The 2 Ss of Dalits of Coimbatore

Aim: To prove that neither the modernization of agriculture nor urbanization and industrialization has led to significant changes in the position of SCs since 1980s. In short, to highlight the Subordination and Subjugation of Dalits in Coimbatore from 1980 onwards.

This blog focuses on the conditions of Chakkiliyars (specifically), Pannayadis, Caste Hindus and other backward classes which were subjugated and oppressed by Thottam farmers (the people in power or the ‘upper caste’).  History has shown a lot of evidence that caste institutions have always operated to subordinate and subjugate Dalits. Dalits were extremely submissive, deferential and subordinated during 1980s and were subject to brutal caste practices of a sophisticated group of farmers (Thottam farmers).

Despite the growing modernization of the economy, and positive discrimination policies and programs in the favor of SCs, they were still overwhelmingly represented in the lowest ranks of the socio-economic hierarchy in India.

The area of focus of this paper, Coimbatore, is at the forefront of industrialization, urbanization and modernization of agriculture in India, and has high degrees of inequality and poverty. It is a state where caste plays a particularly strong role as well. SCs were strongly subordinated in the modernized agriculture and remained very much at the bottom of the hierarchy in the industrializing economy as well.

  • Effect of Agricultural modernization:

During 1980s, agriculture was dominated by small-scale agriculturalists who hired laborers who were mainly SCs. Despite the dominance of agriculture, industrialization prevailed and overpowered agriculture in mid 1990s.  The increase in industrialization led to a decrease in the prosperity of agriculturalists. The irrigated area had fallen and dry land had been taken out of cultivation.

The majority of members of the Thottam farmers households that dominated the villages in early 1980s were still pursuing agriculture in 1996, though much less successfully than in 1981/1982. Large numbers of Caste Hindu members of other occupational groups had moved into non-agricultural activities. The majority of SC agricultural laborer households continued working as same.

  • 1981/82: the caste and economic structure

The villages near Coimbatore were predominantly agricultural, dominated by Thottam farmers (castes of Gounders, Naidus and Chettiars) and the majority of agricultural laborers were SCs.

     (1981/82 and 1996 caste and agricultural land percentage)

1981/1982 1996
Households (HHs) Land Households (HHs) Land
Brahmin 0 1
Naidu 6 13 4 12
Gounder 35 58 33 60
Chettiar 15 21 16 22
Pannadi 11 1 16 1
Chakkiliyar 19 0 16 0
Others 11 5 15 4

As can be seen from the above Survey report, Thottam farmers dominated the study villages with 13% of HHs and owned 61% of the irrigated land. Thottam farmers relied on larger inputs of labor for cultivation. Thottam farmers maintained tight control over labor and boasted a frugal everyday lifestyle.

Share of landholdings by occupational group and caste in 1981/82 (percentage)

Occupational Group HHs Thottam land Dry Land Total Land
Thottam farmers 13 61 31 44
Small farmers 23 33 45 40
Trade and services 23 4 17 12
Agricultural laborers 43 2 7 5
Caste Hindu agricultural laborers 13 2 5 4
Pannadi agricultural laborers 11 0 1 1
Chakkiliyar agricultural laborers 18 0 1 0

Small farmers operating alongside Thottam farmers made up 23% of HHs in 1981/1982 and owned 33% of irrigated land. 42% of HHs were headed by agricultural laborers. 30% of these were Caste Hindu. The rest were from the 2 main SC groups: 27% Pannadi, 43% Chakkiliyar (virtually none with any land at all).

  • Labor Relations in 1981/82:

There was year round employment for a large number of agricultural laborers due to a wide range of crops and extensive irrigation (supplemented by 13% of the sugar-cane crushing work undertaken by male agricultural laborers).

Thottam farmers employed pannayals ( permanent laborers) as well as large numbers of casual laborers in 1981/82. Pannayals were almost all Chakkiliyars and were beck-and-call laborers. Pannayals played a central role on the agricultural labor force: they worked both longer hours and more days in the year than casual laborers. They also supervised other hired labor and had close ties with their employers. Their annual earnings were considerably higher than those of casual laborers. Chakkiliyars (field laborers for which the demand increased with the intensification of agriculture) resisted by changing employers, buying produce in the local markets instead of from their employers, and getting loans from elsewhere. Casual labor (comprising of men and women from Chakkiliyar, Pannadi and Caste Hindu) was not as intensive or as dependable a source of income as pannayal labor.

Chakkiliyars were subjected to discriminatory treatment outside the workplace as well as within in 1981/82. They handled dead animals, human excrement and waste. These roles were regarded as a basis for considering Chakkiliyars polluting or ‘unclean’. Being forced to play these roles reinforced the subordination of Chakkiliyars here.

Thottam farmers and others in the villages engaged in a whole range of untouchability practices, similar to those in other parts of India. Practices still operating in 1981/82 included restrictions on where they were served tea, and in what vessels they were served tea, at the teashop; and restrictions on where their children sat, and from what vessels their children drank water, at school. These, together with language conventions and physical interactions, served as daily reminders of their subordinate status, many of them degrading and humiliating.

Chakkiliyars were largely excluded from state programs targeted at the poor in 1981/82. The highly selective state support that they got in 1981/82 played into Thottam farmers’ hands which increased Chakkiliyars dependence on Thottam farmers.

Pannadis, the other group of SC agricultural laborers who were less numerous than Chakkiliyars, had a much less intense and dependent relationship with Thottam farmers than did Chakkiliyars. They could not ask Thottam farmers for any sort of help, neither with expenditures nor with state benefits. This was part of the price they paid for greater autonomy within the village community. Caste Hindu agricultural laborers, also less numerous than Chakkiliyars, were in a much stronger position than either Pannadis or Chakkiliyars. Most of them had land and livestock. Caste Hindu laborers lived in the main villages and had access to more facilities and space than SCs. This was reflected in the fact that the majority of young Caste Hindus from agricultural laborer households were in school, in contrast to very small numbers of Chakkiliyars or Pannadis, in 1981/82.

  • Caste oppression and agricultural modernization:

A number of factors contributed to the oppressive labor regime of Thottam farmers in 1981/82:

  1. They were well entrenched, and the caste practices involved were well established.
  2. They were able to offer an attractive enough deal to stave off resistance.
  3. They were supported by state ideology and practice.
  4. They were exposed to very little pressure from below.

Chakkiliyars accepted the oppressive regime, with only minor resistance, because of

  1. Lack of support from state ideology and practice
  2. The security of livelihoods which employers were able to provide and
  3. The absence of better alternatives.

Chakkiliyars were well aware of the lengths to which Thottam farmers would go, making their lives intolerable in the villages as well as withdrawing their livelihoods there.  They did not want to jeopardise what they had. They would only risk this if they had alternatives that were better than those available in 1981/82.

  • 1996: Industrialization and Agriculture:

Industrialization expanded dramatically between 1981/82 and 1976. There was a decline of large-scale manufacturing in the larger centers, and an increase in small-scale manufacturing in Coimbatore, Tiruppur as well as in the surrounding countryside (Tiruppur was an important center as far as the study villages were concerned).

The growth of industrial opportunities coincided with the crisis in agriculture. The response of Thottam farmers was to sink deeper boreholes and to invest in compressor and submersible pumps. The new technology was expensive, and it produced less water than before. The increased cost of labor was an additional problem for farmers. They had difficulty retaining enough labor, despite the fact that they were employing less labor than before. All of this appeared to have been completely unforeseen by farmers and others in the villages in 1981/82.

  • Changes in employment and occupations:

In 1981/82, nearly 73% of the male workforce worked in agriculture, roughly 40% as cultivators, and 60% as laborers. The percentage of total village employment in agriculture in 1981/82 was considerably higher than this as most women and girls worked in agriculture too.

In 1996, over 50% of the male workforce was employed in agriculture. The percentage in rural non agriculture employment had risen substantially, particularly in services and trade. The percentage in urban non-agricultural employment had risen even more. Most of this was in mills, factories and workshops to which people commuted from the villages. It is notable that very few women and girls from these villages were employed in the non-agricultural sector in places like Tiruppur where the overall proportion of women and girls in the workforce had been growing rapidly (according to Population Census 1981,1991)

People in different caste and occupational groups were participating very unequally in the changes. The majority of members of 1981/82 Thottam farmer households had stayed in the villages, some combining agriculture with trade and processing. What was striking in 1996 (and 2003/2004) was how relatively little people from 1981/82 Thottam farmer households had been able to take advantage of the new opportunities that had been opening up.

The 1981/82 small farmers and Caste Hindu agricultural laborers had moved out of agriculture in large numbers. It was not because of education factor but because they were willing to take up positions that Thottam farmers refused. Caste Hindu laborers saw these positions as ways of getting into more attractive positions in the future.

On the other hand, Chakkiliyar and Pannadi agricultural laborers had been strikingly less successful in moving into either urban or rural non-agricultural occupations than Caste Hindu laborers.

In 1981/82, large-scale enterprises in Coimbatore were the major outlet for people wanting to move out of agriculture. In 1996, small-scale enterprises nearer home were the target and the barriers included limited education, lack of relevant contacts, and lack of resources to get established there.

1981/82 occupations of male workforce (percentage)

1981/82 occupational group Cultivators Agricultural Rural non-agricultural Urban non-agricultural
Thottam farmers 50 0 2 1
Agricultural Laborers 0 180 9 9
Caste Hindu Agricultural Laborers 0 36 6 9
Pannadi Agricultural Laborers 0 62 1 0
Chakkiliyar Agricultural Laborers 0 86 2 0
Others 87 24 74 31

1996 occupations of male workforce (percentage)

1981/82 occupational group Cultivators Agricultural Rural non-agricultural Urban non-agricultural
Thottam farmers 42 1 11 2
Agricultural Laborers 5 119 44 34
Caste Hindu Agricultural Laborers 5 10 18 14
Pannadi Agricultural Laborers 0 41 12 14
Chakkiliyar Agricultural Laborers 0 68 14 6
Others 43 23 67 69
  • Remaining in agriculture:

Agriculture still occupied over 50% of the male and a very much higher proportion of the female workforce in the villages in 1996. Agriculture continued to be the main occupation of members of 1981/1982 Thottam farmer households as they were not finding it at all easy to move out of agriculture. The majority were waiting for the next generation, with more education, to do so. Meanwhile, 1981/82 Thottam farmers remained in the villages, less powerful in relation to labor and less powerful in village social and political life than before.

The proportion of agricultural laborers in the male workforce fell from 44% in 1981/82 to 31% in 1996. Pay had increased and hours were more regular and more strictly adhered to than before. There was also less child labor in 1996 than in 1981/1982. A much higher proportion of children were now in school.

Chakkiliyars had become increasingly dominant in the agricultural labor force as Caste Hindus, and Pannadis, had moved into other occupations. Many Chakkiliyars would have liked to do so too but they found it difficult. There was a reduction in extreme forms of untouchability as the power of Caste Hindus waned in the villages. Chakkiliyars remained in villages in which their position had improved (better wages and conditions, less social and political exclusion, and more support from the state), but they still did not have access to land or other crucial resources.  They were still confined to relatively low-paid labor in an agriculture that was doing less well. On the other hand, terms and conditions of pannayal employment had improved greatly by 1996, but there were very few pannayals left by 2003/04.

The expansion of state programs and policies that were now reaching SCs had contributed to the general improvement in the position of SCs since the early 1980s. These included free school meals, access to subsidized food and essential commodities, and large numbers of housing grants and loans which were accompanied by improved services in SC colonies. There had been a change in rhetoric too. It was no longer considered acceptable to treat SCs as badly as before. Chakkiliyars were becoming more assertive, challenging Caste Hindus. They were beginning to be able to get away with more in relation to their employers too. Though there was still a lot that was very oppressive, demeaning and humiliating for Chakkiliyars in 1996 and the early 2000s.

  • Conclusion:

The paradox here is that Coimbatore is the region in which the economy is furthest ahead, and the region in which caste plays the strongest role, and the position of SCs is weakest of all.

It is often claimed that it is the particular caste combination that is responsible for the above. Much has been made of the reputation of Gounders as hard-working, puritanical, violent and relatively uneducated. Gounders are also known for their close-knit local organization and what appear to be disproportionate amounts of time and resources invested in participation in life-cycle ceremonies.

It may also be significant that only in Coimbatore and neighboring regions in western Tamil Nadu do Chakkiliyars predominate among SCs. In other parts of Tamil Nadu, they were widespread but less numerous. Chakkiliyars own less land, and have lower levels of education, than other SC groups in Tamil Nadu. They are also by far the most seriously under-represented in government positions.

Coimbatore has long been a harsh environment in which to make a success of agriculture: agriculture has relied on relatively high inputs of capital; it has been high risk; it has also been relatively highly commercialized. It is said to be to Gounders’ credit that they have been able to make a success of such a harsh environment. This is also a reflection of the environmental influences on the character and organization of Gounders. Strong social networks could have been of particular importance for Gounders in the face of high levels of risk.

Gounders in the study villages were clearly investing a great deal in maintaining Chakkiliyar dependence in the early 1980s. They strongly resisted Chakkiliyar acquisition of land, participation in education and so on. Chakkiliyar subservience, and the lengths to which Chakkiliyars went to maintain good relations with Thottam farmers, underlined the importance that Chakkiliyars attached to this dependence, too. The strength of Gounder resistance to Chakkiliyar moves to reduce their dependence makes clear the stake that Gounders had in all this.

Capitalists will build on strong caste institutions where there is a legacy of such. Where they are able to use caste institutions to increase their control over labor, it clearly benefits them to do so.

SCs will have to fight to rise in the economic and social hierarchy. It is all too easy to see a further in which their relative position continues to deteriorate, unless they can mobilize effectively to force changes that are more favorable from their point of view.


2 thoughts on “The 2 Ss of Dalits of Coimbatore

  1. Dear Miss Yadav. Is this part of a study you had conducted? It’s an extremely interesting perspective. Would love to get my hands on the full report.

    – Rohan

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