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  • Online publication date: December 2014

8 - The Political Economy of Debt Bondage in Contemporary South India

Summary

Every year in the Villipuram District in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is ranked one of the wealthiest of India, just after the mid-November Dipawali festival, entire families leave for the outskirts of Chennai to work as brick moulders. They return six months later at the start of the rainy season, with the sole goal of resting and forgetting the suffocating heat of the kilns. A few weeks later, it is the turn of cane cutters to head south. Once again, men, women and children depart for several months, returning equally exhausted by terrible working conditions. In both cases, wage advances push families to migrate and to tolerate deplorable working conditions. The luckiest are able to return with a small amount of savings. Most, however, will not have been sufficiently ‘productive’. Some return empty-handed, while others are even forced to return the following year to pay off their accrued debt. This kind of circular migrant is beyond the reach of any census, but there are hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps even millions, in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. Elsewhere in the north-west of the state, far from prying eyes, other families are confined to sheds, their entire lives revolving around drying rice, for which they work around the clock. These individuals are also initially migrants, though they are never able to return home, trapped through indebtedness to their employers.