Contemporary research on poverty tends to adopt one of two approaches. The first, based in political economy, is policy-driven, in line with the latest World Bank prescriptions; it operates a closed shop of mutual references and rarely admits dissenting views. The second, rooted in anthropology, consists of micro-level village studies. While quantitative analyses—even where they are informed by a more critical outlook—convey very little about the actual people concerned, field notes, conversely, generally lack a sense of the broader social, political and—above all—historical determinants of the contexts within which their subjects operate. The sociology of Jan Breman stands out for its combination of closely specified accounts of the real conditions in which people live and work with analysis of the structural forces that shape their trajectories. Famous for his field studies in India, he has also written on Indonesia, Pakistan and now China. Breman is an unparalleled storyteller. His careful descriptions of individual lives capture a totality of human relations in a single instance: the precarity of life at the bottom of the village economy; the lucky accidents that propel one or another out of the morass of poverty, and the churning of an informal economy that inevitably causes them all to slide back down. These realities tend to disappear behind reams of numbers showing healthy gdp growth and even declining poverty in India. As Breman writes, such figures do not accord with what he has seen with his own eyes in Gujarat, one of the most ‘dynamic’ states in India. His work in the country’s lower depths tells a different story, in which vast inequalities and crushing deprivation persist.

Born in Amsterdam in 1936 to a working-class family—his father was a mailman, his mother a domestic servant; both came from families of bargemen—Breman grew up in a society savaged by the Depression and then the Second World War. The first of his family to attend college, he was initially held back from pursuing an academic career, in part by fears over its effect on his awareness of his own class origins, but also—until he won a scholarship at the end of the 1950s—by the sheer cost of studying. Childhood visits to Amsterdam’s Colonial Institute had introduced him to Java’s wajang puppetry and gamelan music, and Breman’s studies initially focused on Southeast Asia: his ma thesis, eventually published in 1963, was on Javanese demography. But tense relations between the Dutch and their former colony prevented him from pursuing fieldwork there. The Netherlands had refused to relinquish control of West New Guinea in 1949, and by 1958, Indonesia had broken off diplomatic relations; in the early sixties military conflict had become a possibility. Breman reoriented himself towards India, conducting his first fieldwork in south Gujarat in 1962, where he was immediately drawn to the ‘agrarian proletariat of tribal origin’: called Dublas, they were renamed ‘Halpatis’ or ‘people of the plough’ by Gandhi, himself a Gujarati.

The doctorate based on this research, gained in 1970, was published in English in 1974 as Of Patronage and Exploitation; several more works centred on Gujarat have followed—Beyond Patronage and Exploitation (1993), Wage Hunters and Gatherers (1994), a study of the ‘making and unmaking’ of Ahmedabad’s industrial working class (2004)—as well as more general volumes on Indian labour, such as Footloose Labour (1996), The Labouring Poor in India (2003) and, most recently, India’s Unfree Workforce (2009). He has also returned to Javanese themes, notably in Good Times and Bad Times in Rural Java (2002), and has now begun investigations into the experience of migrant workers in China.

The Poverty Regime in Village India is based on fieldwork covering four villages in south Gujarat between 2004 and 2006; a companion volume published at the same time, Labour Bondage in West India: Past and Present, covers the colonial and immediate post-Independence periods, providing the historical backdrop to the work Breman has done in the region since the 60s. In response to criticisms that his previous village studies focus on exceptional, rather than exemplary cases—and that what is true of south Gujarat does not necessarily hold for all of India, let alone for the world’s billion-strong informal proletariat—Breman has somewhat altered his methodology in The Poverty Regime: expanding his fieldwork to include more villages, located in different relations to processes of de-agrarianization and industrialization; and, after forty years of investigations, placing increased emphasis on the ‘longitudinal’ dimension. The text is perhaps odd in its rhythms of self-reference: almost every indented quotation comes from a previous work by Breman himself, and the researcher figures in his own account at various stages; fragments of an intellectual autobiography are scattered throughout.

The body of the book consists of four case studies, framed by introductory and concluding chapters that set Breman’s findings in a wider political and social context. Scores of photographs accompany the text, depicting everyday life and labour in the villages in question, and fleshing out one’s sense of the world Breman is describing. The first case study centres on a small village by the Ambika River, some 35 miles south of Surat—its pseudonym here is Gandevigam—and looks back to some of Breman’s early work in Of Patronage and Exploitation. When he first arrived in south Gujarat in the 1960s, an extensive caste-based system of debt-bondage still operated, tying landless Halpatis to Anavil Brahman landowners. Halpatis often had to borrow money to pay for wedding ceremonies. To repay this debt, the hali would work on the master’s farm and his wife would work in the master’s house; while bonded, the hali would receive grain rations in the off-season. But the debt was never repaid, instead serving to ensure the continuation of the relationship: the landowners were assured of a supply of labour, and the landless provided with a minimal food security.

By the 60s, the halipratha debt-bondage system was disappearing, and agriculture in south Gujarat changing rapidly, with the contractualization and monetization of social relations—that is, the commodification of labour. The Brahmans themselves, especially the younger generation, began to leave the villages, no longer wanting to dirty themselves with farming. With the breakdown of patronage, Brahmans no longer felt obliged to grow labour-intensive crops, such as sugar cane, which provided work for the landless. They began to plant orchards instead, since these could be tended and harvested with minimal labour inputs—mango trees could be tended year-round by a single farm servant. There was thus progressively less work in agriculture for the local Halpatis. The landless had been excluded from Nehruite land-reform programmes in the 1950s, on the pretext that they would find work in industrializing cities. But industry failed to supply enough jobs; the result was a massive oversupply of labour.

The Poverty Regime retraces a Smithian story here, in which the attraction of baubles from the towns enticed landowners to rationalize production. But Breman also implies that the landless played some part in their liberation from halipratha bondage. After Independence, landless Halpatis were increasingly unwilling to subordinate themselves to their masters, leaving one for another without paying debts, or else choosing the insecure life of the casual day labourer over the secure but demeaning life of the farm servant. Breman has from the start been wary of any idealization of pre-capitalist relations of personal domination, which were in reality degrading and often violent. But with the decline of the bonded-labour system, the landless had lost not only security of income, but also a range of traditional rights, such as gleaning from the master’s land. They still lived in poverty, but now, with their labour commodified, were more insecure.