development through reactive protest rather than constructive action. The groups themselves derive from a shared experience, often based on a similar livelihood base.

There are other groups which are not opposed to the government, but are anxious to change the terms on which they engage with economic development efforts – primarily labour unions of different kinds. If we look at the large majority of workers in India, we find them to be in the unorganized sector. But even here, while there is little formal unionization, there are several examples of attempts to develop an ‘organized voice’. Moreover, it is possible to find certain common elements in the activities and thrust areas of membership based organizations (MBOs). In an important and interesting study of 10 MBOs (Antony 2001), it was found that the main concern was with livelihood issues.



Underlying these non-governmental efforts is the recognition of a sense of interdependence. Groups protesting the adverse impact of a ‘development’ decision, such as mining or the construction of a large dam, have generally formed around traditional communities which are bound together in a common experience of development. MBOs on the other hand are groups of workers in a common trade who do not necessarily share the same degree of social bonding as would be found in a traditional community, but who face the same or similar experience in their working life.

It is difficult to posit that there is a clear historical trend in the relative importance of these different types of groups, or in their positioning vis-à-vis the state. The history of civil society-government partnership in India is an old one, and has always been a part of the framework of planning efforts. Not surprisingly, there is little difference in the broad approaches or thinking of most government and non-government actors. What does differ is the constituency to which each seeks to be responsive. Worker-based groups are seeking to find an acceptable compromise that would allow liberalization to proceed in a manner that lets the poor or the workers at the bottom end of the spectrum also share some perceptible economic benefits. This is not a controversial matter and negotiation with both government or business is possible. Similarly, a few protest based groups are seeking to define an alternative pattern of growth, most seeking protection from a specific adverse impact.



Group identity is one aspect of collective security; the willingness to accept control by the group is another. The narrative below is an example of the manner in which communities in India have historically exercised control over individual actions and group decisions.

‘In 1911 a young man belonging to a high orthodox Brahmin family which was greatly respected in Almora1 and the whole of Kumaon went to Japan to study modern agriculture. Japan had at that time become a symbol of resurgent Asia after its victory in the Japanese-Russian war of 1905. From Japan the young man went to USA and later returned home after travelling through Europe.

‘A great controversy then broke out. The orthodox section of the community argued that the young man had transgressed the code of conduct prescribed for householders (grihasta) by crossing the "black waters", i.e., the oceans and going abroad. He had thus lost caste and could not be admitted into the community unless he performed the atonement-purificatory ceremony (prayashchit) The liberalized section opposed the idea and said there was no need as the young man had gone for higher studies which would benefit the country. My father was in this group. He even published and distributed a pamphlet supporting this view.

‘But the debate went on. Families got divided. Even brothers were in opposite camps on the issue. The decision meant hukka pani band, i.e., group smoking of hukkas,2 drinking water, inter-dining, inter-marriage, were all prohibited. It was not as if the community was a "frog in the well" community. The people were widely travelled and aware of happenings in the world. For example, my grandfather as far back as the 1850s had travelled from Almora to Ferozepur (Punjab) where he worked for some time. He visited places in Baluchistan, Peshawar and had in 1857 visited Jagannath Puri in the East. The community had welcomed Swami Vivekanand on his triumphant return from the Chicago World Conference of Religions. He had crossed the "black waters", but performed no prayaschit. The orthodox section said his case was different. He was a sanyasi (monk) to whom the code of conduct for householders did not apply. As a sanyasi he was above all these rules. They knew about the social reform movements of people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Maharashtrian leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, but were adamant in their disapproval.

‘So at last the young man performed the ceremony. It was a long ceremony lasting several days and was performed at Haridwar.3 The details had been prescribed by pandits from Varanasi which had always been considered the centre for settling and deciding interpretation on religious or socio-religious matters. It had the seal of approval of the Maharaja of Benaras (Varanasi).

‘Despite this, he was not welcomed back into the fold. After the ceremony, the young man got a job in Jammu and Kashmir and lived there for the rest of his life. He did not (or could not) marry in the community.

‘However, soon thereafter, in 1914, the First World War broke out and Indian troops went in large numbers to France, fought in Flanders and Mesopotamia (Iraq). In the troops there were both officers and soldiers from high caste Brahmin families. The Kumaon Regiment also took part . The result was that all questions of purificatory ceremonies were forgotten and the practice died out and withered. In fact, no one then spoke or thought about it. The orthodox sections were silenced once for all’ (Personal communication, B.D. Pande).



This example of a high level of social control by community leaders did not just oppose an individual’s actions, but served as an effective opposition against change in farming practices and agricultural technology. Although the narrative suggests that this kind of community control no longer exists, it needs to be established that traditional social sanctions do not, in varying degrees, circumscribe individual behaviour.

Communities in the past have thus been able to assert authority even over those from families of high status, as above. Undoubtedly, the decline of traditional communities could benefit those groups that are subjugated in the traditional system. But there is much to suggest that traditional forms of control still persist even where the community as a whole has been weakened. Perhaps the best example is women. The weakening of traditional social norms has allowed greater autonomy and freedom. Economic events clearly played a role in such weakening; thus, with liberalization, there is some evidence of an increase in women’s participation in the work force, and the opening up of a larger world to them. But while women may be free to earn, they are not free to spend. Apparent changes in gender roles and relations have not been able to alter underlying structures of social expectation (see ISST 2001).

In many ways what seems to have happened is that the multifaceted bonding between individuals in a community (expressed in the social norms and controls that are required to maintain cohesion) have largely frayed, because they no longer had relevance and were unable to manage change. In the realm of work, people are bound together through written or unwritten contracts that spell out responsibility and roles. In the realm of social interaction there is a measure of chaos: remnants of the past mingling with the new.



Is there a link between informal workers and ‘communities’, and if so is it possible to build upon the still existing elements of community to strengthen collective security? Would this be a good thing, given the history of repressive control by communities?

The governmental effort to build upon existing communities in the provision of social welfare appears to have largely floundered. But the role of communities and traditions cannot be said to have disappeared. Many informal workers continue in traditional occupations, and mobility is limited. Groups of casual, contract labour are generally controlled by a leader of the same caste/community. Women in home-based work are often found to be working for male kin. Forms of control associated with an older social order continue to play a role.

Indian entrepreneurship has developed from trade, and these trading networks often built on family networks. Informal links between family members are still the conduit for export of small/informal manufacturers. Women home-based workers in the UK and North America are often found to be working for distant relatives who mediate between them and the market. Such links are also found in inter-state movement of goods. Thus, the decline of traditional communities with the security they may have provided to their members has not prevented the same ties from being used as a basis for the very different activity of trade entrepreneurship. But in this case, although drawing upon the same social ties as make up traditional communities, it is a moot point as to whether the activity itself could contribute to the further strengthening of social/ community ties.

In general terms, risk taking will be influenced by non-economic factors. Thus, Punjabi refugees from Pakistan have been pioneering in exploring new parts of the country, new markets and in establishing viable production units all over the country. The insecurity of their position, combined with the strongly positive attitude of the community to new ventures, have meant that traditional social networks have actively encouraged innovation.



There has always been an interplay between social and economic aspects of community living. Analysts of such interdependence include those who talk of social capital. Most of the recent discussion on social capital has been concerned with its positive impact on growth and productivity (see for example Parthasarathy and Chopde 2000). Traditional networks have their negative aspects: exclusion because of caste being a prime example. However, it has been argued that dense social networks are conducive to development. ‘When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced. At the same time, networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration, which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration’ (Putnam 1995).



But while traditional networks can be ‘used’ for development, they will be considerably changed in the process. Whether their role is recognised explicitly or not, the fact of changing social relationships is what confronts people in a developing world. For example, women in traditional societies are expected to obey certain norms in work: acceptable type and location of work, and in their social interactions, which restricts their choices, but ensures a certain protection or security. The breakdown of these traditional controls on the one hand releases new energies, and on the other hand creates new vulnerabilities. The real value of traditional bonds is that they span the economic, emotional and perhaps even the spiritual, and the challenge to new social bonding and new economic ties is to be able to match this. It is, of course, debatable whether a traditional community can always evolve in response to external pressures in a manner such that traditional roles change but the value of community solidarity remains intact.

The concept of collective security enables us to examine once again the strengths of community living, while accepting that our values have changed, that new forms of social interaction are needed, and that the traditional forms of control are no longer acceptable. If informal workers are to get more ‘voice’ and a more visible role in the economy, it is much more likely through collective effort, as suggested by other contributors in this issue. Whether such collective effort can indeed build upon existing communities is a matter for empirical testing. I would argue, however, that even ‘new’ collectivities, such as unions of unorganized workers, in practice draw upon both old as well as new ideologies. This, in an old and conservative culture, is not surprising.



1. A district capital city in the newly formed state of Uttaranchal in the middle Himalaya, formerly a part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

2. Hubble bubble.

3. A centre for religious performances.



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