The COVID-19 Pandemic and Rural Dalit Households:
Observations from Two Villages in Tamil Nadu
*Data Analyst, Foundation for Agrarian Studies, firstname.lastname@example.org.
**Visiting Professor, Department of Economics, Raiganj University, Raiganj University, West Bengal, email@example.com.
In all natural and man-made disasters, poor and marginalised social groups are the most affected. Dalits, or people of the Scheduled Castes, have been discriminated against in every walk of life in rural society.1 They continue to live in segregated settlements in villages, and are over-represented among the landless and the poor, thus forming an extremely marginalised social group in India. In the Census of India 2011, people of the Scheduled Castes constituted 16.6 per cent of the total population of India. This note assesses the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on employment, agriculture, indebtedness and coping strategies, food security, and education in the villages of Venmani and Palakurichi in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.
Concepts and Method
Venmani and Palakurichi villages were part of a larger telephone survey of 164 households from 26 villages across India, conducted between mid-September and mid-October, 2020, by the Pandemic Study Unit of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS–PSU).2 Our note is based on interviews conducted in the two Nagapattinam villages mentioned above, and covers interviews with 18 informants from households representing five rural socio-economic classes (Table 1).3
|Village||Social groups||Landlord/ Capitalist Farmer||Rich/Middle Peasant||Poor Peasant||Manual Worker||Others||Total|
Source: FAS Telephone Survey data, 2020.
*SC: Schedule Castes; **MBC: Most Backward Classes; ***BC: Backward Classes
As Table 1 shows, the 12 Dalit households were represented in all socio-economic classes except the landlord/capitalist farmer category. Almost half of Dalits interviewed were from the class of manual workers. The landlords/big capitalist farmers operated up to 60 acres of land, while rich/middle peasants cultivated more than five and up to 15 acres of land. Poor peasants cultivated five acres or less in both villages.
Objectives and Structure
Dalits formed one-sixth of the population of India, and 18 per cent of the rural population of India in the Census of India, 2011. In order to assess the effects of the pandemic on rural Dalit households, we look at its general impact on rural society as a whole, and then see how these effects compare and contrast for rural Dalit households.
The national lockdown on most economic activities that was enforced during the peak period of the pandemic created a downward pressure on employment and incomes in general, but particularly so for rural India. In the efforts of the poor to avert total impoverishment and malnutrition, the effectiveness of the coping strategies undertaken by rural workers to mitigate income loss were put to the test.
The FAS-PSU All-India survey collected information on both agricultural and non-agricultural employment of the household members. Using FAS-PSU data, Patra, Mahato, and Das (2021) found a sharp deceleration in wage rates for major rural occupations at the all-India level since the lockdown, with a drastic reduction in days of employment in non-agricultural work. They noted that nominal wages in agricultural work stagnated, and there was a decline in real wages when deflated by the consumer price index for agricultural labourers (CPI-AL). An earlier study by Modak, Baksi, and Johnson (2020) based on a survey during the first lockdown noted that a downward pressure on agricultural employment was beginning to be felt as a result of reduced mobility and collapse of non-agricultural employment (Modak, Baksi, and Johnson 2020).
In the FAS-PSU survey, Dalits constituted less than a third of all surveyed households across India, but more than half of the people engaged in agricultural and non-agricultural wage work were from Dalit households. Non-agricultural employment became unavailable soon after the lockdown, while agricultural wages declined in real terms. The loss of incomes from employment was a short-term impact of the pandemic on a significant section of Dalit households.
Employment and Wages in Palakurichi and Venmani
In the villages of Palakurichi and Venmani, the agricultural season begins around July-August and lasts till February-March. Cultivation is limited to one crop of paddy in these villages owing to their location at the tail end of the Cauvery delta and lack of access to groundwater. Therefore, the days of employment available in agriculture are limited to the months from July to February. There are many towns and cities at a commutable distance from the villages, and this has resulted in a large share of the village population seeking semi-skilled and unskilled wage work – for instance, in construction, painting, and electrical work -- in towns such as Chennai, Coimbatore, and Tiruchirapalli. One Dalit respondent said:
We returned from Chennai by bus a few days after the lockdown was announced, when they began to permit migrants to come back. We did not face much trouble on the way home. We wore masks while working on MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] projects. Other than that, there was no work at all for us during the pandemic.
The MGNREGS is a major source of non-agricultural work in the village. Tamil Nadu has done relatively well in terms of disbursing MGNREGS work, as seen in the present survey data. Among the surveyed households, 26 workers from 12 households reported they were engaged in MGNREGS work. These 12 households received on average 60 days of work, earning Rs. 200 per day. Out of the 26 people who reported for MGNREGS work, 24 were from Dalit households. Dalits are major beneficiaries of this scheme, which provided a safely net during the lockdown period when unskilled and semi-skilled work such as loading and unloading, carpentry, and masonry were unavailable.
A respondent from Palakurichi said:
I used to work as an electrician and construction worker, and also did other non-agricultural work like head-load work at the Direct Procurement Centre. But after the lockdown, all such non-agricultural work disappeared. I started going for MGNREGS work for few days. It was very difficult to find any other work in nearby urban centres.”
The availability of employment in small towns and cities within commutable distances from the village started to recover once bus services resumed operations in August-September, 2020. A Dalit respondent who worked as a painter for ten days in Nagapattinam in September 2020 said:
We only started to go for painting jobs when buses became available. The one-way ticket price is Rs. 25. Employers do not provide transport, sometimes [friends who have] vehicles may take us.
Most non-agricultural work shut down as an immediate result of the economic lockdown. State support through MGNREGS was of help, but its implementation varied from State to State. For instance, the “State of Working India Report 2021: One Year of Covid-19” written by the Centre for Sustainable Employment found a stark contrast between MGNREGS implementation in Rajasthan and Karnataka.
The lack of income from non-agricultural employment outside the villages resulted in additional pressure on agriculture to generate employment and income during the pandemic. Dalit households in rural India continue to be over-represented among agricultural labourers, and Dalit households engaging in cultivation are often small farmers and marginal farmers, classes that are the most vulnerable to shocks from factors such as input and diesel price hikes, and supply chain disruptions.4
In the reference period, there were increases in the prices of diesel and cost of inputs, which significantly increased the aggregate cost of cultivation of kharif crops. This in turn severely affected incomes, particularly for small and marginal farmers (Modak and Bhattacharya, 2021).
Agriculture and Agricultural Labour in Palakurichi and Venmani
Among the total of 18 households interviewed from Palakurichi and Venmani villages, 12 were land owners. All of them cultivated rice in the August-January season. Six of these cultivators were from Dalit households. Together, they owned a cropped area of 27 acres. The corresponding figure for the six non-Dalit households was 123 acres (see Table 2).5 The six households that did not own land were all Dalits. These data indicate the unequal distribution of land in these villages. Dalit households in the villages represent a significant proportion of landless, marginal and small cultivators.
Source: FAS telephone survey data, 2020.
Note: *One person was also involved in business and another person involved in migration/remittance
**one person was involved in business.
One of the distinctive features of marginal and small cultivators in India is that they are involved in both hiring in workers for agricultural operations and working for wages themselves (Dhar 2017). All nine persons from the villages who reported that they were engaged in any agricultural work for the past six months were from Dalit households. Five Dalit households had members engaged in agricultural labour; they were engaged in both hiring in and hiring out labour for agricultural operations. None of them reported more than seven days of agricultural work in the time period from March till September 2020, and all of them found work within the village or in nearby villages. Most of the workers, as well as those who hired-in agricultural labour, reported wages to be Rs. 500 a day for men and Rs. 200 a day for women. Wages rates in agricultural labour in the village appear to have declined or stagnated.
As one Dalit woman who was engaged in agricultural work said:
As daily wages we used to get Rs. 200, tea and a vada or biscuit. But since times are difficult, four or five of us go together for work and get piece-rated contracts. The average income is around Rs. 50 per person a day. This is very low, but the times are difficult. I went looking for agricultural work for about two months in the last six months within the village as well as outside, and got work for only about 15-20 days. I was hired for transplantation and weeding work.
In sum, the pandemic created a situation where employment opportunities declined sharply. Agricultural wages declined in real terms, even as the dependence on agriculture increased. As Dalit households tend to be significantly dependent on wage work in agriculture as a source of income, lower wages affected them more sharply. As Dalit households engaged in cultivation are mostly small farmers, the rising cost of cultivation owing to diesel price hikes affected them. These two factors constituted the short-term impact of the pandemic, an impact that Dalit households felt more sharply than others as they are over-represented among wage workers as well as among the small and marginal peasantry.
Coping Strategies and Indebtedness
A note on food security and indebtedness during the pandemic based on FAS-PSU data finds that while a third of the rural population took fresh loans during the pandemic, 60 per cent of Dalit households had to do the same. The fact of Dalit households being over-represented among those who seek credit is indicative of the vulnerability of their position in times of crises, as in a pandemic (Niyati and Vijayamba 2021).
The loss of income from non-agricultural as well as agricultural work creates pressure to meet living expenses. This pressure is compounded by the systemic barriers Dalits face as a community, especially in rural India.
There is a notable presence of microfinance institutions (MFI) that engage in joint liability lending in Tamil Nadu. They have had considerable success in penetrating the rural credit market, and the villages of Palakurichi and Venmani are no exception. High rates of interest and coercive collection methods for repayment are some of the concerns associated with microfinance lending.
Fifteen out of the 18 households in the two Thanjavur villages reported that they had availed of fresh loans/mortgages after the lockdown began. Of them 10 were Dalit households. Seven out of the 10 Dalit households also reported pre-existing debts, most of which were from MFIs. Dalit households took fresh loans, often pawning gold, not only to meet basic expenses but also to continue repaying existing debts, most of which were from microfinance lenders.
This response from a Dalit respondent illustrates the pressure from microfinance lenders even during a time of job losses:
They [MFIs] paused collecting the dues for about one month at most after the announcement of the lockdown. People have staged many protests and strikes to confront the ruthlessness [of MFIs in collection of repayments], but nothing has happened to change the behaviour yet.
A third of Dalit households surveyed in Palakurichi and Venmani reported that they had sold assets, mostly livestock, after the lockdown, while a sixth of non-Dalit households reported sale of assets.
In addition to the support measures taken by the Government of India such as disbursal of extra rice through Public Distribution System (PDS) outlets and direct cash transfers through Jan Dhan accounts and the P-KISAN scheme, the Government of Tamil Nadu distributed a cash payment of Rs. 1000 to all ration card holders through fair price shops in April 2020 as a one-time relief measure in Tamil Nadu. While almost all the surveyed households from Venmani and Palakurichi reported receiving such benefits, the few households that did not receive one or more forms of support were always Dalits. All non-Dalit households that were surveyed from these two villages received at least Rs. 1000 from the government.
In sum, a disproportionate number of Dalit households were exposed to medium-term losses owing to distress sale of assets. In order to meet short-term losses they faced owing to the decline in incomes and employment, and the rising costs of cultivation, they entered into even deeper debt. Debt and distress assume a cascading nature in times of crisis, more so for the Dalit community, who are economically and socially hard-pressed at the best of times.
Food Security and Nutrition
The survey collected information on the functioning of the PDS and self-reported changes in consumption levels of food by households before and after the onset of the pandemic. A few observations are in order regarding the impact on food security and nutrition for Dalit households as a result of the pandemic.
Niyati and Vijayamba (2021) found five villages of the 26 surveyed in the country in which 100 per cent of Scheduled Caste households reported lower food consumption levels compared to the pre-lockdown period. Half of the 26 villages in the FAS-PSU survey had more than 50 per cent of SC households reporting lower food consumption. This was particularly so for items not available in the Public Distribution System (PDS) outlets, such as vegetables, meat, fish and eggs. The functioning and provisions of PDS differs from region to region, even as they play a vital role in food provisioning for households.
Food Security and Nutrition in Palakurichi and Venmani
The State of Tamil Nadu has a universal PDS and no exclusion is made based on an income criterion. Rice is given free of cost, while sugar, pulses, cooking oil and kerosene are given at subsidised rates to card holders.
Out of 18 households canvassed in the survey from Palakurichi and Venmani villages, all had ration cards, although two had not availed of the commodities given at subsidised rates to card holders. Of the two, one household was a landlord/capitalist farmer belonging to the Backward Classes. The other was a petty business household belonging to the Dalit community. The remaining households bought rice, pulses, sugar and cooking oil from the PDS. Five households, of which four were Dalit, reported that they received take-home rations from child-care centres (anganwadis). Only two households reported receiving food relief from non-governmental organisations, and they were both Dalit.
Of the seven households (out of 18) that reported reduced food consumption during the pandemic, six were Dalit households. Almost all of them reported a reduction in consumption of vegetables, meat, milk and sugar – items not disbursed through PDS.
As a result of the sudden drop in incomes, households of poorer groups like Dalits faced a significant challenge to their food security. This is thus yet another aspect of the vulnerability of Dalit households, which is clearly much worse than non-Dalit households. State support in the form of a functioning PDS can play a key role in mitigating deprivation during crises like pandemics. Tamil Nadu with its relatively robust PDS illustrates this point.
Access to education is a pre-requisite for socio-economic change leading to equal opportunity for oppressed groups like Dalits. Disruptions and restrictions in access to education of Dalits therefore warrants particular attention. Schooling in India has been disrupted heavily as a result of the pandemic, and alternative arrangements such as online classes often require students to use devices capable of displaying videos, sharing files and so on. Sufficient connectivity to the internet is of course a key contributor to the success of online classes. The unequal access of households to such arrangements leads to a differential impact on students across social groups to the collapse of education, or the transition to digital forms of teaching.
A study by Oshikawa and Chakraborty (2021) assessed disparities in schooling during the pandemic. They found evidence of Dalit children being among the most affected by the disruption in schooling owing to the pandemic. Dalit children not only had less access to electronic assets such as laptops and televisions, they also had less access to alternative classes. Often first-generation learners, Dalit children did not have the advantage of an educated person in their home to help with their schooling.
Education in Palakurichi and Venmani during the Pandemic
There were 25 students among the 18 households canvassed in the survey. Out of 13 students in Palakurichi, six belonged to the Scheduled Castes, five belonged to manual worker households and one belonged to a poor peasant household. Out of 12 students from Venmani, 10 belonged to the Schedule Castes, four to manual worker households, one from a poor peasant household, two from rich/middle peasants, and three students from others.
Out of the 16 Dalit students, 13 were in households with no educated person to help with schooling, 12 had no access to devices like smart phones or internet connections, and 10 were not attending any alternate classes instead of school. Only two non-Dalit students reported not having access to alternative classes, and all of the non-Dalit students reported having access to electronic learning aids, as well as an educated person at home to help with schooling.
In sum, schooling and education was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and students from Dalit households were the most affected across social groups. The pandemic reveals how fragile and vulnerable access to schooling and education remains for the section of population for whom it is most crucial. The impact on schooling is perhaps the most significant and long-term impact that the Dalit community is facing as a result of the pandemic.
Summary and Conclusions
This note examines the effect of the pandemic on rural Dalit households, using data from two villages in Tamil Nadu which were part of the FAS-PSU survey conducted in September-October 2020.
The key findings of the note are as follows: First, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had an immediate and relatively short-term impact on the availability of employment, particularly in unskilled and semi-skilled wage work. It created pressure on rural sources of employment and income such as MGNREGS work and agriculture. Even as both of these were relatively unaffected by the pandemic, neither have managed to provide higher-than-usual incomes to rural households. Real wages declined and costs of cultivation increased. This pressure, coupled with existing debt, in turn catalysed fresh borrowings and distress sales by marginalised sections, like Dalits, leading to medium-term losses. In the absence of any significant expansion in government support, these groups experienced a contraction in their food consumption. Education was severely disrupted as well, especially for Dalit students, a majority of whom did not have access to electronic learning aids or the benefits of alternative classes. The impact of undernutrition and disrupted education are likely to have long-term consequences.
While the pandemic-induced pressures mentioned above are more or less applicable to rural society as a whole, this note tries to show how each short-term, medium-term, and long-term impact affects Dalits disproportionately. They are particularly vulnerable to every pressure and seem to suffer the most losses in every category. The cascading impact of the pandemic -- the precarious dependence on marginal farming for some, along with falling casual labour incomes for others; the slide into indebtedness and food insecurity; and the tenuous access to education -- has exacerbated the hardships faced by the Dalit community.
1 The Constitution of India, through Article 341, authorizes the President of India to specify castes to be notified as Scheduled Castes. The term, “Scheduled Castes” was first incorporated into the Government of India Act of 1935.
3 For the definition of socio-economic classes, see Ramachandran (2017).
4 While 12 per cent of the Dalit population of India are agricultural labourers, only seven per cent of the total population of India are agricultural labourers as per the Census of India, 2011. Dalits constitute 16.6 per cent of the population in India according to Census 2011. They control 8.5 per cent of the operated area or 11.8 per cent of holdings as per the Agricultural Census 2015-16.
5 In 2019, the FAS conducted a census-type socio-economic survey in the villages of Venmani and Palakurichi. The survey found that Dalit households form about two-thirds of the households in these villages. It further found that a little less than one-third of the land owners were Dalits, and land-owning Dalits owned 0.53 acres of land per household on average.
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