In debt and with no work, the Dalits of the village are eating less

In this Raichur village drought is taking away livelihood and Dalits are worst hit
news Drought Saturday, April 30, 2016 - 10:41

As Huligemma sat on a flat rock talking, a woman suddenly sneaked up from behind and covered Huligemma’s eyes with her hands. Huligemma tried to guess who it was by feeling the woman's hands. Eventually the other woman gave up and moved to sit next to Huligemma. “Oh, I am sitting down to my death! I left at dawn to fetch firewood, I am only returning now,” exclaimed Durgamma as she sat down.

Such playfulness was surprising because of the time at which it occurred. It was around 5 pm, and everyone should have been at work. They would have been, if it wasn’t for the drought. After the commotion, Huligemma returned to what she was saying before she was interrupted. “It's unaffordable to be a labourer in the cities. There, Rs 200 isn't enough for one person, but here it can feed a whole family,” she says.

Many people from the Dalit keri of her village of Khilarti in Raichur district migrated to the cities after the monsoons failed last year. The Dalits of the village are of the Maadar caste. Caste tensions exist, but the Dalits are allowed to access the drinking water supplied to the village by officials. However, it leaves a strange aftertaste.

Anjaneya, 23, has been working in construction sites in Bengaluru for several months. He left immediately after the monsoons, and only returned to his village a week ago. He is due to head back there on Thursday. While in the cities they can earn upwards of Rs 200, wages in the village are fixed at Rs 150 for men and Rs 100 for women. “If we ask anything more, they say they will get someone else,” Huligemma says.

The July rains should have ended the previous years’ hardship and provided a portion of the grains for the coming year. The people of the keri are subsistence farmers and agricultural labourers. But because of the drought, the number of teenaged boys and adult men making their way to Bengaluru and other cities for work has increased. Women on the other hand, have remained in the village and have no work except cooking, collecting firewood and water, in addition to looking after the children. 

In a year of normal rain, the women would have been at work in the fields even in the harsh sun. At this time of the year, they would be harvesting bajra in the fields of upper caste people or tending to crops including vegetable patches in their own meagre plots. Very few of the 25 families of the keri have more than two acres of land. 

All they know of the MGNREGA – which was aimed precisely at providing labour to the rural poor in times of distress – is the basic name: udyoga khatari yojane which in Kannada, which translates to a employment guarantee scheme.

“Who is going to tell us about this? Not the panchayat members. How are we supposed to find out?,” Anjaneya says. There is just one copy of a Kannada newspaper for the whole village, and most of the Dalits are illiterate. When the provisions of the scheme were explained to them, villagers said they would like to apply for work under the scheme, and stay in their own villages.

However, a drought-immune apathy pervades officials, the keri’s residents say. Regardless of whether there is drought or not, they say no officials visit the village. Gesturing with her hands, Huligemma said: “But politicians come here with their hands folded when they contest elections, they tell us to make them win. After that, they’re not to be seen,” Huligemma said.

People dependent on agriculture for their livelihood are often in debt – they borrow not just for their crops but also for personal expenditure. In Khilarti’s Dalit keri, debts are high. Asked about how much each family had borrowed, Huligemma and Anjaneya said it was it was a family affair and between the debtor and debtee.

However, Huligemma said that they had to borrow money in order to be able to eat. In normal times, they would go to buy groceries and supplies once a week. But when there was hardly any money, like now, supply runs could be once in two weeks or even once in two months. Each trip costs them Rs 1,000, now.

“If it had rained last year, we would have had enough to buy supplies and make uppitu for breakfast for our children, or vegetables for lunch. Now we just eat rice and tomato rasam thrice a day,” says Huligemma.

“All we have to do at present is wait for two months for the rains,” she added.

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