YELLAVVA SIDDAPPA HARIJAN’s day starts early. After a quick cup of black tea with jaggery, this soft-spoken 46-year-old Madiga woman, who lives in Chivatagundi village of Bailwad panchayat, is off to the house of her sowcar (“landlord” in this context, though the term has different shades of meaning) for work. Like elsewhere in most parts of rural Karnataka, Chivatagundi, located 70 kilometres from the border town of Belagavi in Bailhongal taluk in north-western Karnataka, has Dalit houses on the periphery of the village. A walk down the lane of Madiga households takes Yellavva past the small temple of Yellamma, the favoured deity among the Dalits of the region, to the house of her Banajiga Lingayat patron in the better part of the village. For the next few hours from 7 a.m., she has a set of well-defined menial tasks to do.
“My work is to clean the cow shed and make dung cakes. My sowcar has three cows. After that I need to sweep the premises and do other odd jobs until I can leave at around 10 a.m.,” said Yellavva. She gets a cup of jaggery tea and some leftover “jolada roti” (a crisp chapatti made from jowar flour) for breakfast at the house of the landlord. The wages she gets for this daily work is offered as a share of the harvest, annually or biannually depending on the crop and the number of times it is harvested in a year. Yellavva receives a sack of jowar (which weighs a quintal) at every harvest, apart from a new sari and food on festival days.
The “unpaid labour” offered by Madigas in the houses of caste Hindu landlords (mainly Lingayats in this region) is part of a traditional practice called bitti chakri prevalent in north-western Karnataka. After her work at the landlord’s, Yellavva toils at the sugarcane and jowar fields surrounding the village for the next seven or eight hours for which she gets Rs.100 a day.
A few kilometres from Chivatagundi is the much larger panchayat village of Naganur, which has close to 10,000 residents. Here, Shekavva Doddappa Holappanavar, 37, has been doing bitti chakri at her landlord’s house for the past 12 years.
“My sowcar was moving into a new house today and as there were a number of people visiting the house, I had a lot of work because of which I was delayed,” Shekavva said. She had been working at the landlord’s house that day until noon from six in the morning. “If someone dies, we have to clean the house. If there’s some celebration, I get delayed as I have to do all kinds of domestic work,” she added, detailing her chores. Her sowcar is fairly prosperous and, according to her, owns 25-30 acres of land (this could not be verified by Frontline ). She gets a sack each of jowar and wheat during every harvest as compensation for her daily labour.
Rudrappa H. Mundinamane, the Belagavi district coordinator of Jeetha Vimukti Karnataka (Bonded Labour Free Karnataka, or Jeevika as it is known), told Frontline that the practice of bitti chakri was well entrenched in the rural areas of Belagavi, Dharwad, Bagalkot and Vijaypur districts. “It is easy to see how widely prevalent this practice is in these villages, but the Madigas and their landlords are reluctant to discuss these with outsiders,” he said. Significantly, all these districts were formerly part of the Bombay Presidency and became part of the Kannada-speaking State of Mysore (before the name was changed to Karnataka in 1973) after the linguistic reorganisation of States in 1956. The practice of bitti chakri seems to be a vestige of the jajmani system, which prevailed in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and is now in decline. Under jajmani , relationships between the upper and lower castes in a particular locality were defined and roles for each caste were set. Payment for these was made in the form of grain. Obviously, the lowest castes were assigned the menial tasks. With the Brahmin at the head of this hierarchical relationship, it was a system that formed the premise for social and economic relationships among various castes in many parts of rural India.
Vestige of jajmani system
Anand Teltumbde, a scholar on Dalit issues, says in an essay: “While the middle castes were hugely enriched and empowered with the collapse of the traditional jajmani system, the Dalits were reduced to being dependent on them for wage labour.” Land reforms, which Teltumbde argues were “half-baked”, were undertaken in various parts of the country contributing to the decline of the jajmani system.
Laws aimed at transferring ownership rights to those who actually cultivated the fields and also conferring surplus land to the landless were implemented in the 1970s and 1980s in Karnataka. But northern Karnataka, where large landowners were more common, has lagged behind the coastal and southern regions of the State with regard to the efficacy of land reforms. Thus, the dominant middle castes—Lingayats in this case—benefited from the collapse of the jajmani system because of the inefficient and inequitable distribution of land.
A poignant description of a particularly virulent form of bitti chakri, called bigar, is provided in the autobiographical account of Daya Pawar (the pen name of Dagdu Maruti Pawar, a prominent Dalit Mahar poet who lived between 1935 and 1996). Pawar describes thus the events that took place in rural Maharashtra nearly 70 years ago:
“There was no timetable for the Mahar’s work. It was slavery, for he was bound to whatever work had to be done for all twenty-four hours of the day. This was called bigar labour. Most of these jobs needed neither study nor skill. Some of the jobs fell into disuse. But others remained, millstones around our necks. We still had to take the village taxes into town. We were supposed to run in front of the horse of any important person who came into the village, tend to his animals, feed and water them and give them medicines. We made the proclamations announcing funerals from village to village. We dragged away the carcasses of dead animals. We chopped firewood. We played music day and night at festivals and welcomed new bridegrooms at the village borders on their wedding days. For all this, what did we get? ‘Baluta’, our share of the village harvest…. The farmers grumbled as they handed over the grain: ‘Low-born scum, you do no work. Motherfuckers, always first in line to get your share. Do you think this is your father’s grain?’”
The “unpaid” services that the Madigas do in Bailhongal are not as extensive as those stated by Pawar. Nonetheless, there is an analogous element of unpaid labour in this case as well. The fact that such a regressive caste practice continues today is a serious cause for concern. Kiran Kamal Prasad, the State-wide coordinator of Jeevika headquartered in Bengaluru, works with his team on the ground in Belagavi to identify cases of bitti chakri .
“This is a particularly wretched form of bonded labour as Dalits are forced to work for free for upper castes even if they haven’t taken a loan unlike in cases of debt bondage,” he said. While bitti chakri has not been named explicitly in The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, it clearly fell within the ambit of the Act for three reasons. Firstly, a person who offers bitti chakri belongs only to the Madiga Dalit community; secondly, he or she is not selling their labour at the market price; and thirdly, local tradition demands that the Madigas perform these menial tasks.
Frontline visited eight landless Madiga households in Chivatagundi and Naganur villages where family members do bitti chakri for their Lingayat landlords. Based on his survey, Mundinamane says that there are a few hundred cases of bitti chakri in Belagavi district alone.
While it is mostly women who do bitti chakri , there are occasions where men are also engaged in such work. Bhimappa Basappa Harijan, 28, in Chivatagundi, is engaged in bitti chakri in two houses between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. every day. He has to clear the dung of four cows. “I’ve been doing this work from my childhood. I get two sacks of jowar, and a measure of groundnut and wheat from each house during harvest, apart from jolada roti for breakfast,” he said. After his bitti chakri work, he toils in the fields for Rs.150 a day.
Why do Madigas in Bailhongal continue to do bitti chakri ? Bhimappa said that the share of the harvest that he received supplemented his family’s food requirements. While this may be partially true, it is not convincing as the Minimum Support Price offered by the State government for jowar, which is the most common grain that is given for bitti chakri , was Rs.1,500 a quintal. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that a person doing bitti chakri works more than 1,000 hours in a year and the compensation is insignificant by any measure. Being Below Poverty Line (BPL) card holders, all Dalit households in the village are also entitled to around 30 kilograms of rice a month in addition to sugar and kerosene which makes the quintal or two of jowar as reward inconsequential.
A second and more plausible reason could be that those engaged in bitti chakri have been doing so for generations. Nilavva Eerappa Hosamani, 42, has been working for the same family for the past 20 years.
A third factor could be the patronage that the system offered to Madigas. At 76, Mallavva Maruti Tippanavar is the oldest person doing bitti chakri in Naganur village. Her only son suffers from a mental illness and the family has no other source of income. “Our sowcar is like a bank for us and gives me a loan when I need some money. They also give me leftover food every day. Please don’t go and ask him any questions about chakri ,” she pleaded.
While the Madigas denied that there was an element of coercion in their work and that it was done voluntarily, there seems to be a link between the “unpaid” labour that they offered at the household and the “paid” labour that they performed in the agricultural fields. In many cases the sowcars were the same, thus entangling the Madigas in an exploitative relationship that they were unable to challenge.
Significantly, most of the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) communities in Karnataka belong to the two numerically large groups of Holeyas (right hand) and Madigas (left hand). Sociologists say it is the Madigas who are relatively more socially deprived than the Holeyas. Even in the villages of Bailhongal, it is only the Madigas who are involved in bitti chakri even though there are a few Holeyas in the region.
According to an 84-page report on bonded labour in Karnataka, submitted by a State government committee led by the journalist Sivaji Ganesan to Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj H.K. Patil on September 25, 2015, there were 7,646 bonded labourers in the State. But it does not mention Dalits involved in bitti chakri .
S.Y. Bhajantri, Assistant Commissioner, Bailhongal Division, told Frontline that he was completely unaware of this practice and had received no complaints about it. Even Dalit activist and political groups have not raised any demands to stop this retrograde practice and have no visible presence in the two villages that have significant populations of Madigas. Their isolation from the larger Dalit identity movements is also evident from the fact that a large number of Madigas continue to use the surname “Harijan”, which is considered patronising and insulting by socially conscious Dalits.
Back in Chivatagundi village, life goes on as usual. Yellavva sits alongside her mother, Harijan Karevva, 75, stooped with old age, who has done bitti chakri all her life and sees it as a part of a village society’s culture. She blithely inquired whether Yellavva had brought some jolada roti from her sowcar .
1. “A South Indian Jajmani System” by Janet Benson, Ethnology, July 1976.
2. “Identity Politics and the Annihilation of Castes” by Anand Teltumbde, Seminar, May 2012.
3. “Land Reforms in Karnataka: Impact on Beneficiaries” by S. V. Deshpande and Vijay K. N. Torgal, Economic & Political Weekly, Issue No. 2003.
4. Baluta by Daya Pawar, translated by Jerry Pinto, 2015.