Indications of socio-economic change in industry and society
Agricultural castes, SCs and Muslims, labour and finance
The continuing story of Madappa and Manchaiah of Kannur is more complex. In 1962 they separated. Madappa was himself by this time Chairman of the Village Panchayat under the new Panchayati Raj of 1961, a position he retained until 1968. In 1991, discussing the separation, he put it down to business having been bad and difficulties arising from the partners being of different communities. He himself, however, went on to set up a new filature of his own. It had twelve basins, new but of the same type as before. He chose 'Gundal Valley Chapp' as the trade name for his silk and under it established a reputation for fine quality. This filature was again in the forefront of technology at the time: it had piped water from his well, and a steam system for heating the basins. (Before that he had already innovated with a large cask on a cart as an alternative to carriers for his water supply.) Twelve basins were the most, he said when interviewed in 1975, that could be run as a single business. A certain Shivamalladevaru, recorded as a Lingayat and in 1991 himself a reeler, was claimed at the earlier date to be his partner. Adding a twisting factory to his business was another of his aspirations, but he had been seriously ill with a duodenal ulcer requiring surgery at the time and the twisting plan was abandoned. Few reelers in this area did manage to add twisting, though in Kollegal town it subsequently took off.
Madappa’s own gradual withdrawal from any direct involvement with reeling had begun. The unit was taken over by Parshivappa, his sister’s husband’s brother, probably sometime in the late 1970s. It was still running in 1991 but the piped water and steam system had had to be abandoned when the water in the well was exhausted. They had therefore gone back to dependence on water carried from one of the two large tanks belonging to the village. Even this did not last: the tanks were silted up and the retaining wall of one was broken through. Though it was repaired in 1992, the tank was then dry. Madappa had in fact been unusual in using ground water for reeling, most of it in the village being considered unsuitable and damaging to the colour of the silk produced.
Water-carrying, a job normally still performed by Parivaras, had become an even larger and more highly visible source of employment in the village itself and for reeling at Mangala on the main road nearby. Water had now to be fetched long distances, mainly on bicycles adapted so as to have hooked onto them large numbers of small, round, plastic water jars. These were said to be used for their convenience in filling from limited sources such as pools and steams. The old technique of settling muddy water by the use of Kaamagere cilada nuts had regained its old importance as an essential resource for reeling.
Nagesh, Parshivappa's second son, had been adopted by Madappa; he had no children of his own. A young man with a BA and already a wife and son at the age of 22, he was said by Madappa to be managing the unit while his elder and physically handicapped brother, Nanjunda Murthy, supervised it. In practice it seemed that Nagesh was mainly involved in the family's farming and sericulture. They also ran a flour mill, and this was the responsibility of the third of the four brothers.
When Madappa and Manchaiah separated, the latter continued with the old basins. His unit was still there in 1975 but was by then not working. Eventually the basins were sold, Manchaiah himself having died in 1982, and the building was used as a dwelling house for his family.
At both dates when field studies were made, 1975 and 1992, 20 basin units were working more or less regularly in the village, but in neither were there any charkas in operation; a few had been tried from time to time though. In the early 1980s at least one SC man, a reeling labourer since his childhood, had starting reeling with just two 2 charkas, with a loan of Rs 4000 from the State Bank of Mysore in Kaamagere. He worked them for just one year and later went on to basins.
Kannur reeling: basins and units
Total Agric caste: Muslim SC/Christ.
Basins 194 157 (81%) 6
Units 20 17 1½ ½ 1991
Total Agric caste: Muslim SC/Christ.
Basi 155 83 (78%) 42 30
Units 20 8 7 4
Even by 1975 therefore, the old order of the 1950s and '60s in Kannur was already changing. There were then 12 large units with 10 basins or more, with the 15-basin unit already noted still in operation. This made 194 basins in all, probably including a few survivors but only one new unit that had started in the intervening period. Retreat was underway. By 1991 there were only five large reelers and a total of 155 basins. Of the big five, four were survivors and only one had been established in the intervening period. This, Shivaramegowda's unit, had been started by his father Haravegowda in 1973 with 5 basins. It had been expanded to 8 in 1976, and to 12 in 1980. It was an unusual and late development of the kind which had been far commoner in the two previous decades. Where did the 39 lost basins go? Amongst reelers interviewed in 1975 in Kamagere, the major local growth centre for reeling at the time, three were encountered who had, since 1968, set up with second-hand basins obtained from Kannur. The earliest were actually six surplus basins, very old, that had belonged to Madappa himself. This chance encounter suggests the direction in which Kannur's investment in reeling was already by that time beginning to drain away.
It was the agricultural caste reelers who had earlier dominated the village's reeling who were losing out. In 1975 several of the leading men of the village, including the Chairman of the Village Panchayat, had been reelers and they had still been operating in the old style, obtaining their cocoons from a set of more or less client silkworm rearers whom they might support with advance payments if required. Lingayats and Kuruba Gowdas had been running 17 of the units and owned 157 (81%) of the basins. They were the reelers; others worked for them, but by 1991 they had only 8 units and 83 basins. At the same time the establishment of local cocoon markets by the Department of Sericulture meant that their standing as cocoon-buying patrons – and financial advantages arising from this – were undermined.
Muslims now ran 7 units with 42 basins; when interviewed in 1975 they had had only one working unit, one perhaps temporarily stopped and there was one Muslim in partnership with a Scheduled Caste reeler. The partner had subsequently, it appeared, taken over the unit for himself. One of the newcomers, Ansar Ali Khan, in partnership with a relative who had put up some of the funds required, had started in 1989 with two basins only, adding another four a year later. On the SC side, whereas in 1975 there had been only the one man in partnership and the by then non-operational remains of the original filature, there were in 1991 4 SC units and one Christian working, with 30 basins. The reeler mentioned above as having started a 2-charka unit, in about 1985 managed to start a 5-basin unit without institutional support, and this time in the name of his mother. Of the six years since that time he had been out of action for three, having incurred losses. In addition a number of SCs and Kuruba Gowdas were applying for loans of Rs.50,000 each from the Karnataka State Finance Corporation (KSFC) in order each to set up a 6-basin unit. The one Parivara unit of the earlier period had disappeared. Though members of this community had become reelers elsewhere in the region, in this particular village they had not. Could the continuing importance of water-carrying have had anything to do with this?
In the event, two SCs and two Kurubas had been successful in their loan applications by the time of a research visit in September 1992. New units duly appeared; a new phase indeed of government support had begun. The account of the transaction offered by the two successful SC reelers is interesting. Rs 23,000 was provided for the machinery, with the condition that new equipment was bought. This cost Rs 18-20,000, not including the cement work for the boiler or 'oven' of a new standard pattern adapted for burning various combustible residues rather than scarce and costly firewood, and for a solid floor. This would cost another Rs 4,000. Then there was the shed to contain it all, which would cost a minimum of Rs 15,000. A further initial Rs 10,000 was provided for working capital, but this sum would be needed for advances to recruit labour. Once the reeling was underway – if this could be achieved – as attested by receipts for cocoons and silk, the remainder of the Rs 50,000 could be claimed. To obtain all this would cost Rs 5,000 in gifts along the way. Without these the application would not move along its required track.
Though therefore the sums available from this source were substantial and mostly quite realistic, they certainly required any new reeler to have substantial resources of his own. It was not, as these new reelers were very clear, the reeling labourer who would in the future get ahead in this way. Neither had ever been reeling workers themselves: though one had been a supervisor and cocoon buyer, the other had never previously had anything to do with reeling. The former had sold land for Rs 22,000 as well as borrowing money from relatives to supplement the KSFC loan; the latter belonged to a farming family, one brother now looking after the agriculture while a third brother was a Bank Manager in Mysore. Money seemed not to be a great problem. He was building a new brick house at the same time as he was establishing his reeling unit immediately behind it. In neither case would any of their family expect to do the manual work of the unit; it was labourers from their own community who would be employed.
As regards employment in the reeling units, even in 1975 it was not limited to people of Scheduled or other castes of low status. Poor people were to be found in every community and at least a few from most had found their way into reeling. This element of flexibility no doubt had its roots in the structure of this particular village. As has already been noted, the communities were not clearly segregated in their residential areas, and the village had the reputation of being, for its area, progressive and advanced. The presence of two SC teashop keepers, apparently not patronised exclusively by fellow caste members, struck my research assistant, himself of agricultural-caste origin, as extraordinary, even unheard of. By 1991 the implications of flexibility had probably enlarged somewhat further. A son of a Lingayat reeler was noted working on the basins himself in order to learn the job.By then Lingayats, Kuruba Gowdas, Agasas, Muslims, Parivaras and SCs were all represented amongst the current labourers.
Scheduled Caste members, who had often been known previously as ‘Untouchables’, remained by far the largest category in the village, and the main source of reeling labour. Both males and females might be employed in reeling from a young age. In a small sample taken in 1975, about one in ten of both boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 were already earning in the units and very rarely in any other capacity. Amongst young women between 15 and 24, over a third were working in reeling, compared with one in five in agriculture. In older age groups the proportion in reeling sank slowly whilst the agricultural proportion increased, reversing the balance. For the over 45s, only a fifth remained in reeling, no more than half of those still active in agriculture. Of adult SC workers, about two thirds were women. For males once past childhood, farm work was occupying about 40% of them at all ages, with reeling at no more than half this level. Their participation declined sharply after the age of about 45.
For Parivaras, the second largest supplier of reeling labour, evidence was not obtained from Kannur but from a somewhat comparable village it suggested that the distribution of their activity was probably considerably different. Amongst them, water-carrying was the men’s most frequent work, with women in reeling relatively fewer and children unusual. Indeed in surveying Kannur and neighbourhood there was a striking difference between areas of Parivara and SC residence. The congested housing of the former, as yet without any government support, would invariably be found full of women and children, the more spacious layouts and accommodation of SCs rather empty. Its women would mostly be away at work, the children either at work or at school. The systematic difference here seemed to be significantly related to different traditional orientations to earning livings and the presence and absence of government assistance work: whereas the SC tradition emphasised employment, and at the time this was not scarce in Kannur, the Parivara tradition was of self-employment, and primarily for males.
By 1991 it is unlikely that such patterns had been much changed. Despite some loosening of restrictions, caste status was still playing a definite part in allocating particular labourers to particular employers. Lingayats were the only ones to report having Lingayat employees and these may well have been confined to supervisory and rewinding tasks, the most highly paid. Their employees were otherwise a mixture of all the other available communities, with SCs normally the most numerous. Kuruba Gowda reelers reported workers from their own community, as well as SCs and Parivaras. SCs reported only members of their own community as employees, their own relatives amongst them. Muslims similarly might use their own family and relatives, but also SCs, while one reeler claimed to employ everyone else except for Lingayats.
Though the evidence from 1975 on wage rates paid is slight, at both periods it seemed that they were less standardised than expected. Employers even varied as to whether they paid the same rate for men and for women. Where these were specified separately, women working on the basins might in 1991 expect between Rs.14 and Rs.16 for an approximately eight-hour day, whilst men doing the same work might receive between Rs.17 and Rs.20. (In 1975 it had been Rs.2/50 or Rs.3/00.) In addition workers might expect, according to the reelers, substantial advance payments of between Rs.1000 and 3000. It was not clear whether or how such considerable sums would be repaid.
They were also ready to bemoan workers' unreliability and unpunctuality, particularly at times of high demand for labour. They clearly felt themselves to be considerably dependent on their workers. This was not new: in 1975 similar feelings were being expressed. Madappa himself was at the time keeping highly detailed records of individual workers' production but he commented that he could not use these to reward the good or penalise the less so. Any such attempt would mean added difficulty in getting the workers he needed to run his basins. Already shortage of labour at times limited the number of basins he could operate, e.g. only ten of his twelve basins. Between basins and charkas where the latter were still being used, it might vary between basins and charkas too. In 1991, a reason cited for not running charkas was that the work on them was disliked in the village and that their own people would therefore not come and it would be costly, in large advances required, to bring charka labour from elsewhere. Kannur workers did indeed feel that basin work was preferable, both as to the job itself and as to its payment on an hourly basis rather than by the amount reeled. As Uma Shankar, an experienced Research Assistant put it, on basins they felt they could 'reel in a relaxed manner'.
Migration to reeling work in neighbouring Tamil Nadu was another often cited reason for shortage of labour, though it was claimed also to be a way in which a pattern of regularly maintained reeling only at favourable seasons became viable. A unit's workers might migrate temporarily but be ready, with outstanding advances perhaps playing a part, to be summoned back home when the reeler again needed them. In 1975 Kannur had also still been drawing in labour from Mangala, a main-road village three-quarters of a mile away. By 1991 it was apparent that the flow had largely reversed. It was not now drawing in labour but was, like the area more generally, supplying experienced labour to other places with more pressing need for it, expressed in higher wages offered.
Madappa in 1991 considered that the workers then were not what they had been in his day. It was not the Karnataka State Marketing Board (KSMB) which should be blamed for the rather poor reputation that Kannur’s silk by then suffered as compared with other major reeling centres around. Nor was the quality of the reeled silk, as often thought, to do with some special character of the water used: any sweet water would do. It was a matter of the workers showing sufficient interest, since it was on them that quality mostly depended.
 For further and rather later analysis of reeling and the village context, see Simon Charsley & G.K. Karanth 1998. Challenging Untouchability, Chapter 8, “Increasing autonomy: The Harijans of Rateyur”.