New Delhi: As 400 million informal workers in India stare at loss of livelihood and food insecurity during the lockdown, workers from the scheduled castes (SC) are in addition facing social discrimination, a survey in Tamil Nadu has found. Many might turn into a source of cheap labour in the absence of labourers who have gone home, it says.

Many of the surveyed workers had not received their wages, while dominant-caste workers had. Many had not received cash transfers from the government and were receiving ration separately from PDS shops, the survey found.

“This [TN] survey is representative of the situation of scheduled caste workers across the country,” said Sibija Bensigar, project manager Vaanavil, a Tamil Nadu-based research collective that conducted the survey, “We have been getting information about workers facing such issues in several states.”

Caste plays an important role in relief disbursement during a crisis and Dalits are often the last to get such benefits, IndiaSpend had reported in August 2019.

Key findings

In its first survey, Vaanavil found that of the 45 workers interviewed, 20 had received their salaries for the month of March, and most workers who did not receive wages were from Dalit hamlets. In a follow-up study, they interviewed 20 representatives from 20 SC hamlets located in 18 villages in Sanarpatty block in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu.

Most people from these communities work as construction workers, loaders or coolies, and sanitation workers. Most are daily-wage labourers and rely on work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS, 100 days’ paid work in rural areas).

“These people are seen as easy targets because they don’t question the employer, they are paid the least, even if they get a job in the mill they are paid the least,” said Bensigar.

The community that Vaanavil surveyed lives in isolated hamlets, they remove their slippers before entering upper-caste habitations, they are not allowed to enter the common temple or participate in common festivals and even face segregation at the local PDS shops. They run their own grocery shops, tea shops, small restaurants, temples, etc, to minimise disputes, and this discrimination percolates to their workplaces and the type of work they get.

Of the 20 SC workers surveyed subsequently, only two had received Rs 1,300 as wages during the lockdown and 11 of these workers had already taken loans during the lockdown. “As the lockdown period extends, the ability of workers to fight indebtedness will reduce. They would agree for worse terms and conditions- which would mean they would be vulnerable to bondage situation and trafficking,” said the survey.

Eleven of these workers said they did not have Jan Dhan accounts, most of them said they had not received the cash transfers announced by the central and state government under various schemes such as the Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme (annual payment of Rs 6,000 to farmers), and the pension schemes under the National Social Assistance Programme (monthly pensions for senior citizens, widows and differently-abled).

The Vaanavil team said the garment mills nearby, now struggling, would look for cheaper and more accessible labour, and workers from SC hamlets would be easy targets. They recommend that special skill-building programmes be conducted, and immediate monitoring started to prevent trafficking and discrimination.

Similar situation across the country

During the lockdown, SC workers across India are working for longer hours and getting paid less, said Rahul Sapkal, assistant professor at the School of Labour and Management Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

“Discrimination is happening across the country not only against the informal workers or the low-wage low-productive sector workers but also in the online job market and urban formal market,” Sapkal said. Nearly 85% of SC workers do not have a written job contract, so despite their contribution to the GDP, their work is not recognised, which leads to further vulnerability.

These are the sections of population that are highly vulnerable, with very limited coping strategies, Sapkal said, any delay in terms of assistance will aggravate their suffering and economic hardship and the government needs to prioritise them. “Why are we turning a blind eye to them in relief disbursement?”

(Tiwari is a Principal Correspondent with IndiaSpend)