When we want to track change, we are often tempted to observe the material alterations that have taken place. The acquisition of a flat, a television set, a car, a mobile or a mobike become a ready measure to denote the shift. As an extension of this, change often gets locked as an urban feature in our minds while the rural remains a stagnant idyllic in our imagination. However, it is a truism that change is pervasive but we are ill-equipped to appraise its more significant abstractions and its subtle manoeuvrings. Social scientists may have complex theoretical equipment to get to these details, but they are largely inaccessible to our everyday discussions. For instance, I was at a loss to understand the quietly altering patois of human dignity in rural Karnataka when I went out last weekend to meet a friend in a tiny village of Hassan district.
This friend, who belongs to a traditional land-owning community from coastal Karnataka, has inherited a coffee estate in Malasavara, close to Sakaleshpur, which falls in the Western Ghat range. After his education he chose not to seek employment but work on the estate, where they largely grow coffee and pepper. As we chatted and he showed me around, the rows of empty tiled houses on his property sparked my curiosity. These houses had small doorframes and anyone who had to get in had to strain their neck muscle. But otherwise, they were pretty decent. I wondered if they were guesthouses built decades ago for a family wedding. He said they were abandoned labour quarters. The conversation that followed was most fascinating.
'Labour is a big problem' was my friend's refrain . Was it migration to the cities that caused the problem? Not really, he said. Then, what could drive poor people away from free housing and free food guaranteed to all those who live on an estate? The answer was straight and simple - independence. Living on the estate ensures that the labour remain at the beck and call of the master. However liberal and lenient one may be, food and shelter create a life-long indebtedness. There is perhaps no English parallel to translate the Kannada term runa that so effectively captures the cultural idea of obligation. People seem to have understood from the lives of their parents and grandparents that this obligation does not end with their going to the grave, but infectiously mutates into the next generation. So, they have decided to break away from this vicious cycle.
When I speak of obligation here I do not refer to what we encapsulate in the phrase 'bonded labour.' That has been outlawed a few decades ago and there is sufficient awareness and indignation against it, especially in Karnataka after the 70s. This is a reference to a plain human commitment to acknowledge and be grateful to somebody's kindness although you have laboured hard enough to earn that kindness. It is a unique cultural construct that in some degree entwines an element of the divine as well as destiny. But now people not only want to be disengaged in a physical and constitutional sense, but they seem to have realised the importance of breaking away emotionally as well. They seem to have decided to challenge their own destiny.
So, what do these people do? People of Malasavara don't work for estate owners of their own village, but go each morning to a village few kilometres away. And labourers, skilled or otherwise, for Malasavara come from a distant village. The average distance they travel each morning is about 20 km. When these labourers move away from their villages to another place a lot of interesting things happen: One, they create anonymity; two, since there is no history of a relationship with the estate owner, skill is negotiated only in terms of money; three, because they travel and work in groups their work timings is fixed and four, they break the old mould by making the estate owner dependent on them. In some sense, these groups ensure discrimination is checked if not obliterated. This is an evolving work culture and ethic. The shifting plates are obvious.
Curiously, my friend tried to interpret this crisscrossing of labourers between villages as a new obsession they have developed for truck or jeep rides. That they fancy labour contractors taking vehicles to their doorstep to pick them up. I thought it was too naive a spin on their behaviour, that he was missing the grand meaning of it all, but then, I did not intervene. Fancies have a short life, but here, people are serious. They are speaking a complicated language of dignity. They have sustained for close to three years the change they have brought about in their work culture. To trace the evolution of this change would be enormously beneficial for a greater understanding of the phenomenon.
My friend drew from nostalgia, from his father's years of running the estate, to say how labourers had turned 'lazy'. Earlier, he said, they gathered in their courtyard for attendance at 7.30 am and went back home at 6.00 pm with a short break for lunch. "They were so dedicated. They were retainers for small chores after their hours in the field. It was one extended family," he recalled. If the arrangement was so cozy then what prompted the change? Calling them 'lazy' was indicting them for not being available round the clock and on all days of the week, instead of having now learnt to charge for every ounce of physical energy they expend. As this canard of laziness spreads, agriculture becomes an unsustainable business in our country because labour is no longer cheap. And, whoever thought that unsustainability had links with dignity?
There was a further charge on these hapless labourers: They earn much more than what they earned earlier in terms of wages and they need not work on all days of the week because over and above a decent wage, they are 'pampered' by the government system with grains and rice at a nominal cost. "All that they have to produce is a BPL card. The father and son live in the same house, but in government records they are split into two independent families. So the food that flows into the house is more than sufficient. They don't sleep hungry anymore. They have learnt to enjoy life. They work on their own terms," said my friend. But then, why grudge their leisure, which they haven't had for centuries; why grumble over their reasonably filled bellies and why debate the silly law to fault their smart ways? They aren't hoarding food anyway.
All this drawling talk implies that there is a new, simmering confidence in the 'wretched of the earth' at least in some corner of India. The rural folk in Malasavara are trying to be like us, city dwellers, who go to expensive colleges to learn be professional at our work spot. It is like us trying to be nice and civil to our bosses, but not washing dishes at their homes. They have understood what it is to suffer ignominy. Some people may mourn the death of the community here, but in the minds of the labourers it is only servility that they are separating from the community. It is not independent wisdom and experience alone that has led to this situation, but one has to also read into this the cumulative effect of a series of progressive legislations.
Let me end with a caveat or disclaimer: No sociological observation can be accurate, but it can be mostly correct. Therefore this is only a broad effort to feel the pulse of change. Nuances, and corrections if need be, will follow.