Informally Formal

Since job inheritance is often limited to male family members, this is one of the avenues through which women’s access to factory jobs may be limited.

     It was the oddest conversation. A 60-year-old matriarch in Ahmedabad explained to me her inheritance philosophy. The oldest son had inherited his father’s job so the youngest should get the flat. That way they would both get something. There is nothing striking about this division of family wealth --- that is, until I realized what this wealth consisted of. The job in question is a janitorial job in the state government; the flat is government servant quarters.  How on earth did a government job and the residence that comes with the job become private property to be inherited?

    Nirupamaben is not unreasonable in her expectation; she has history to back her up. Her husband’s parents were sweepers in state government and when the father-in-law died, his position was given to her husband; when the mother-in-law died, her position was given to her husband’s younger brother.  When Nirupamaben’s husband passed away, her eldest son took over his job.  She has lived in this particular government colony for the past 40 years. The home was first assigned to her father-in-law, then her husband, and now her eldest son in entitled to the same quarters. But by informal family arrangement, the younger son will take over the quarters and the older one, who is the real government servant, will find something else. 

     In recent years, the state government has begun to frown upon this practice – often called compassionate employment, but it continues in many departments. Private sector is not immune to it either. As Samita Sen notes, “Since inception, large scale industry has depended on recruitment through myriad social networks based on kin, caste and regional affiliations.  Such a ‘system’ became staple in large-scale industries by the end of the nineteenth century.  Over time the ‘informal’ channels have been institutionalised. Given the slow growth rate of organised sector and the tight labour market, recruitment itself is fairly sluggish.  There is almost no direct recruitment now.  Recruitment takes place either through union channels or by nomination.  The latter indicates the right of retiring workers to ‘nominate’ a successor.  If a worker dies while in service, their ‘heirs’ replace them.  This ‘nomination’ is sometimes auctioned by retiring workers to non-kin candidates on the basis of the highest bid.  Attempts to prevent such practices have led to the re-entrenchment of the ‘family’ in recruitment considerations.  In some units, union and employers have agreed to restrict nomination to a ‘son’ or a ‘son-in-law’.”(Sen 2001) 

      Vast quantities of literature has noted ways in which family social class affects educational outcomes and thereby earning potential of children (Arrow et al. 2000; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990)  but this blatant privatization of public and private formal sector employment has received very little attention in the literature.  These are not elite jobs; those are governed by formal recruitment procedures. But in a country where casual daily employment dominates and only 22% of the male and 9% of the female workers receive monthly salary, any job that provides a stable monthly salary is an inheritance worth having. 

     It is surprising that this private capture of formal sector resources has received so little attention!


Arrow, Kenneth , Bowles, Samuel, and Drlauf, Steven (eds.) (2000), Meritocracy and Economic Ineqaulity (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean Claude (1990), Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, trans. Richard Nice (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage).

Sen, Samita (2001), Gender and class : women in Indian industry, 1920-1990. Noida: V.V. Giri National Labour Institute.

10-May 2012

© Sonalde Desai 2012