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Life’s labour lost in the fertile ground for discrimination, apathy

The farm workers of Keezhvenmani (erstwhile Thanjavur district) had paid with blood for their right to fair pay to keep their body and soul together.

Published: 13th September 2020 04:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th September 2020 04:37 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

NAGAPATTINAM: Their faces were marred by sweat, dust, and when the landlords came, blood. When those that survived dragged out the charred bodies of their 44 compatriots, the tears that wet their cheeks were not only of anguish, but also of resolve. The farm workers of Keezhvenmani (erstwhile Thanjavur district) had paid with blood for their right to fair pay to keep their body and soul together. For them, the battle had only begun. It was 1968, a year after the Naxalbari uprising. 

Forgotten for 50 years 
52 years have passed since the massacre, but how effective has been the agrarian reforms that followed it is debatable. True that the land redistribution and the pay rationalization introduced to the State heralded the beginning of an era of uplift for the downtrodden, but did all the intended  beneficiaries benefit?  When R Dhanabackiyam (45) from Palaiyur in Nagapattinam block says that her prospects of equal pay viz-a-viz menfolk are bleak, she is not just a disgruntled farm worker, but the representative of a sex that has been the victim of systemic abuse, normalized over generations of apathy.

“I have been a farm labourer for over 30 years now. I belonged to a generation that was told not to seek equal pay. When I became the sole breadwinner for my family after the death of my husband and daughter-in-law, the meagre income I earned proved to be insufficient. The situation worsened after the lockdown. I do wish for equal pay, but being as a woman I know it is not possible,” she says.

Backbone of agrarian system
Dhanabackiyam belongs to a tribe that has been the backbone of our agrarian society: Farmworkers. They are not known to own land, but it is their toil that makes the fields fertile. They leave their mark in all facets of farming, starting right from ploughing, sowing, sapling extraction & transplantation to bund adjustments, weeding, fertilizer application, reaping and threshing. And, a majority of these farmworkers are women. However, the pay they receive is seldom commensurate with the efforts they put in. Adding insult to the injury is the fact that their pay hovers around Rs 150-Rs 200 for the same work that reaps Rs 450 to Rs 500 for men. 

Disparity and despondency
This disparity in wages could well mean the difference between having two square meals and going to the bed hungry. These women can ill-afford to spend money on healthcare or nutritious food; they regularly default on bill payments; they are always behind their jewellery loan repayment schedule; they cannot shell out a premium to buy mobiles or subscribe to data packs to help their children pursue online education. This chasm between hand-to-mouth existence and abject poverty is the handiwork of gender pay gap.

Technology’s salvo
While farms have always offered slim pickings for the women, the advent of technology further eroded their shaky job base. The introduction of tractors, sowers, transplanters, weeders, and harvesters largely rendered manual labour redundant. More so in areas like Mayiladuthurai and Sirkazhi, where farmers began increasingly relying on machines to pull off the biannual cultivation. When farmworkers were branded as essential service providers and exempted from the lockdown restrictions, the leeway did little to improve their lot, as landowners wary of virus spread began favouring machines. R Pandurangan, a farmer from Kuthalam, surmises the use of machine as both cost and time effective. “We also do not have to pay for snacks; there is no dispute over wages,” he adds.

Small mercies
However, not all favour machines. Farmers invested in System of Rice Intensification (Thirunthiya Nel Saagubadi) involving precise, improvable, and diligent means of planting do rely on the labourers. The marginal farmers (owning less than a hectare) or those backing manual work as more efficient too rope in farmhands. And that is where gender discrimination rears its ugly head.

MGNREGS, the saving grace
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) introduced in 2006 was aimed at providing sustainable livelihood to labourers. With farm work turning scarce and the gender pay gap widening, more women began tapping MGNREGS, which brought a semblance of equality. The current daily wage for both men and women under the scheme is `256. While this offers women 25 per cent higher wages than what is given on the farms, it is still nearly the half of what men make as farmworkers a day. Moreover, MGNREGS works too became scarce during the pandemic, with the workdays shrinking to six to 12 a month.

The worst hit
The worst-hit during the pandemic were the widows, single mothers, sole breadwinners, and the caretakers of their ailing husbands, says K Uma (36), a farmworker from Valivalam in Keezhaiyur. “Landowners could mitigate the lockdown, but the farmworkers were left to their own devices. MGNREGS offered parity but pandemic curtailed the workdays,” she points out. This point resonates with the beliefs of the State President of All India Democratic Women’s Association, S Valentina. “Equal wage has been our demand. The provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act should be made applicable to the unorganised sector. Women have borne the brunt of discrimination during the lockdown... Increasing the number of workdays under MGNREGS would be a step in the right  direction,” she said.

Gender Pay Gap
‘Gender wage gap’ or ‘gender pay gap’ is defined as the average difference between the remuneration received by the men and the women from their employers for their work



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