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Accepted Paper:

Lockdown and livelihoods in rural South India: Rethinking patronage at the time of Covid-19  


Geert De Neve (Sussex University)
Grace Carswell (University of Sussex)

Paper long abstract:

On 25th March 2020, to stem the spread of Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a country-wide lockdown that immobilised over 1.3 billion people across India. Media and early scholarly reports revealed the multiple health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic and the related lockdown, with clear indications that those already vulnerable or marginalised were most acutely affected.

In this paper, we present accounts of garment and textile workers from two villages in Tamil Nadu, collected during the national lockdown from 25th March to 31st May. These villages - Allapuram and Mannapalayam - are located in the hinterland of Tiruppur, India’s largest knitwear manufacturing and export hub. Being in the middle of a year-long restudy of these villages, we were able to continue collecting material, using phone conversations with key informants.

While, to date, no one in these villages has contracted Covid-19, the lockdown paralysed rural life across the social spectrum, albeit with diverse outcomes shaped by pre-Covid-19 social and economic positions. We describe the immediate economic fall-out of the lockdown in terms of job losses in a region heavily dependent on garment and textile work. We also reveal some of the instantaneous responses they elicited, including by the state. We then explore shifting experiences in the medium term as unemployment and cash shortages began to threaten the livelihoods of the poor.

Responses and interventions seemed to differ quite radically in these study villages, in line with caste relations, labour markets and, crucially, relations of patronage. Our findings provide food for thought around the workings of patronage, dependency and indebtedness at a time of crisis. The lockdown not only provides a lens through which to study relations of power and inequality, but also reveals how times of crises exacerbate inequalities while also galvanizing unexpected forms of support.

Panel P03
Care, patronage and control