Nine rupees an hour

Posted on November 23, 2019


A plug for my friend Aparna Karthikeyan’s book: NINE RUPEES AN HOUR, in her words (from the book). I thought it would be of interest to many readers of this blog.


When a livelihood dies

a way of live vanishes;

and the language too

is diminished.

  • Cho Dharman

Let me tell you a story. Make that ten. Stories of everyday people who do extraordinary things to earn a living – like Soundaram, probably the only woman to own over half a dozen of the fiercest and finest stud bulls; Kali, perhaps the only male dancer who is accomplished in both Bharatanatyam and folk dance; and Tamilarasi, only the second girl to perform in an all-male, all-night folk theatre. Then there is Rayappan, who climbs hundreds of palm trees every week; Selvaraj, the nadaswaram maker, who makes wood sing, Krishnamoorthy, who has createdten thousand sari designs by hand, and Zeenath, who weaves exquisite silk mats on a floor loom. There is Kamachi, who has spent most of her life dancing on stilts, with a dummy horse strapped around her waist; Chandrasekaran, the sickle maker, who gets iron to yield to him; and Podhumani, who coaxes the parched earth to bear a crop, rushes back home to cook another meal for her sons and her husband, and is back again on the field, to put food on your plate and mine.

Though 68.8 per cent of India’s population live outside its cities,[i] the rural has been steadily forced out of the nation building process and our imagination. The rich get richer with land, water and resources snatched away from the rural poor. This savage inequality means that a minimum wage worker in rural India has to work 941 years to earn what a top paid executive at a leading Indian garment company earns in a year.’[ii]Privileging and pandering exclusively to the urban elites, will not just diminish and destroy the rural economy. What future does a country have if farmers who subsidise the country’s milk and meal continue to befinancial martyrs; artisans who stitch the rural economy together are systematically marginalised; and artists who perform about a glorious past are sent home to an uncertain future?

But why would we care when we do not know the people who put food on our table and culture in our lives? When their stories and struggles are brushed aside in the race to build dysfunctional smart cities and missions to the moon? When we blithely furnish our homes with beautiful Pathamadai mats, whose makers earn just nine rupees an hour? These highly skilled women make an average of just ahundred rupees a day. Farmers fare better, but only just. The backbreaking work they plough into an acre of paddy nets them about two hundred a day. Palm tree climbers? Roughly two hundred and fifty, but only during a limited, unpredictable season.

The rural economy is delicately and tightly intertwined. A good year—when the rainclouds behave and the earth obediently produces a bumper crop—benefits everybody. Why must rainfall have any bearing on the livelihood of, say, a nadaswaram maker? The logic is bafflingly simple: when there are good rains, the agrarian classes organise bigger weddings and more of them, and invite musicians. This drives up the demand for nadaswarams, favouring local makers. A bad year, is a bad year for all.

I began this journey—as a storyteller and witness—discovering my home state, its culture and people in July 2013. It started with a fan mail to journalist P. Sainath, who was then setting up a mammoth archive to document the lives of 833 million people in rural India. He invited me to be a part of the now four-year-old People’s Archive of Rural India. Without a formal degree in journalism and armed with only curiosity and a camera, I travelled across my home state of Tamil Nadu, to Madurai, Sivagangai, Kancheepuram, Tiruppur, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Thanjavur districts, to document traditional livelihoods.

These men and women, shared their dreams and defeats, triumphs and tears with me. They spoke as they worked under the scorching sun, or rested briefly in the shadows of tall palms. They told me stories of pride and despair, love and laughter, in rooms lit only by oil lamps. And hope.

They yearned for their children to receive a good education and a well-paying job. ‘Let this end with me,’ they said about the occupation their ancestors had survived on for centuries. They did not have much of a choice, not when they were growing up. Their children do.



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