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The Changing Position of Agricultural Labourers in Villages in Rural Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, between 1981/2 and 1996
This paper looks at agricultural labourers in villages in Coimbatore district in 1981/2 and in 1996. It focuses on Chakkiliyans, the lowest status and most numerous Scheduled Caste group. It shows that while their position had barely changed over the decades prior to 1981/2, between 1981/2 and 1996 it changed dramatically, albeit less dramatically than one might have expected given all that was going on. 1981/2 to 1996 was a period in which (1)industrial and urban opportunities became available to virtually all labourers in the villages for the first time; (2)state policy became more favourable to labourers; and (3)village agriculture declined. The position of Chakkiliyans' agricultural employers weakened considerably between 1981/2 and 1996, but Chakkiliyans nevertheless found it difficult to stand up to them. This was partly because they were still getting a relatively attractive agricultural employment package in 1996, partly because they were in such a weak position in relation to alternative opportunities. Chakkiliyans found 'flexible' urban and industrial labour markets problematic because risky and available only on terms that were harsh. Moreover, housing and increased indebtedness in the villages resulted in Chakkiliyans being tied in some ways more strongly to agricultural employment in 1996 than in 1981/2. Other low caste labourers were getting urban and industrial opportunities that were likely to give them better prospects in the longer term. Chakkiliyans were not. The paper also considers the position of the two other groups of agricultural labourers in the villages in 1981/2, and their descendants in 1996. These were (1) a higher status Scheduled Caste group, Pannadis, and (2) a group of Caste Hindus. The contrast between the three 1981/2 labourer groups is illuminating, illustrating the important role played by caste and the way it operates in this context.