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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


Agriculture is the main source of income worldwide. However, in India there is a declining trend in the proportion of workforce employed in this sector, with many people seeking alternative employment. Here, Dr Pratheepa CM and Dr Rengalakshmi R from MSSRF and TIGR2ESS Flagship Project 1 describe the ability of two caste groups in rural Tamil Nadu to secure non-farm work.

Agriculture is the primary source of employment worldwide and it accounts for 28% of global employment. In India, 41.5% of the workforce were employed in agriculture in 2020. This is about 10% less than the 2010 (51.5%) workforce. Many factors, including urbanisation and mechanisation, have caused this declining trend in income and a reduced interest in continuously depending on agriculture alone for livelihoods. The small farmers' vulnerability is further intensified in coastal agro-ecosystems due to issues of rising soil salinity, declining farm income and limited employment opportunities in agriculture. 

For smallholder farmers and landless agriculture families who cannot diversify their livelihood in their own village, the next available option is to shift to non-farm work outside their village. In the case of landed farming households, men largely migrate to non-farm work while women stay back and continue farming. In the case of agricultural labour households, both men and women migrate temporarily to non-farm sector work which consistently provides employment.

Through a recent study carried out in a village in Mayiladuthurai District recently bifurcated from Nagapattinam district, we have gathered qualitative data which points out that labour market diversification is deep-rooted with the caste system and that there is a distinct difference between the type of non-farm work done by the Dalits (Scheduled Caste-SC) and the Most Backward Community (MBC-dominant caste). These two caste groups are actively involved in agriculture but owing to soil salinity they do non-farming work both inside and outside their village. During focused group discussions (FGDs), farmers reiterated the important role of non-farm work in their lives:

“Mason work (construction) gives good pay and a reliable work opportunity. Unlike [the] agriculture sector, here there are no risks or income insecurity. Those who don’t have good education prefer to be [a] mason for a better life. Now we are living in a decent house and our sons are earning better income[s] from non-farm wage work.”

Different caste groups secure different non-farm work

The MBC households own land while only a very small proportion of Dalit households are landowners. Though both caste group households work as agricultural labourers, in the transition process we have observed variations between the two: both men and women of Dalit households takes up unskilled construction work while the MBC households take up skilled work in the construction sector, as well as operating farm machinery, extracting coconut fibre, vending of milk and selling flowers.

Among the non-farm employment undertaken by Dalit and MBC households, construction work, specifically temple construction (Rs.1500 per day) and mason workers (Rs.800 per day), are better paid than any other labour. Temple construction work is exclusively done by the MBC community which needs some skills such as carving, sculpture, and careful painting. Very recently from one hamlet Dalit youths have started to work as temple construction workers, but most Dalit are unable to secure such work.

Within construction, the dominant caste MBC men are predominantly. Dalit community men and women, however, are mainly helpers to the masons which results in them earning lower wages (Rs.600 per day). The other skilled jobs available, such as electrician, welder, JCB operator, and driver are also mostly taken by MBC men. Similarly, inside the village there are five brick-kilns, all of which are owned by the MBC community, but all the brick-making labourers are Dalits. As the village is nearer to the coast, some of the men from Dalit hamlets do fish loading work which is seen as the lowest level of work by the community. Even within MBC households, only men from the very poorest households are involved in fish loading work. In all dimensions, the lower level of work is holding by Dalits, and the reason for this is revealed in the words of one Dalit labour:

“We don’t know any other jobs other than agriculture. Only a few of us go for masonry works as assistants to them. We don’t own any vehicle but people work as a driver from our community and earn a daily wage for driving work. Until we get the seasonal farming work we do small activities other than agriculture, cattle rearing, and so on, otherwise, we wouldn’t be having any income to run our family. Life is quite difficult for us.” 

The situation is similar among migrant workers; the dominant caste migrants get work as drivers, skilled workers, office assistants etc. but Dalit community migrants are employed in more menial roles such as camel headers or dish washers where they undergo humiliation and corporal punishments from their employers. Caste persecution and identity still haunt Dalit labourers even when working cross-country.

The work of women

The work of women in non-farming employment differs substantially from men in most cases. Women undertake different food processing work such as batter making, selling curd, running eateries, and selling tea and coffee. They sell these items within the village as well as at marketplaces. But all these women are from MBC; women from the SC community never get involved in these types of work due to the social stigma of untouchability prevailing in their society. Others in the community will not purchase from them.

Women from the MBC community are generally not allowed to work outside, but the unmarried Dalit women can migrate to faraway places in different districts to work in spinning mills. Although both groups own land (in few households), the caste barrier has created a distinct division that is reflected in the non-farm work they take up. Both communities have economic insecurities but still, caste supremacy and discrimination prevail among the farm labourers and marginal farmers of the coastal villages which is perpetuating for a longer time. 

Caste discrimination intensifies existing inequalities

Caste hostility curtails Dalit’s livelihood and affects their income, employment, education, and social support. To overcome this, women from one of the Dalit hamlets have formed a farmer collective. These women collect money among themselves, lease farmland, work together, and share the profit. But unfortunately, MBC landowners avoid lending farmland to Dalits because of their caste. The humiliation they undergo can be understood from the below statements: 

“Even now, people belonging to the landowner’s caste are upset that we got the land. Some people got wind of it and they stopped talking to the landowners now. They’re facing a social boycott. The landowners are upset now and stopped talking to us”

“We don’t go to work if we have work on our own farms. When the landowners asked us to work for them, we refused because we had to work on our own land. They got angry at the people who sold us the farm and had an argument”

Existing social discrimination and poor social status further intensify the disadvantages faced by the lower caste Dalit people even when they go for non-farming work. This is against equality and their rights.

There is a need for socially sensitive policy intervention

Our analysis emphasizes that there is a need for an integrated skill-based training for both communities, especially for the Dalits to enhance their quality of life so that they can acquire skill-based work. The Skill India programme needs to fine tune and target the programmes to such vulnerable categories of people to support equitable development.

Our research also highlights the need for a concrete plan to reach Dalit people not already enrolled in rural Government employment schemes. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREG) Scheme is the only scheme for the poor in our study village, especially women. The district skill development plan of 2019 for Nagapattinam district also does not give the required focus to unskilled workers in agriculture and non-farm sectors to move up from being unskilled to skilled. Hence it is necessary to plan site-specific employment schemes and programmes covering all categories of people irrespective of gender, age, and employment group that would give hope to the poorest and most marginalised people to come up in their life.

This blog is written by Dr. Pratheepa C.M. and Dr. Rengalakshmi R. from MSSRF, Tamil Nadu, India. Both are members of TIGR2ESS Flagship Project 1.