Chennai: Frank and informal chats lighten the burden of work, more so at construction projects. “I am a Goundar,” says a woman worker at a work site in suburban south Chennai, picking up soaked bricks from a drum of water while helping the 'maistry' to build a compound wall. Her male co-worker is equally candid, responding, “I am Chettiyar”. The smiles and small talk ends there.
In observing this construction site, one was astonished as much disturbed by such 'Choti Se Baat'. For usually, one would not associate people from these two communities in Tamil Nadu, who are relatively better off socially and economically thanks to long years of reservation, to be construction workers.
But a little reflection shows that the conversation was holding the mirror to one of the key findings of the latest 'Tamil Nadu Human Development Report - 2017', put in the public domain recently by the State Planning Commission, which has researched and prepared the report along with help of other research institutes including Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and 'Niti Aayog'.
It is that that the people in rural areas of Tamil Nadu, particularly the small and marginal cultivators, who no longer find farming occupation sustainable, are being thrown into the urban pool of construction workers, who in recent years have been accounting for a major shift in the non-farm sector workforce.
This trend, according to the TN-HDR, is notwithstanding the fact there has been a substantial drop in poverty levels in Tamil Nadu in the last nearly two decades. It is despite Tamil Nadu “seen as a state that has been able to combine high levels of economic growth with high levels of social development in recent years (the report points out quoting from the seminal work of Dreze and Sen 2013).”
Just sample these macro-trends that show up apparently contradictory trends: About 92 per cent of farmers in Tamil Nadu belong to marginal and small farmers category (holdings ranging from less than one hectare up to two hectares (Ha). The net area shown has gradually declined from 56.38 lakh Ha in the 1950s' to about 49.85 lakh Ha in 2011-12, says the report. And due to boom in the real estate sector, land under non-agricultural use has expanded to 21.80 lakh Ha by 2011-12. Yet, the state has managed to achieve food grains production of 10.33 million tonnes during 2013-14, thanks largely to high yielding crop varieties.
But that is only part of the story. On the one hand Tamil Nadu has the fourth highest per capita income (Rs.57,131) after Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat, but the decline in the share of agriculture in the state's economy “is particularly acute in Tamil Nadu,” says the TN-HDR report. Again within agriculture, the “the bulk of the growth in the last decade has emanated from fisheries, livestock, horticulture and floriculture.”
While the total workforce in Tamil Nadu has gone up to 32.88 million (in 2011), from 20.20 million in 1991, nearly five million of them is accounted for by “marginal workforce”, says the report, adding, “it does not augur well for a fast-growing economy.” Over the last decade, the number of cultivators have declined by 0.86 million even if number of agriculture workforce is up by 0.94 million. Share of women workers in rural areas has remained “stagnant”, while both male and female workers participation in urban areas have increased, it points out.
Nonetheless, the study finds that the profile of the organised sector workforce in Tamil Nadu (more than 23 lakh in 2011), does not show a greater absorption by the manufacturing sector with corresponding rise in “regular wage/salaried employment”. “Between the years 2000 and 2011-12, Tamil Nadu has the highest share of casual labour and lowest share of self-employment, among the four southern states plus Maharashtra and Gujarat. Out of every 1,000 workers in Tamil Nadu, 621 are casual workers and only 278 are self-employed. This is higher than the national average for casual employment at 593 per 1000 hands.
“Casualisation of workforce in Tamil Nadu has increased; decline in the share of manufacturing employment, accompanied by lower productivity clearly demands policy attention,” says the latest HDR-2017. This is in juxtaposition to “high levels of unemployment across all categories except Kerala,” the report points out.
Another significant finding of the study is that though “casual wage rates” have increased in Tamil Nadu, they do not necessarily translate into better real incomes. What “cushions” the miseries of high levels of “casualisation of workforce” are social security schemes like universal PDS, old age pension and the rural jobs scheme known as 'MGNREGA', underscores the report. The Welfare Boards for unorganised sector workers also need to be toned up, the report adds.
By implication, it was the major sector of casual workforce, including in activities like construction, which was the worst hit section by the 2016 demonetization. The report makes no explicit mention of the Note-ban, but points out (citing available figures for 2002-03), that the average income for farmer households in Tamil Nadu from cultivation was Rs.7,908, while the expenditure was Rs.8,597.
“Therefore, it is not surprising that 75 per cent of rural households in Tamil Nadu are indebted, next only to Andhra Pradesh,” the report says, adding, the relatively slower reduction in poverty levels among agriculturists (cultivators), compared to other sections, warrants policy attention. Implementation of proper labour policies, skill development and fixing quality issues in the domains of health and education are areas that Tamil Nadu needs to focus upon in coming years....