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Wage Labour and Unfreedom in AgricultureAn Indian Case Study$

V. K. Ramachandran

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780198286479

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198286479.001.0001

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(p.273) Appendix 5. From Peasant to Proletarian: A Case Study of P. Chinnasubbayyan

(p.273) Appendix 5. From Peasant to Proletarian: A Case Study of P. Chinnasubbayyan

Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture
Oxford University Press

P. Chinnasubbayyan (born 1940) is a working man of Gokilapuram. He grew up in a Pallar scheduled caste middle peasant household in the village, working on the family land, and as a farm servant and casual daily labourer. In the late 1960s and through the 1970s he earned a living mainly as a poor peasant and as a hired labourer. In 1979 he lost his operational holdings and became a landless agricultural labourer in the village and he migrated later that year to Chittampara in Idukki district, Kerala, where he worked as a watchman in a cardamom estate owned by a plantation owner-cum-landowner from Cumbum.

Chinnasubbayyan’s parents, Pasuvan and Periyamma, had two sons and a daughter. Pasuvan was a middle peasant who owned about 5 acres of unirrigated land in the eastern part of the village and leased in two plots of surface-irrigated land of a combined extent of 2.2 acres for a fixed rent in kind and one 0.9-acre plot of groundwater-irrigated land on share tenancy. The extent of the first plot of surface-irrigated land was 1.2 acres, leased in by Pasuvan for about 30 years till 1966 (the lease ended with Pasuvan’s death) from Shanmughasundara Chettiar, a small landlord, who later sold the land. Pasuvan paid him 20 bags (1.16 tonnes) of paddy per crop as rent. The second plot of surface-irrigated land was a 1-acre plot, and was leased in from Rangasami Pillai of Thevaram, which is about 20 kilometres away. (Rangasami received it as part of the scheme to award agricultural land to freedom fighters.) Pasuvan paid the owner 928 kilograms of paddy per crop, and the lease continued, with Chinnasubbayyan’s elder brother as tenant, when we first met Chinnasubbayyan in 1977. The plot held on share tenancy was leased in by the household, first by Pasuvan and later by his elder son, for 40 years until 1977, when the tenant was evicted by the owner.

Pasuvan had a cart, 2 bullocks, and a plough, 9 or 10 milch cows, and about 20 chickens. The small surplus that the family earned helped him save a few thousand rupees to build a house in 1958. They built the house together, Pasuvan, Periyamma, and their children, hiring only a single kothanar (village mason) to help them.

Chinnasubbayyan began to work at an early age. When he was seven, he took the family’s goats and cows out to graze; at 12, he began to help his mother with the kavalai, the leather water-bag in which water was drawn from the well with the help of cattle. He also helped in irrigating the fields and hoeing on field bunds and he helped women workers weed the crops. At 15, his father taught him to plough and, by then, he was familiar with all the major operations on the household holdings. Apart from this, he supplemented family earnings by labouring out, particularly with the draught animals. Every crop season, he ploughed for wages with the animals for about 20 days, worked as a hired labourer with the animals at irrigation from the well for about 10 days, and hitched the animals to the cart and drove it on hire for about 10 days. For each of these tasks, he was paid Rs 6 a day, and he earned about Rs 240 per paddy season (there are two paddy seasons in a year).

(p.274) In 1961, when he was 21, Chinnasubbayyan began to work with a landlord as a pannaiyal (farm servant), working for 6 months at a wage of Rs 60 a month. For two years after that, he worked for a landlord who had the government contract for building houses for harijans. Chinnasubbayyan worked at construction himself, and supervised other workers. They worked for a year at constructing harijan housing in Gokilapuram and another year at Rayappanpatti, and, at the end of it, Chinnasubbayyan received an award for his labour. He was paid Rs 125 a month and an allowance of 50 paise a day over the two-year period. The landlord also gave him clothes. During that period, his father and brother worked the land and took care of the house. Apart from sharing in the expenses of his father’s household, where he lived and ate, Chinnasubbayyan was able to turn over Rs 150 that he had saved from the two years of construction labour to his father.

As soon as the work in Rayappanpatti was over, the landlord ‘married me off’. His family spent Rs 1,000 on the wedding, and Chinnasubbayyan returned to household cultivation where, on surface-irrigated land, they grew two crops of paddy, on groundwater-irrigated land, two coarse-grain crops (cholam and ragi) with pulses intercropped and, on dry land, ragi, samai, and groundnut.

Pasuvan died in 1966, a hard-working man who left his sons no debts. The years that followed his father’s death were decisive for Chinnasubbayyan; it was a period of instability and of a shift to semi-proletarian status and, by 1979, to the position of a hired labourer.

Head of a Poor Peasant Household: 1977

In 1977, Chinnasubbayyan was the head of an eight-member household consisting of himself (37), his wife Mariamma (30), his mother (about 53), their two daughters, Murugeswari (5) and Mariamma (1), and three sons, Muniyandi (11), Chinnamuniyandi (9), and Murugan (7). This was a relatively large household: the average size of household in the village in 1977 was 4.9 and, for households of the Pallar caste, 4.8. The adults in the household had never been to school and were illiterate: Chinnasubbayyan could barely—big, scrawled letters—write his name. In 1977 only his second son, the 9-year-old Chinnamuniyandi, was being sent to school. The children were not yet old enough to work at major manual tasks, and Chinnasubbayyan, his wife, and mother worked at the family holdings of dry land and leased-in surface-irrigated land and they did agricultural and non-agricultural tasks for wages.

Chinnasubbayyan still owned some dry land, 1.2 acres in the east of the village, on which he grew a single (and meagre) crop of coarse cereal intercropped with pulses. After the death of Pasuvan, two of the landlords who had leased land to him extended the leases with Chinnasubbayyan’s elder brother Periyasubbayyan as tenant. After Chinnasubbayyan took in surface-irrigated land on lease himself in 1972, the two brothers decided to live and cultivate their land separately.

Chinnasubbayyan leased in 0.67 acres of surface-irrigated land from Murthy Naicker, a rich landlord-cum-merchant and occasional money-lender of Vaikkalpatti, a village to the north-east of Gokilapuram. The land had been mortgaged to Murthy Naicker by a member of a Maravar landlord family in Gokilapuram and Murthy Naicker leased it on fixed rent to Chinnasubbayyan during the period of mortgage. Chinnasubbayyan paid a high rent for the land, 15 bags (of 58 kilograms each) of paddy per crop, which worked (p.275) out to about 45 per cent of gross output in a good season, apart from having to meet the costs of all inputs.

Chinnasubbayyan is a very competent farm worker. In 1977, his family had been using new varieties of paddy for almost 10 years. He saw the burgeoning harvests of the big landlords who had begun to plant new varieties and began to plant them himself. ‘We have faith in the new methods,’ Chinnasubbayyan said, ‘but compared to the landlords we do not have the opportunity to use them fully.’ Poor peasants could not afford to hire labour as freely as the landlords, and landlords did not have to hesitate, as a poor cultivator did, before deciding to spend money on the fertilizer, pesticide, and the tractor time that they thought necessary for the crop.

There was no real hesitation, however, among poor cultivators about introducing new varieties, since they produced much more paddy. Of course, there was some talk from those who did not like change, ‘talk intended to frighten people’, Chinnasubbayyan said. Rumour had it, and Chinnasubbayyan laughed as he reminisced, that ‘cattle would die and goats would vomit if they ate the straw from the new paddy, and that human beings would get heart attacks from eating the rice. In Chinnamanur a threshing bullock died, and it was said that it was from eating the straw. I went to Chinnamanur, I saw the animal dead, but this did not keep us from introducing the new varieties—we readily accepted them.’ Production was much higher and, once the new rice entered the market and people’s cooking-pots, the rumours died out very quickly.

The most serious blow to household paddy cultivation was during the drought, when the second crops in the 1973–4 and 1974–5 seasons were badly affected. ‘We had only straw left and poor and broken paddy and husk to pay as wages,’ Chinnasubbayyan said. ‘I had had no previous experience like this in my life.’

In addition to working on the household operational holding, the three adult members of the household worked as hired labourers. Mariamma and Periyamma together worked 194 days in the 1976–7 agricultural year as hired agricultural labourers on paddy, coarse cereal, cotton, groundnut, banana, and vegetable fields and spent another 60 days working for piece-rates at removing seed and fibre from tamarind. Chinnasubbayyan worked as a hired labourer for 62 days at tasks for which he took the household draught animals with him, for 3 days at harvesting groundnut, and for 5 days at threshing coarse cereal.

The system of exchange labour, though declining, still existed and, in the case of this household, mainly on dry land. Labour was exchanged between relatives and members of the same caste, mainly at the time of weeding and ploughing, ‘when there is a need to drive more than one plough through the field.’

Chinnasubbayyan did perform labour services for the landlord-lessor, 2 to 3 days per crop, guarding the sheaves at Murthy Naicker’s threshing-floor. He did not do any domestic labour services for the landlord. He would have had to do more had the landlord lived in the same village, but one reason Murthy Naicker, an absentee, had taken Chinnasubbayyan on as a tenant was that Chinnasubbayyan lived in the village where the land was located, and the labour services that the landlord could demand were correspondingly less.

Chinnasubbayyan also attempted to earn some money from sideline business activities. When the banana crop in the village ripened, he and Ramasami, the head of the Pallar kothu (group of contract labourers, see Chapter 9), went from field to field, looking for bananas that had been knocked down by the wind before ripening enough for harvest and which could not be marketed with the regular crop. They bought these (p.276) bananas and ‘ripened’ them by smoking them in a makeshift oven, made of earth and dead leaves. Every time they had a consignment large enough, they took the bananas—by bus and by hitching rides on lorries for small payments—across the border to Kerala, where they sold them in Vandiperiyar and other markets in the hill region. Chinnasubbayyan earned about Rs 900 that year, and was planning to look for other damaged fruit to ripen and sell in markets close to the border where plantation workers spent their wages.

He had made another, unsuccessful, attempt to enhance household earnings. Twenty-one months before we met him in May 1977, he had bought a milch buffalo on a loan-cum-subsidy scheme from a commercial bank. The household got about 5 litres of milk a day from the animal, and they paid their dues (calculated at a rate of Rs 1.60 per litre) to the village milk co-operative society. Four months after the buffalo calved, the calf died. The milch animal went dry and the family sold it for Rs 300. Out of the existing liability of Rs 1,500, Rs 100 was deducted. There was no way of repaying all that we owe now,’ and Chinnasubbayyan said that he expected a notice’ from the bank at any time.

The failure of the paddy crop in two seasons and the bank loan had landed the household in considerable debt. They still had to pay about Rs 1,000 to the bank and Rs 600 to a private lender; the second loan, taken in 1976, had on it a rate of interest of 30 per cent per annum.

When he spoke to us in 1977, Chinnasubbayyan spoke of the fact that over the previous 20 years, joint families were breaking up, and of the growing importance of the cash nexus in village life. He spoke of the landlord who had been his employer in the early 1960s, who was ‘interested in harijan welfare’; there was ‘less benevolence now’. As for present employers, ‘they don’t give meals with wages now; they don’t even give a worker buttermilk to drink, because they want to sell the milk.’

Loss of Land and Migration: 1979, 1981

Crisis hit Chinnasubbayyan’s household in 1979, and he was forced to leave Gokilapuram and migrate to the Cardamom Hills in Kerala for employment. The land he had leased in was land that had been mortgaged to the lessor; the mortgage was redeemed and the land sold. The new owner evicted Chinnasubbayyan without compensation. The household had debts of Rs 4,000. Unable to repay a loan of Rs 1,000 to one of the lenders, Chinnasubbayyan mortgaged the household ownership holding of dry land to him. After losing the surface-irrigated land that he leased in and the dry land that he owned and had mortgaged, Chinnasubbayyan sold the plough animals. He had bought the bullocks in 1977 for Rs 1,050, and he sold them for Rs 600. He sold a 5-year-old bullock cart, bought for Rs 500, for Rs 350. The banana-vending that he had been doing brought in only a small and desultory income, and only for a few months in a year.

At this time, when he, his wife, and mother were struggling to support the family, his wife’s cousin, from the village of Veerapandi, who worked as an accountant at a cardamom estate owned by a landlord of Cumbum, asked Chinnasubbayyan if he wanted to work on the estate as a watchman. Chinnasubbayyan knew nothing of cardamom cultivation, but he took the job and left Gokilapuram for the hill town of Chittampara, which is in Idukki district in Kerala, and about 20 kilometres from the border town of Kumili.

At the estate on working days, from 8 a.m. till past 3 p.m., Chinnasubbayyan went (p.277) with the estate workers to the hillside fields, where he did small jobs around the field. After their work was done, he did his rounds of the estate. From August to November–December, when the crop ripens, he and two other watchmen-guards, armed with choppers, patrolled their estate-wide beats from 6.30 p.m. till past midnight. On Sundays as well, he had to be present to guard the estate. Chinnasubbayyan also had to do odd jobs and run errands for the administrative staff of the estate and for the owner and his family when they came up from the plains.

Years of sustained trade union activity in Kerala have made for estate wages that are higher than wages for agricultural labour in the village. Chinnasubbayyan earned Rs 10 per day for 6 days a week (Rs 60 paid every Saturday), on Tamil New Year’s day he was given Rs 240, and Rs 50 each on the festivals of Pongal and Deepavali—about Rs 3,460 a year in all. Once in two months he was given two days off and he went to the village.

Chinnasubbayyan sent home approximately Rs 100 a month. He had savings of about Rs 500 that were kept with the owner: he did not have an account, but was ‘sure’ that the owner would not cheat him. In 1981, his son also had a job on the estate; his wife would have come too, but there were no vacancies in the work-force.

Chinnasubbayyan’s wage, however, was less than that of other estate workers, who earned Rs 10.61 per day and Rs 1.30 bonus for every day they worked. They belonged to the trade union; Chinnasubbayyan, fearful for his job, had not joined either the CITU (the trade union organization of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)) or the INTUC (the trade union organization of the Congress party), although both had asked him to join. He did not intend to join the trade union, even though staying away meant a lower wage (joining the union, he feared, may have meant no wage at all): ‘It is the owner who is feeding me rice; can I betray the person who brought me here, confident of my loyalty?’ He would not stand in the way of the union, Chinnasubbayyan said, but he would not join it.

Differences in conditions of work in Gokilapuram and in the cardamom plantations of the Kerala hills had made a deep impression on Chinnasubbayyan. ‘Here a worker is a worker, whether man or woman, and whatever the caste. For a day’s work, man, woman, harijan, Chettiar, all receive the same wage.’ There was no segregation of castes—workers of different castes lived in similar quarters and beside one another, they drew water from the same wells and taps, the tea-shops did not have separate glasses in which to serve tea to harijans, and there was frequent intermarriage between men and women of different castes and between people from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. ‘In the village, for at least eight hours’ work—and it may be more—my wife is given Rs 3. Here for a day’s work a worker, man or woman, gets Rs 10.61 and Rs 1.30 bonus, and those who spray pesticides work an hour less and get a rupee more.’ The unions were responsible for the difference, Chinnasubbayyan said. ‘Because of the union, workers are more aware of their rights, they do not cringe in front of the owner, and the owners cannot behave as they like towards the workers.’

His own dream for the future, when he saved ‘about 5,000 rupees’, paid off his debts, and redeemed his mortgage, was to return to the village as a peasant cultivating the land.

By June 1986, Chinnasubbayyan—cowherd, middle-peasant, farm servant, construction worker, agricultural labourer, poor tenant-peasant, self-employed itinerant fruit vendor, and cardamom plantation worker, all in the space of his 46 years—was back in Gokilapuram as an agricultural labourer.

May 1977 to June 1986