Guest post: VK Ramachandran on details of life as a day laborer in India

[V. K. Ramachandran was a Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and is at present vice chairman of the State Planning Board of the state of Kerala. He is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Previous discussions of Ramachandran’s work in Understanding Society can be found here (link, link, link, link), and here is an interview I conducted with VK in 2008; link.]

[Acknowledgement: Extracted from Ramachandran, V. K., and Madhura Swaminathan, (eds.) (2018), Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, Tulika Books, New Delhi. This is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India.]

“Gabriel Selvam: A Biography of Work”

V. K. Ramachandran

Among the many the many things in which N. Ram was an early instructor (and I not good enough a learner) was on how to interview, take notes, edit copy, and present the results from conversation and observation.

NR was the first among us to meet Gabriel Selvam, and the description “upstanding young agricultural labourer” is his.

An Interview in Two Parts, 1977 and 2017

1977: Young Bonded Worker

G. Selvam (35) is an upstanding young agricultural labourer who has bonded himself as a pannaiyal (permanent farm servant) out of economic necessity. Selvam’s family is of the Parayar scheduled caste.

A loan of Rs 100 taken over six years ago from CT, a petty usurer, led directly to his present condition as farm servant. At that time, the loan was taken for subsistence needs and was perceived as a temporary expedient. On account of a 120 percent interest rate, the loan of Rs 100 became a liability of Rs 220 over a year. The usurer pressed Selvam, then 31 years old, to sell his house in order to repay the loan. Selvam, refusing to abandon the family house site, went around asking for a way to work off his debt. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the landlord SCC. This landlord, who was looking for a young and strong farm servant, was willing to advance the money to clear the debt, provided Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month plus one sheet and a dhoti, a shirt, and a towel-cloth (thundu) a year.

Selvam took an advance of Rs 100 for going to work as a farm servant, and used that to clear just under half his debt. Then, after the first month of work, he took a loan of Rs 120 to clear the debt.

Since then, that is, for six years, Selvam has been working for well over 13 hours a day. He worked at the salary of Rs 65 a month for four years. Two years ago, when paddy prices soared to nearly Rs 150 per 58-kilogram bag, the farm servants in the village asked their employers for a raise. Selvam was given a wage rise that was long overdue: in 1977 he was paid Rs 110 a month.

SCC, like some other big landlords in the village, has found it much to his advantage to hire a farm servant in this way. He has advanced small sums of money to Selvam over the years, sums always taken “temporarily,” but with no real chance of the debtor repaying the debt and getting out of his present condition. Selvam makes it clear that he is not paid anything near the remuneration he should be getting for this work. “There is no choice,” he says, “I can’t leave my mudalali (employer, landlord) unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

In his childhood, Selvam was not as badly off as he is today. His father, Gabriel, was a poor or lower-middle peasant, cultivating surface-irrigated land that had been leased in from landlords of the village. His mother worked as a hired labourer.

His father sent Selvam to school. Selvam studied in the Mission School in Gokilapuram, down the road from where he lives today, up to the fifth class. He completed the sixth class at the NMR School in Gokilapuram. Selvam was a good student and his father sent him to Vatthalakundu, where Selvam studied in the seventh and eighth classes, finishing when he was 16 years old. He stayed at a hostel at Vatthalakundu, and his father sent him Rs 20 a month. Selvam returned to the village after finishing the eighth class. He can read and write Tamil and can still read some English.

Selvam’s father tilled 6 kuzhi (3.6 acres) of surface-irrigated land belonging to landlord ST on kuthagai (fixed rent) for 20 years. He also worked 1.5 acres of groundwater-irrigated land belonging to SP, a landlord of Uthamapalayam. Selvam also worked on the land leased in by the family. Selvam married when he was 20 years old. His wife, Alphonse, is from a family of tenant cultivators from Pudupatti in Uthamapalayam taluk.

In about 1967, there was a sharp decline in the agriculture conducted by the family. The surface-irrigated land had poor soil and bad drainage, and standing water after the rain affected the crop. The land was manured only for one crop, one of the reasons for the yield being poor. The groundwater-irrigated land had a well with plenty of water and had a pulley and rope to draw water with. But household cultivation was in decline, the family began to incur debt, and the age-old symbol of a peasant family heading towards destitution became apparent: the cattle owned by the family became thin and weak.

About the same time, eviction took place on a large scale in the village. Earlier, the paddy crops were the traditional parunnel and samba varieties; later, with the introduction of new seeds, yields were higher, and agriculture became more profitable for the landlords. There was also fear among them, Selvam said, that the tenants would assert their right to cultivate the land. Landlords brought pressure on the tenants to leave the land. Rents were raised, rack-rents were imposed on tenants. In some cases, landlords brought great pressure on tenants to leave, offering them small amounts of money to do so. The peasants were disunited, Selvam said, and, out of fear, accepted the money and left the land.

Agricultural Wage Work

Selvam made it clear that the big landlords can always bring pressure on agricultural labourers; as for agricultural labourers, there is little scope for their advance today. Opportunities for employment in some tasks have gone down since the arrival of tractors, Selvam pointed out. The tractor has robbed those with ploughs and bullocks of ploughing work, and those with carts and bullocks of work in basal manuring. Even during threshing, the tractor has deprived agricultural labourers of employment. While earlier, there would be four days’ work at the threshing-floor and four bullocks would be needed to trample the grain for the second threshing, now the tractor can be driven over the sheaves to complete the task in less than an hour.

Unemployment is high and wages are poor, and women’s wages have actually been brought down, from Rs 3 per day to Rs 2.50 per day. There was agitation by Communists five years ago in southern villages of the Valley, Selvam recalls, when men workers won an increase in their grain wages, from 4 measures per day to 5 measures, and women an increase to 3 measures for threshing.

While wages in the village do not vary directly with the caste of the worker, discrimination against the scheduled castes, the overwhelming majority of whom are landless labourers, is deeply entrenched. Most of the farm servants in the village are Dalit.

Selvam has an extremely busy working year. During the 1976-7 agricultural year, he worked on both crops of paddy on surface-irrigated land, in different operations in the cultivation of irrigated sorghum (cholam), finger millet (ragi), tomato, and banana on groundwater-irrigated land, and in little millet (samai) on unirrigated land. In addition to agricultural work every day, he did domestic tasks at the landlord’s house. Selvam’s wife Alphonse laboured at agricultural operations for 57 days in 1976-7, and earned Rs 158.70 as wages. She seeded and cleaned tamarind for 3 days, for which she earned Rs 7.50.

Selvam’s wage is lower than other farm servants in the village, some of whom are paid Rs 130 and Rs 140 by their landlord employers. But when Selvam asks for a wage increase, the landlord arrogantly insists: “I have already increased your wages. You used to get Rs 65, now you get 110.” The standard that SCC uses, Selvam says, is not the wage paid to other farm servants in the village, but the Rs 65 pittance that Selvam himself used to receive before he was paid Rs 110 a month.

When Selvam is unwell, the landlord may give Selvam a small amount of money to buy medicine, but he will not pay for treatment for Alphonse or the children when they fall ill.

As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet. “We do not know when this hut will be built,” Alphonse said. “We lay a few bricks, and it may be a few months before we can add more bricks. It may take years to complete the hut in this manner.”

With all this, Selvam must also face rudeness and shouts from the landlord, the loud arrogance of SCC as taskmaster of “his” farm servant.

“Life is difficult for me,” Selvam said. He sees his children at 5 a.m. (when he leaves the house), when the older children may be just beginning to wake up. It is seldom, and only in the slack season, that he comes home before they are asleep for the night. And the hours in between are filled with arduous, back-breaking labour that covers every task that an agricultural labourer in the village can perform.

I have seen Selvam, early in the morning, heaving farmyard manure on to a cart and driving the cart to the paddy-fields, unloading it in neat piles across the field. I have seen him, bare-chested, barefoot, and dressed in an old and torn lungi, with a soiled cloth on his head to protect him from the sun, walking with a hoe across his shoulder over the ridge east of the village on the road leading to SCC’s groundwater-irrigated field in neighbouring Anamalaiyanpatti. I have seen him at the field, cutting and clearing water channels before the electricity comes on and irrigation water rushes up; and in the banana field, hacking at the tough young shoots that grow by the banana trees, cutting dry and withered leaves off the tree, and straightening tree trunks with wooden props that have been chopped and shaped by him. I have seen him, in the evenings, working in SCC’s house, watering, feeding, and washing the cattle or chopping a tree trunk for firewood for SCC’s kitchen. I have seen him at the bus-stop in Uthamapalayam, straining to lift a motor pump, newly repaired, on to the carrier of a Gokilapuram-bound bus. Standing under a bus-shelter in Gokilapuram after 11 o’clock at night, I have heard the sound of a cart coming down the road from Anamalaiyanpatti. It is Selvam, urging the bullocks through pouring rain back to the house of SCC. I have seen him after 11.30 at night, rain smudging the red mud that clings to his face and body, entering his hut and eating gruel and pickle by the weak light of an oil lamp, and preparing to catch some sleep before the next day of labour begins.

Selvam states clearly that it is not “loyalty” that keeps him with the landlord. It is his debt and the difficulty of finding alternative employment if he were to leave. “I have heard of the union of agricultural labourers in East Thanjavur. A union is needed, unity of agricultural labourers is needed. If there were a union in Gokilapuram, I would join it.”

May 1977

2017: A Working Life

Selvam worked for a total of 13 years with SCC. When he left, he was paid a mere Rs 400 a month. Selvam said that about 4000 rupees were due to him and unpaid when he left SCC’s employment.

Selvam worked 15 years as a daily worker after he left the employment of SCC. Three years after he left, Selvam’s son Arokiyasami was married. Over the three years, Selvam spent one year as a worker in a cardamom estate in Parathodu in Kerala, owned by Shanmughavel of Pannaipuram.

Alphonse worked as a wage labourer all her working life, that is, until four years ago.

Ten years ago, Selvam began to work for Venkatesan, a retired college teacher. Selvam was hired at a wage of Rs 2000 a month. Venkatesan owns 10.8 acres of thottam land and 1.8 acres of nanjai land in the north of the village, on the banks of the Thamaraikulam irrigation tank, where he grows nendran banana and coconut.

Selvam comes to the field at 7 am every day, takes a break from about 11:00 to 2:30, and works again at the field till 6 pm. He takes care of the field, clears the channels for irrigation, works the locks of the pipes for drip irrigation, supervises and works with other wage workers at some operations (planting and harvest), and weeds and cleans the fields. He also keeps the main trunks of the banana trees free of unwanted side-shoots, and applies fertilizer and undertakes all other plant protection tasks.

After three years with the landlord, Selvam asked for a raise. His new wage was fixed at Rs 4,000 a month (the worker on the neighbouring field gets Rs 6,000 a month, he told us). The landlord agreed, and said that he would henceforth account for Selvam’s withdrawals against the new wage. For Selvam is not paid his wage on a fixed day every month. He takes money for expenses from the owner “whenever I need it,” for household expenses, for festivals. The employer says he is keeping an account; Selvam trusts him and says that he, too, keeps track of how much he has taken from the landlord. He estimates that he has credit of about Rs 10,000 with the landlord. There is no formal account of Selvam’s savings with the landlord.

Four years ago, Alphonse developed a swelling on her right knee. A doctor in Uthamapalayam gave her drugs and an injection, and the swelling “sank to her foot.” Blood and pus was drained with a large syringe from the foot. Alphonse was discharged from the hospital, and was told to spread an ointment on the wound. Selvam did this every day. Alphonse began to scratch the itchy wound before it had healed completely. She eats betel leaf and nuts with lime, and the lime paste on her finger began to inflame the wound. It turned septic. Selvam took her in his son Sekhar’s autorickshaw to Cumbum, where the doctor said that she needed emergency treatment at Theni. Alphonse was taken by ambulance to the Theni Government Medical College and Hospital, where the doctors advised emergency surgery. She had a second surgery, followed by a skin graft.

In the post-operative ward, Selvam watched people on the other beds, and began to realise the importance of dressing Alphonse’s wound correctly – that it was a task that needed an expert, something he could not do himself. He hired a person to change the bandage – at Rs 50 a day – for the three months they spent in the hospital.

Alphonse is back home now. She can move a bit – to the sitting platform in front of the house, to change her clothes, to go to the bathroom; but not more than that. “We do not know how long she will survive. She has never done anyone any wrong. When she goes, it will be to heaven.”

The Children

Arokiasamy (50), the oldest child of Selvam and Alphonse, works as a mason and has a small business as a contractor for constructing small houses. His wife, Sumathi, has a tenth class school-leaving certificate, and works in the panchayat office as a data collector. They have two children, a son, Maniprathi (22), now a student at a polytechnic in Namakkal, and a daughter, Sunitha (21). Sunitha completed a B. A. degree and is now married. Her husband works on the staff of a tea estate owned by N Ramakrishnan, former MLA from Cumbum.

Arokiamary (48), the only daughter of Selvam and Alphonse, is now almost completely blind. She looks after her parents and brother, the much-loved carer in the home.

Shekhar (46) lives in Gokilapuram. He owns an autorickshaw, from which he which earns an income of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a day. His wife, Thilakam, is a manual worker in agriculture and at non-agricultural tasks. Their children, Merlyn Marcia and Praveen, their grandparents’ joy, study in class 1 and class 2 in the English-language medium section of the Savarimuthu Udayar Memorial Higher Secondary School, a reputed school in the neighbouring village of Rayappanpatti.

Vedamuthu (44) stays at home with his parents. He is a person with intellectual disabilities, and is unable to go regularly to work.

Xavier (41), the youngest son of the family, works at loading and unloading bags of rice at the government civil supplies godown in Uthamapalayam. His wife Muthuarokiyam and he are now residents of Uthamapalayam, where his children Akhilesh, Vimalesh, and Pratibha go to school. Xavier earns 600 rupees a day, and an extra 1000 rupees a month for the manual work at the godown.

Forty Years On

Selvam and family live today in the house whose initial construction costs led him into bondage in 1977. It is completed and expanded now, a neat whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker. They were exploited and extremely poor – near destitute – in 1977. Today, they are still poor, Selvam’s wages are low, and he has no knowledge of how much of his earned wages are held by his employer. But he is no longer destitute, no longer in bondage, and no longer at the mercy of a harsh and cruel landlord of the old type.

They are better off now than they were in 1977 – oh yes, of course we are, Selvam says. Our house is complete, and we never go hungry, we have special things to eat: egg curry twice a week, chicken on Sundays, fish once in about twenty days. Thanks to the public system for the distribution of cereal, there is enough rice for the family. The house has been electrified (Selvam says that they received their electricity connection at the same time, conveniently, as their son Arokiasami’s wedding).

I have continued to meet Selvam over the years. I was associated with resurveys of Gokilapuram village in 1986 and 1999, and continue to be interested in changing agrarian relations in the village and region. I return to the Cumbum Valley regularly for tasks connected with the Gokilapuram Educational Trust, an organisation of which the honoree of this volume is a founder trustee. Travel to the Valley gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with Selvam; as we grow older, we grow more conscious of the value of old friendships.

Selvam asks me if I remember the little kerosene lamp (of course I do — made of tin and with a flimsy glass chimney) that I used during our survey in 1977. I used it after dark during conversations and interviews in homes that had no electricity. You gave it to me when you left the village after the survey, he says. After electricity came to the house Selvam stored the lamp deep in a loft, where it remains today. He keeps it as a reminder of his friend — and of the days when they had only a single lamp for light in a half-constructed house.

December 2017