Harsh Mander

Barefoot: Hunger and the market

The engagement with markets of destitute, powerless, socially isolated and devalued individuals, who try to daily battle hunger, and feed their dependants is always highly unequal and unjust. One striking universal finding in our studies of hunger and destitution was that however infirm the destitute are, however sick, however challenged to feed small children alone or themselves, there is no prospect for food unless and until they work. If begging is also considered work — and it should be because it is arduous and both physically and psychologically stressful — then this is virtually a universal rule that applied to every highly disadvantaged person we met in the course of our field studies.

Marti, an aged woman in Rajasthan, illegally cuts down trees from the scrub forests near her village, and burns these to make coal so that it is not too heavy to carry and sell in the market. She remarks fatalistically, ‘Let us see how long I will live. Once my body refuses to move, I will not be able to make coal and then I will starve. As it is, I am down to eating one meal a day'. Many old widows, who can barely walk, take on work of grazing cattle on hillsides. Antamma in Andhra Pradesh also goes to the forest to gather wood to sell and wild shrubs to eat, but twice in the past month she fainted while in the jungle. They persevere with enormous determination, but a time will come when their spirits start to ebb. Starvation and eventual death is inevitable.

No succour

Old people need to work regardless of whether they live separately or with their grown sons; they still need to contribute to the household in productive ways. In finding work, old people have to depend on the local economy, since migration as an option is ruled out physiologically and culturally. The migration of young people does create opportunities for work for aged people in villages, and also for single women and disabled persons, but since employers know they are desperate and powerless, they therefore pay them very low wages, often nothing more than food, country liquor and a new set of clothes every year. The work they are offered is low paid and physically difficult like cattle grazing on steep scrub hillsides with little foliage, weeding, sewing, cutting grass for fodder, cleaning cowsheds, husking and drying grain and gathering firewood and dung and similar activities that require work that is exacting and toilsome, and payment exploitative. Even this is always offered like charity to the unproductive and undeserving, rather than as a rightful claim to work.

This is ultimately the story of every day of every destitute life: the stark merciless choice between back-breaking undignified work, or hunger. There was no third choice, of well earned retirement and rest, of secure care, of adequate social security organised by the State, or by local communities and families.

Kamala in Rajasthan talks of her drift to the dangerous and stigmatised vocation of brewing illegal liquor. She remarks bitterly, “Who will give work to a widow? Everyone thinks she is searching for a man”. She lost her husband to TB when she was very young, but she could not take off even one day to mourn, as she had to feed her three small children. She was driven away from her husband's land by his brother, and cleaning cowsheds in the homes of the Patels brought her little more than stale food. She mortgaged her few belongings, but finally turned to brewing liquor. She collects mahuapods from the forest and ferments them for a week, adding many unsavoury ingredients. It is a dangerous vocation, on the dark side of the law. She has to regularly bribe the police, and the rowdy men who flock to her hut each night to get drunk are the same men who ostracise her by day. Although she is redoubtable and fierce, she is still a woman, and the drunks sometimes pay her less and even smash her earthen pots of liquor if she protests.

We found that most disabled adults were engaged in hard work which ‘ able-bodied' people were unwilling to do. We encounter Dhanu from Orissa and Kava from Rajasthan, both severely disabled, but fed and given a roof (but no walls) by their brothers, in return for hard unpaid labour of grazing goats and cattle. When Dhanu runs after the goats, the sores on his legs start bleeding. He cannot even hold an umbrella upright during the rainy season due to his finger-less hands, and so he returns home drenched after days of rain. When we visit Dhanu, his goats are suffering from some contagious disease. He is tense and anxious not only because the goats are his only companions; but also in case the goats are to die, what then would become of him? His brother would not continue to give him food and he could not hope to get any other work. Kava is older than Dhanu, born with a congenital physical disability. Both his legs are joined, and he cannot walk, only crawl. Kava's hands are full of sores because he takes his brothers' sheep to graze in the stony hill terrain in return for food at his brothers' home.

The markets are found to discriminate grossly with these people from the margins not just in work and wages, but also in extending credit. Old people are mostly rudely turned away when they seek food on credit from shopkeepers and trying to buy groceries on credit is always a humiliating experience. Shopkeepers say that there is no guarantee how long old people will live; they may slyly slip away to the other world without repaying their loans. Kampalli can never coax credit for food from the kirana shop as she is too old to be credit worthy, therefore she often just sprinkles salt on boiled rice and gulps it down with water, no dal, no vegetables. It is even harder for an elderly widow. Somi says, “When my husband was alive, we never had a problem finding credit, even though he was mentally slow. A man can get credit from anywhere, he can ask many people. But a woman is turned down more firmly.” They find that shopkeepers charge them more and give them less than their due because they are too weak to protest. Single women report that even formal banks turn them away, as do even many self help groups. If credit is extended by shopkeepers and landlords to those who have no assets to mortgage, they must pay for this dearly with labour in their farms or homes for low wages and long hours, especially for single women. This is indeed the resurgence of a new kind of short term bonded labour.


Many people with disability testify that even the thought of going to the kirana (grocery) shop stresses them greatly, but still there is no escape from it as the kirana shop not only provides them with many of their daily needs, but also at times is the only source of credit. So they weather visits to the shop in spite of routine dishonour and indignities. Indradeep is routinely refused credit from the shopkeeper, even though his son earns as a migrant labourer. The dealer tells him each time to come back the next day. When he returns the next day, he is told the same thing. He listens and goes home helpless and empty-handed. “Sometimes I wish that I was alone, then I would have managed somehow, but with a family it is very different. I can beg myself, but I would not let them beg for food for anything in the world.”

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