Theses Doctoral

Bargaining in a Labor Regime: Plantation Life and the Politics of Development in Sri Lanka

Jegathesan, Mythri

This dissertation is an ethnographic study of migrant labor, development, and gender among Malaiyaha ("Hill Country") Tamil tea plantation residents in contemporary Sri Lanka. It draws on one year of field research (2008-2009) conducted during state emergency rule in Sri Lanka amongst Malaiyaha Tamil plantation residents, migrant laborers, and community members responding to histories of dislocation and ethnic marginalization. Based on ethnographic observations, detailed life histories, and collaborative dialogue, it explores how Malaiyaha Tamils reconstitute what it means to be a political minority in an insecure Sri Lankan economy and state by 1) employing dignity-enabling strategies of survival through ritual practices and storytelling; 2) abandoning income-generating options on the plantations to ensure financial security; and 3) seeking radical alternatives to traditional development through employment of rights-based ideologies and networks of solidarity in and beyond Sri Lanka.

Attending to these three spheres of collective practice--plantation life, migrant labor experience, and human development--this dissertation examines how Malaiyaha Tamils actively challenge historical representations of bonded labor and political voicelessness in order to rewrite their representative canon in Sri Lanka. At the center of each pragmatic site is the Malaiyaha Tamil woman. Focusing particularly on the female worker, I present emerging gender relations and experiences in group life, transnational labor mobilization, and development work that pose radical and deliberate alternatives to economic marginalization and capitalist plantation production in Sri Lanka. Negotiating their place within patriarchal structures on the plantation and in civil society, Malaiyaha Tamil women present themselves in ways that sharply contrast the expert narratives of their experiences, which are composed for public recognition and consumption. Interceding this transmission of knowledge, their stories actively transform plantation development discourses in Sri Lanka and resituate their practices within the more enabling frame of transnational feminism and solidarity.

Addressing lacunas in South Asian, social science, and humanities literature on Malaiyaha Tamil women, this dissertation contributes lived content on previously unrecorded women's experiences and complicates former accounts of the woman worker in Sri Lanka. Informing this project is the relationship among community, vulnerability, and reproduction. How are forms of Malaiyaha Tamil development and membership, when increasingly opened up to the realm of the political, made at once vulnerable and generative in their attempts to gain a sense of security and belonging in Sri Lanka? What do practices of cultural reconfiguration and solidarity-building reveal about the persistence of community as an affective term and the woman worker's position in global movements of transnational feminism and migrant labor? Each chapter focuses on this relationship in the context of the final months and aftermath of civil war in Sri Lanka, and I engage the work of political theorists, Sri Lankan historians, and development scholars to argue for a more productive way of thinking about communities in crisis.

I argue that community is the continual mental exercise of self-refinement and a mode in which Malaiyaha Tamils address insecurities of a closed past with intentional practices of fixing belief in an open present. This enabling perspective allows us to account for the realities of social investment, movement, and network-building that Malaiyaha Tamils experience in Sri Lanka. By analyzing the contradictions and legacy of seizing Malaiyaha Tamil plantation experience in Sri Lankan history and scholarship, this dissertation seeks to envision the Sri Lankan woman worker as a global subject with transformative possibilities for her community and nation and contribute to the anthropologies of development, labor, and gender in South Asia.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Daniel, E. Valentine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2013