Residents of Manamthavizhnthaputhu, a village in India’s Tamil Nadu state, during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2021.

© IRD - Cécile Mouchel

In India, lockdown exacerbated caste inequalities

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the very strict lockdown measures imposed by the Indian government made life very difficult. Faced with travel bans and a sudden inability to work, Indians were obliged to fall back on their families and communities in order to survive. A state of affairs which reactivated longstanding systems of protection and dependency.

As lockdown came into force, seasonal migrants were forced to return to their home regions.

© DR

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On 24 March 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the country and its 1.4 billion inhabitants under strict lockdown. The borders were closed, travel was forbidden and Indians were ordered to stay at home. Seasonal migrants who had been working in the cities swiftly returned home, leading to a massive exodus into rural areas. For a period of several months, until the late Autumn of 2020, residents of these rural regions were obliged to scrape by without work and without wages, while food prices increased steeply as a result of disruption to transport networks.

A researcher interviews a local woman during the presentation of the NEEMSIS study in November 2021.

© IRD –Jalil Nordman

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Food rationing

How did people survive in such conditions? “Our studyDuring the second phase of the NEEMSIS study 2020-2021 1 focused on Tamil Nadu state, in south-east India, where people immediately fell back on family support networks during lockdown,” explains Jalil Nordman, an IRD economist and member of the LEDa-DIAL research team. “Only 25 % of households were able to access enough food during lockdown, and a vast majority – 76% of the people we surveyed – saw a decline in the quality of the food they consumed. Those on the lowest rung of the caste system, the dalit, formerly referred to as “untouchables,” turned to the government’s food distribution programme. Free rations of basic staples such as rice, lentils, cooking oil and sugar were handed out to all those with state-issued ration books.”


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But these rations were not sufficient to prevent some dalit from being obliged to turn to their employers, who generally belong to a superior caste, looking for loans or for work. Many people thus ended up juggling multiple jobs and loans, exacerbating their dependency on members of the superior castes. Lockdown also reinforced existing forms of inter-caste dependency, as well as fostering greater homophilyThe tendency of individuals to associate with similar people, i.e. other individuals in similar socioeconomic circumstances within castes.


© IRD – Jalil Nordman

Scarecrow in the image of the god Ayyanar, guardian of villages in Tamil Nadu, in the midst of an abandoned brickyard in the Spring of 2020.

Asymmetrical obligations

In Tamil Nadu, a highly dynamic region with well-developed industrial and transport infrastructure, members of the upper castes have increasingly moved from the country to the cities over the past decade, selling their land to members of the intermediate castes,” the researcher continues. “The latter have thus become the ‘dominant’ force in rural areas, and during lockdown, and the Covid crisis in general, they helped each other out. The dalit, on the other hand, had no choice but to turn to these intermediate castes for help, reactivating old forms of caste patronage founded upon asymmetrical obligations, with the dominant castes taking on the role of protector while the lower castes are kept in submission.”


Dalit women working in the fields in December 2021 near the village of Manamthavizhnthaputhu, Tamil Nadu state.

© IRD – Jalil Nordman

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These social mechanisms are a recurring feature of periods of crisis. In November 2016, when the Indian government decided to demonetisei.e. withdraw from circulation its two most widely-used bank notes, the country was plunged into chaos for months. Indians suddenly found themselves without enough cash to meet their daily needs, and had to rely on intra-community solidarity just to survive. Members of the lowest castes, not endowed with effective, diversified interpersonal networks, thus became more dependent upon their employers, which is to say on members of the superior castes.

With the demonetisation strategy, the government was looking to stifle informal exchanges and transactions, and with lockdown the goal was for the Indian people to isolate. In both cases, they actually had the opposite effect. Mechanisms of professional and financial dependency were reactivated and had a major impact,” concludes Jalil Nordman.   


More about the NEEMSIS survey