Fifty Days of Lockdown in India: A View from Two Villages in Tamil Nadu

Villagers in Tiruppur district in Tamil Nadu, India’s largest knitwear manufacturing and export hub, face different levels of hardship due to the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19. This article details the coping strategies of garment, power loom, and agricultural workers in two villages—Allapuram and Mannapalayam.

Having conducted research in western Tamil Nadu for over 10 years, we had the resources to collect villagers’ accounts of the lockdown using phone conversations after we left the villages in mid-March 2020. Allapuram and Mannapalayam,[1] the two villages in question, are located in the hinterland of Tiruppur, India’s largest knitwear manufacturing and export hub, and are heavily dependent on the garment and textile sectors for employment. Building on more than 50 interviews and 600 survey questionnaires completed between July 2019 and March 2020, we conducted around 30 phone conversations between early April and mid-May 2020.  In Allapuram, we primarily contacted garment workers and owners of garment workshops, while in Mannapalayam, we talked to powerloom owners and operators. In both localities, we also interviewed agricultural labourers, farmers, and villagers involved in other economic activities. Unequal mobile phone ownership, however, made it more difficult to contact women, and with time, an increasing number of phones were switched off.

Our research participants confirmed that no one in our study villages had tested positive for COVID-19 till the end of May, but the lockdown had paralysed rural life across the social spectrum, albeit with diverse outcomes shaped by pre-existing socio-economic positions. The lockdown, rather than the pandemic, has wreaked havoc in these villages. The lockdown not only provides a lens through which to study the relations of power and dependency, but also reveals how a crisis can exacerbate existing inequalities as well as galvanise some unexpected forms of support.

We describe the immediate economic fall-out of the lockdown in terms of job losses and the instantaneous responses they elicited. We then explore the shifting experiences in the medium term as unemployment and cash shortages began to threaten the livelihoods of the village poor.  Responses and interventions seem to differ quite radically in our two villages, in line with caste relations, labour markets and, crucially, relations of patronage. Our findings shed new light on the workings of patronage at a time of crisis.    

The Immediate Aftermath

Even before the lockdown was announced, factories in the Tiruppur region were shutting down as orders from western countries were being cancelled. On 25 March, almost all employment in the two villages ceased. Allapuram comprises around 230 households with different types of garment work as their main source of income, alongside employment in agriculture and services.  Apart from the dominant Kongu Vellalar Gounders community (27% of the population), Allapuram comprises a number of intermediate castes as well as a sizeable Dalit community that is made up of Christian Adi Dravidas (24%) and Arunthathiyars (also known as Matharis [22%]) (Carswell and De Neve 2014). Most of the labour force commutes to Tiruppur’s garment factories or works in one of the eight garment workshops that mushroomed within the village during the last 10 years. The workshops are an attractive opportunity for women who work as tailors, checkers, or helpers. All these garment jobs almost disappeared overnight. 

Mannapalayam, a much larger village of over 500 households, has more than 30 power loom workshops, several textile businesses, and a sizing mill, all of which are almost exclusively owned by the Gounders (33% of the population).  Here, the main labouring classes consist of Dalits (39%)—mainly local Arunthathiyars and migrants belonging to other Dalit communities—as well as some other castes (28%), many of whom are migrants (Carswell and De Neve 2014). These labouring classes are primarily employed as textile workers in the village-based power loom industry run by higher caste employers through relations of indebtedness (Carswell and De Neve 2013).  While men are employed as loom operators, women work as either operators or cone winders. Some local Arunthathiyars have started taking up garment work outside the village, but their numbers are still limited. Here too, the looms ceased functioning overnight and all power loom workers, including those doing related work like bale packing, lost their livelihoods. 

Both villages offer agricultural coolie work too, but this is considered less desirable and is poorly paid. It is almost entirely taken up by women and the elderly. Across the region, the vast majority of employment takes the form of casual labour in textile and garment sectors, lacking any form of regulation or protection. Days without work are days without income. 

After the lockdown was announced, the labouring poor—in particular, the Dalit community—were soon left without any cash in hand. While some families had savings, many garment workers reported that they had not even received their last working days’ wages. Kabir, a young tailor, was an exception. He received wages for his last four days of work as well as an additional Rs 1,000 as “corona relief” from his employer.  
“But I did not hear of any other companies giving corona relief in cash,” he said. Madesh, a tailor living and working in Tiruppur, told us that garment workers in the city had not received  “a paisa” from their employers. Several workers reported that they were even unable to contact their employer or contractor, as many stopped taking calls to avoid being harassed for money.

The power loom workers of Mannapalayam also met a similar fate, but with some variations. Here, the last wages were paid on Saturday, 21 March. Murali, a 30-year-old loom operator, is heavily indebted to his employer. Having accumulated close to ₹1,00,000 as advance payments over time, he was reluctant to ask his employer for more than Rs 500 advance. Another Dalit loom operator narrated a similar situation; he did not want to ask for money as he had already received an advance from his employer. “When we reach a critical situation, then we can ask.” He was aware that such a critical situation was looming, and added, “the government gave some relief materials and that’s enough for us till 14 April. If the government extends the lockdown, then we’ll get into trouble for money.”  Most power loom owners did hand out cash to their regular workers, but these sums were added to their outstanding debts.

A few factories in Mannapalayam use more advanced looms (Sulzer) that run with an entirely different labour force—young male migrant workers from Bihar and Odisha. There are approximately 100 such migrant workers across a handful of Sulzer units. When the lockdown was announced, these workers were stuck in their dormitories, where employers arranged basic food provisions. The cost of those provisions, however, was later deducted from their wages. Already excluded from village life, unable to return home, and deprived of local state support, the labourers were particularly vulnerable and dependent on employers for their survival. 

In the first few weeks of the lockdown, most research participants reported that they had access to food. However, this “access” was not uniform. Economically better off villagers, usually of the higher castes, were able to procure food in bulk from nearby towns just before the lockdown. One power loom owner reported spending Rs 5,000 on food that was delivered to his house. However, most had to turn to the local grocery stores. The rush to buy rice and vegetables and a lack of transport meant that local shops soon ran out of several food items. It was here that government intervention through the public distribution system (PDS) was much welcomed by the villagers.

On 6 April, the panchayat distributed Rs 1,000 as relief to each household with a ration card.  Ward members went door-to-door delivering the cash and handing out a token with a day and time slot to collect free food items from the ration shop. Those with a Jan Dhan bank account—the government’s financial inclusion programme—received an additional Rs 500. During the next few days, households collected their usual entitlements of rice, dal, sugar, and oil, but for the month of April, received them for free. While this was much appreciated by the poor, several interviewees were concerned that the relief money would not even last a week. Some said that it would be better if the government set up communal kitchens rather than distribute cash, which could easily be squandered on alcohol. Others pointed out that cash was required to purchase much-needed medication.  

Frail Safety Net

The safety net was certainly thin, to say the least. While the PDS seemed to function fairly smoothly, including through the use of smart cards and digitised technology at the ration shops, there is no doubt that some people fell through the net. Previous research has identified several villagers without smart cards—typically the most deprived— who are unable to claim rations and other support under the PDS (Carswell and De Neve 2020b). They are likely to have been left out of any COVID-19 relief too (Masiero 2020). Migrants are another particularly vulnerable group in this respect, as their smart cards are, almost without exception, registered at their home villages. While the migrant workers from North India were wholly dependent on the goodwill of their employers to keep them housed and fed, other migrants from nearby districts were unable to access state support locally, even though many of them had lived in the villages for years. One farmer from the neighbouring district of Dindigul, who cultivates leased land in Mannapalayam, travelled to his native village to collect his rations. He was stopped at different check posts by the police but allowed through when explaining his purpose. It remains unclear if all Tamil migrants were able to travel home for ration collection, but even if they were, this process clearly entailed significant costs and risks.

A key central government scheme—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)—that could have provided immediate relief to rural households, remained idle—. India’s flagship poverty alleviation scheme, that offers each rural household 100 days of paid work annually, was suspended from 21 March. As a scheme specifically designed to help the rural poor bridge periods without work, MGNREGA—with adequate social distancing rules—could have been mobilised to extend timely relief during this spell of mass unemployment. However, it was unavailable when it was most needed and arrears for work delivered during the 2019–20 financial year were left pending. By 10 May, no one in either village knew when it would resume. This was not merely a missed opportunity but a failure of governance. The non-availability of MGNREGA work seriously undermined a key coping resource of the rural poor—women and the elderly in particular—at a time when garment and textile labour markets collapsed. 

Characteristics of Precarity 

Three features mark the livelihoods of the labouring classes in Allapuram and Mannapalayam: an absence of adequate social protection to fall back on, a lack of savings to draw from, and a continuous balancing of loans and incomes that can easily turn into unmanageable debt when earnings dry up (Carswell and De Neve 2020a). Together, these features underpin the precariousness of India’s poor labourers in a job market where regular employment is rarely guaranteed. If anything, the pandemic and lockdown have come at a time when the textile industry in the region was already under mounting pressure, not least due to increasingly cut-throat global competition. Many labouring households had already felt the financial strain and were sliding into debt. The lockdown has not only exacerbated their precarious position, but has also brought to the surface the relations of power, dependency, and patronage that underpin rural life. 

Following the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, a number of responses surfaced. Agriculture—the only sector where some work was still available—gained renewed significance. It was typically the wives and mothers of tailors in Allapuram and power loom operators in Mannapalayam who earned money from part-time agricultural labour.  In many labouring households, women became the sole earners. Kamesh, a young tailor-cum-contractor in Allapuram, told us that while he was unemployed, his mother still got two to three days of agricultural work per week, at Rs 300 per day.  Not only did she earn money but she could also get vegetables from the field so that they did not have to buy them. This was invaluable as people reported rising food prices with an increase in demand due to everyone being at home. In the lockdown, women—mainly mothers and wives—have emerged as the largely unacknowledged workers who have ensured the survival of the household.
Men too tried to get agricultural work, but a combination of rising labour supply—both male and female—and the start of the dry season meant that agricultural labour opportunities dwindled rapidly. Within weeks, women, who normally got several days of work, were scrambling for a single day of farm work per week. As an unemployed young tailor in Mannapalayam explained, “last week, my mother didn’t even get one day of work. The farmers’ families now also stay at home, so they do most of their farm work with household labour.” Market uncertainty made farmers hesitant to sow new crops, while the ban on transportation made it hard for them to sell their harvested crops.  As a result, some ended up selling vegetables and milk to the villagers at reduced rates. 

Perhaps, most interesting was the nature of community-based support during the lockdown. Informal sector workers in India commonly turn to their employers during times of crisis and appeal to their patronage in exchange for past or future work commitments.  This is what happened in these two villages as well, but with different degrees of success.  

In Allapuram, labouring households were largely at the mercy of garment employers. But those who commute to work in Tiruppur companies had no one to turn to. In an industry where garment workers frequently move between companies, urban employers steer away from developing close bonds with a footloose labour force. They do not pay cash advances, evade relationships of patronage, and avoid any commitments beyond wages. Many, therefore, simply switched off their mobile phones when they closed their factories. 

Garment workers employed in the newer village-based garment workshops were slightly better placed to appeal to the goodwill of their local employers. But, having only recently developed bonds with them, they too struggled to make claims of patronage. One village employer explained to us that he was out of cash himself, partly because he was still owed money by traders to whom he had sold finished garments, and also because he had already borrowed money to give advances to his workers earlier on. He felt unable to extend further help at this point.

In Mannapalayam, the situation was quite different. Here, power loom workers—many of whom are Dalits—have close bonds with their higher caste employers, fermented through relations of debt based on accumulated cash advances. Normally, such bondage seriously curtails workers’ freedom in the labour market. However, during the lockdown, it provided them a patron to appeal to. Workers were fully aware that their employers would need them post-lockdown and hence had a direct interest in supporting them. They appealed for and received help. Any payments, however, were considered cash advances and added to their outstanding debt.  

Power loom owners confirmed giving cash to their workers even though many of them had little surplus cash themselves. One employer said that a trader who buys his fabric had only given him Rs 30,000 in April, which he had partly used to distribute as advances to his workers. Another power loom owner also distributed Rs 10,000 that he received from a buyer, even though the advances given to his workers before the pandemic had already totalled Rs 7,00,000. While many power loom owners clearly tried to support their workers, they also sought to escape ongoing demands. Both these employers chose  to leave the village.  

Support from employers also came indirectly through contributions to a communal kitchen started in late April. When many labouring households began to run out of provisions, people from the Dalit community began collecting food and cash to start a communal kitchen. They approached local landowners, power loom owners, and others in their networks for contributions in cash or kind. Most of those approached contributed, and while generous donations were praised, the rare exceptions were strongly criticised. The village president contributed 50 kilograms (kg) of rice and a Gounder landowner donated 30 kg of chicken.

Contributions varied from day to day, but the kitchen was able to prepare between 25 kg and 75 kg of rice each day. The Dalit leader of the kitchen explained that PDS rations are only adequate to feed a family for 10–15 days. Many Dalit households and some non-Dalits too ate at the communal kitchen for 10 consecutive days, until another month of free PDS rations were disbursed around 6 May. The kitchen may be restarted when those rations are over. It was clearly a successful communal effort to feed the village at a time when both state and market failed to provide for the poor. It was an effort that was unfortunately not replicated in Allapuram. Here, political parties donated rice, but this was largely limited to their vote banks. 

Looking Ahead  

It is alarming to imagine the future of the labouring poor of Allapuram and Mannapalayam. If the virus is to reach these villages, the health impacts could be severe given the challenges of physical distancing in tightly housed colonies. Even without the direct threat to health, the effect of the pandemic on people’s livelihoods has been enormous. Villagers had no idea when garment companies or power looms would restart. Power loom owners were anxious that the shrinking market demand in combination with rising labour shortages due to migrants returning home would seriously hamper a speedy recovery. Garment factory owners similarly feared that the global lockdown would affect demand for the foreseeable future. With the arrival of the dry season, agricultural work was also shrinking, reducing vital earning opportunities, especially for women and the elderly. 

While the state government made vital additional provisions through its PDS, these were nonetheless inadequate to sustain life, let alone provide a nutritious diet. State support in kind and cash could have been considerably expanded from the start of the lockdown as the infrastructure to distribute it was available. Unfortunately, for MGNREGA, funds were not forthcoming (Drèze 2020). The implementation of the scheme—subject to social distancing rules—would have been most obvious to implement and expand at the onset of the crisis to prevent the rising despair and indebtedness among the rural poor (Khera 2020). The central government’s failure to act adequately is likely to have cost many lives across the country. Reflecting on government actions, a Dalit man lamented the decision to reopen alcohol shops in the state and commented on what he perceived to be misplaced priorities: “This government uses the police department to protect wine shops instead of protecting people!” 

In Allapuram, garment workers’ freedom in the labour market meant they lacked patrons to turn to, while in Mannapalayam, workers’ ties to their employers at least provided them with some leverage to wrest support from them. Rather unexpectedly, it was the bonded power loom workers who were able to activate their employers’ patronage and protection, both individually and as a community. This sheds new light on the contemporary relations of neo-bondage, which in this case are not found to be merely time-bound, limited to contractual obligations, and impersonal (Breman et al 2009). While this safety net helps sustain power loom workers in the short run, it merely enhances their indebtedness and their dependency on employers and moneylenders for the foreseeable future.  

Stuck between collapsing job markets and inadequate social protection from the state, the labouring poor are left to rely on the vagaries of local patronage and charity. This is not only erratic and unreliable, but is also likely to dwindle over time. The current crisis both exposes and enhances India’s rural inequalities and dependencies. It lays bare the poor’s precarious reliance on volatile global markets, faltering state support, and uneven expressions of patronage. What the new normal will look like after the lockdown ends remains anyone’s guess.

The authors are grateful to the reviewer for their valuable feedback.

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