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Forced labour under a changing climate: droughts and debt in semi-arid India

Climatic change compounds the vulnerabilities and dependencies existing between households in semi-arid South Asia. To avoid more coerced labour, public policy must address the root causes of such vulnerability. 

Drought in Karnataka, India in 2012. Pushkarv/Wikimedia Commons.

With high levels of poverty and endemic food insecurity, agrarian regions of South Asia are often argued to be uniquely vulnerable to contemporary climate change. This has led to repeated calls for an urgent process of ‘climate change adaptation’ in which climatic threats can be mitigated and new opportunities seized. Although the need to adapt may seem self-evidently necessary, much of the current policy debate tends to gloss over a troubling facet of contemporary climatic change. Not only are different social groups unequally affected by climatic trends, but also the security of some social groups is often directly tied to the insecurity of others. This thorny issue is often not addressed in official discourse, yet it is particularly clear in agrarian environments in South Asia, where relationships of debt, dependency and forced labour are key mechanisms through which marginal groups experience climatic change.

Relational vulnerability

To grasp these social dynamics, we must focus on the ways in which subordinate groups are incorporated into what I term ‘relational vulnerability’—a situation in which the relative security of some and the relative vulnerability of others are directly linked and are reproduced over time.

The roots of such relational vulnerability in rural regions are often found in the uneven access to key productive assets. For example, in order to engage in agricultural production, smallholder households must have access to land, water, credit, labour, seeds, fertiliser, pesticides, mechanical equipment and technical knowledge. These assets are frequently held by other actors—local landowners, moneylenders, traders, input dealers, labour contractors, agribusiness representatives, local politicians and agricultural outreach officers—upon whom marginal households become dependent.

Embedded within divisions of class, caste and gender, these dependencies frequently facilitate an ongoing transfer of resources between groups through longstanding debt relations, unequal exchanges and the rendering of underpaid services, including coerced labour. Subordinate households are therefore rendered vulnerable not simply due to a lack of assets, but because they are fundamentally dependent on other social actors to secure their livelihoods.

Debt and Vulnerability in a Changing Climate

As an example of how relational vulnerability interacts with climatic change, consider the severe drought that afflicted semi-arid areas of south-central India across the winter and spring of 2012-13. During this period, severely deficient rainfall led to the drying up of fields and wells across Anantapur district in southwest Andhra Pradesh and Dharwad district in neighbouring Karnataka.

One troubling outcome of this agrarian distress was an extreme shortage of fodder for cattle. This scarcity left local smallholders that had invested significant money in livestock—often by taking up sizeable debts with local moneylenders—unable to feed their animals. Without access to fodder, smallholders witnessed a key element of their asset base starving to death before their eyes.

In response, smallholders began to sell their cattle en masse. The resulting distress sales opened up new accumulation strategies for local merchants and landlords, who quickly bought up large amounts of cattle from individual smallholders and transported them to cattle markets found in Chennai and Hyderabad. Through their control of capital, credit and transportation, merchants were reportedly making profits of IR 5,000 (US$80) per animal while smallholders were losing a significant part of their asset base.

Simultaneous to this shakedown of smallholders by livestock merchants, a market for water rapidly emerged as farmers and villages continued to wilt under the drought. For those who had the capital to drill deep wells, water could be extracted from dwindling underground aquifers and sold to those neighbours with no such access. By monopolising water, a new entrepreneurial class emerged to service local villages at extortionate prices through a network of roaming water tankers. The Deccan Chronicle quotes Ramesh, an autorickshaw driver on the dynamics of this socially constructed scarcity:

We don’t have an option but to buy water from these private tankers. My family needs about 10 pots of water every day, Rs 50 for drinking water alone. The tankers know how to do business—they come once every 3 days to our village.

As one political leader interviewed by veteran journalist P. Sainath put it: “If I owned ten tankers, I’d have to pray for drought this year, too”. Given that drought is predicted to occur with greater frequency and intensity across these regions, such adaptation entrepreneurs appear to be exceedingly well positioned to cash in.

Together, these examples indicate how drought can re-establish the long-term vulnerability of smallholders and their dependence on other social classes. Those unable to access water, grow crops, find employment or replace lost assets are faced with new pressures to take on further debts advanced by moneylenders, landowners, commercial microfinance institutions or labour contractors. Many households already hold considerable debts that need to be continually serviced, and escalating debt levels threaten a further loss of social dignity and greater dependence upon those well placed to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Selling oneself into bonded labour for the season is one method of dealing with such vulnerability that remains common for the extreme poor across these regions, particularly with the current winding down of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For those in debt traps, entering a bonded labour relationship appears as a temporary salve to immediate woes because the seller receives a fixed payment of advanced wages up front that can be used to pay servicing on pressing household debts. Access to this hard cash, however, comes at the cost of being tied to an employment relationship that is arduous, extremely low paid, and that serves to consolidate the processes of dependency over time. On the other side, employers profit from the production of cheap labourers while middlemen and moneylenders reap considerable rents from ensuing cycles of over-indebtedness and repeated bondage. This is relational vulnerability in its most abrasive form.

Troublingly, these are precisely the type of socio-ecological relations through which climatic change will express itself across much of semi-arid South Asia. Finding ways to ensure that marginal households have the resources and security to avoid such debt traps should be the centrepiece of any meaningful adaptation policy. 

About the author

Marcus Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. This piece draws on material from his new book The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation: Livelihoods, Agrarian Change and the Conflicts of Development from Earthscan/Routledge Press. Follow Marcus on Twitter @entangled_tao

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