June 21, 2020

CPI(M) Virudhunagar District Committee Survey: A Good Initiative

G Ramakrishnan

THE utter failure of the central government to provide meaningful relief to the tens of crores of our people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods following the lockdown imposed by it in the wake of the Covid19 pandemic is by now well documented. The CPI(M) and other Left parties  had put forward concrete proposals for providing immediate relief to the people as well as for reviving the economy and putting the country on a path of self- reliant development. But the Modi government has continued with its disastrous policies both with regard to the challenges posed by Covid-19 and with regard to the economy.

Across the country, our Party committees are working hard to provide some relief to the people in distress and simultaneously mobilising the people against the government’s policies. Mobilisation at local levels requires an understanding of  the concrete situation on the ground. In this article, we report on a survey undertaken by the Virudhunagar district committee of the CPI(M) to assess the economic impact of the lockdown on the lives of working people in the district.

Virudhunagar district
The district of Virudhunagar is located in the southern part of the state of Tamil Nadu. Its headquarters, Virudhunagar municipality, is located at a distance of 48 kilometres from the well-known city of Madurai. As per the Census of 2011, the district had a population of 19.5 lakhs. Its current population is likely to be around 21 lakhs. Key industries in the district include fireworks manufacture, match industry and printing, most of these being located in and around the town of Sivakasi. This town is said to account for 70 per cent of the country’s production of matches and fireworks, and 60 per cent of all offset printing. Around 1,20,000 persons working in the fireworks industry are enrolled in EPF. Another two lakhs working in this industry are not enrolled in EPF. The total direct and indirect employment linked to this industry is around five lakhs. Compared to other districts, agriculture accounts for a smaller share of the district economy.

The Survey
The Virudhunagar Party DC mobilised around 500 comrades to conduct a survey of both rural and urban households in the district to assess the economic situation of the people. The survey, based on a simple questionnaire, was conducted during the two days of May 30 and 31 throughout the district. In all, 3083 persons – representing1854 rural and 1229 urban households – were interviewed. Of the 3083 persons interviewed, 1011 – about a third – were casual labourers employed on a daily wage basis. Among the rest, 387 persons worked in the fireworks units, 281 were peasants, 264 worked in construction, 208 in match factories, 107 in power loom sector, 93 in textiles, 65 in printing presses and 44 in the handloom sector. A total of 208 persons worked as wage/self-employed workers as drivers in auto/van/other motor vehicle transport. Small traders interviewed were 103 in number. Persons in miscellaneous self -employment were 230 while another 82 persons were tailors, public address system providers and musical performers. 

Agriculture and horticulture
The major crops in Virudhunagar district include paddy, maize, sugarcane, coconut, mango, guava, banana and vegetables. With covid-19 and the lockdown, festive events such as marriages and temple/religious functions were not taking place (except on a very small scale) and this meant that vegetables could not be taken to markets and fairs to be sold. The market for flowers collapsed. Among the eight taluks in the district, paddy is grown in three. With only one government procurement centre, hardly 10 per cent of paddy has been procured by the state. Most peasants end up having to sell their paddy to local traders at low prices immediately after harvest.

Workers and small shopkeepers
Since the lockdown lasted for 53 days from March 25 to May 17, the workers employed in textiles, fireworks and match industry were thrown into unemployment during this period. A few textile mills have paid half wages. The workers in the fireworks, match and printing units have not been paid any wage during the lockdown period. During this period, construction workers have reported being employed for very few days, ranging between two and ten. The wage loss for construction workers at the rate of Rs 600 per day works out to Rs 30,000 for this period. Drivers of autorickshaws and vans lost Rs 1000 per day during the lockdown. This made it impossible for them to pay the charges for getting the fitness certificate (FC), insurance premium and the EMI on the vehicle loan. Small grocery shops and all shops other than vegetable selling shops remained closed for the 53 days of lockdown. With zero income, shopkeepers are unable to pay rent and electricity charges. Small retail shops have been losing around one to one-and-a half lakh rupees per month.

Tailors, electricians, plumbers, motor mechanics, folk artists and other self-employed professionals have been without any employment in the lockdown period. They are all facing complete loss of income.

Among the 1854 persons from rural areas interviewed by our comrades, only 622 had job cards. Of them, only 205 got some employment under MNREGS during the lockdown. Even in these cases, the total employment has been only for seven days, and at a daily wage of Rs 170, below the minimum wage rate.

Ration cards
Of the 3083 families interviewed, 158 had no ration cards.  Rice, pulses and palm oil were supplied by the government in April and May. The rice was reported as being of poor quality in some villages and urban locations.

767 of the respondents were registered as members with the Welfare Boards. Of them, only 567 received the financial support provided by government.

How did people cope?
When asked how they had coped with the loss of employment and income during the lockdown, 2359 respondents said they had borrowed, pledging their meagre jewellery, at interest rates of 10 per cent per month on weekly loans. 555 persons said they managed with their meagre savings and some help from friends and relatives. 169 respondents said they survived solely on the rations, ate one or two meals a day, often inadequate, and lived frugally.

Living with hunger and starvation
In a village near the district headquarters of Virudhunagar, the wage labourers reported that they had starved for several days. They also said they went into the nearby forests, collected a creeper known as “pirandai” in Tamil (‘veldt grape’ in English) earning 100 rupees a day for a few days, but the demand ran out. This was how they survived precariously.

Handloom and Powerloom
A part of the handloom and powerloom sector had been functioning through the lockdown period. However, since yarn was in short supply and cloth remained unsold, employment fell.  In the two taluks where these activities are concentrated, people have reported that they starved for several days. Some respondents said in effect: “We could not even feel the pangs of hunger after some days. We had no money to buy milk for our babies. We had never experienced such suffering in our lives. We even felt we would be better off dead. Migrants from the district who have returned following the lockdown are also facing severe crisis.

Expectations regarding help from govt
When asked what they wanted government to do, 2285 persons (more than 70 per cent of all respondents) said the government must provide immediate cash relief of Rs 5,000 to 10,000. 203 respondents said interest-free loans should be given. 372 persons said jobs should be provided. 223 respondents expressed their lack of faith in the government, saying that it would not respond to any demand from the people.

Demands evolved from the Survey
Based on the findings of the survey, the Virudhunagar district leaders of CPI(M) met the collector on June 11, 2020 and submitted a charter of demands, pressing for early action.

Virudhunagar has been less affected by Covid-19 at present, compared to many other districts. The number of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 was 139 on May 31 when the survey was completed. It rose to 180 on June 11 when our leaders met the collector. Even so, the lockdown has severely affected the mostly informal workers of the district. No cash assistance has so far reached the working people who form a high proportion of the population of the district. It is against this background that the following list of demands, which evolved from the findings of our survey, were placed before the collector:

1. All loans of the peasantry must be waived. Further, loans should be provided for cultivation in the coming agricultural season.

2. A monthly sum of Rs 7,500 should be paid to every household with a ration card with eligibility for rice, and outside the category of income tax assessees, for as long as Covid-19 is present.

3.  For the coming six months, every household regardless of whether they possess a ration card or not, should be provided free of cost rice at the rate of 10 kilos per adult member per month, and corresponding quantities of tur dal, sugar and palm oil.

4. Supply of yarn to all weavers in handloom cooperative societies and procurement of cloth produced must be ensured, guaranteeing the employment of all weavers.

5. There is intense and widespread unemployment in the villages. To address this, the following must be done: (a) Ensure, in all panchayats, six days of work per week under MNREGS for all families with job card; (b) Issue job cards to all those who apply; (c) Increase the number of days of employment in MNREGS to 200 days per card; (d) Extend MNREGS to all town panchayats.

6. Provide interest-free loans upto Rs 10 lakhs for all small entrepreneurs, small retail traders, and self-employed persons.

7. Provide unemployment relief to all unemployed youth and to those who lost their jobs owing to the lockdown.

8. Implement schemes that will create new employment opportunities in the district.

9. Restrain microfinance institutions and SHGs from forcibly recovering loans due, and provide a moratorium of six months on all loans of SHG members and MFI borrowers

A perusal of these demands shows that they are consistent with the demands repeatedly articulated by the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) and its general secretary on its behalf, right from the time of the first lockdown. The situation in Virudhunagar district and that in the rest of the state of Tamil Nadu are not likely to differ much. So, the demands broadly formulated at the national level by the Party seem to resonate quite well with the demands evolved from a concrete survey to assess the ground situation in a particular site. Party committees across the country may find the Virudhunagar initiative worthy of emulation.