Punjab Dalit Women Entrepreneurial Dreams Destroyed As Pandemic Pushes Them To Debt; No Govt Support
Since the first lockdown in march, Dalit women working in hosiery industry in Punjab who took loans to start their own business haven't got a single order. Facing humiliation for non repayment of loan, they have started protests across Punjab. The Logical Indian brings the ground report.
Situated in a maze of lanes in Sukhpura village of Barnala district in Punjab, Sarabjit Kaur sits with at least four elderly women of the same village in the veranda of her house to discuss how to go ahead with knitting sweaters and woolens of children during current circumstances. Sarabjit Kaur, a Dalit woman like many others like her in Punjab had dreamt of making it big by starting her own small business of knitting after availing loan from a micro-financing company.
While she started knitting woolens 10 years ago, she took loans from private financing companies to make additions including machinery and manpower. Loans are also given to self-help groups by these finance companies.
Sarabjit tells how she and five other women who work with her in the knitting business used to earn their living by taking up orders from the Ludhiana hosiery industry. "We knit sweaters and other woolens and earn our living but soon after the lockdown was imposed in March, our dreams have dashed to the ground. The business has so far not been recovered and there is not even a single order from hosiery," she lamented.
Despite any season, orders for woolens keep coming as the hosiery industry, concentrated in Ludhiana, starts getting orders for woolens from across the country in June. While most of the material is prepared in high-tech machines in Ludhiana, some goods are prepared by women like Sarabjit in different cities of Punjab.
With no sale, Sarabjit and many other Dalit women like her have become helpless in re-paying the loans to the micro-financing companies. "Staff from the finance company visits our home every now and then and humiliates us to repay the instalments. When there is no sale, how will I pay back the loan," she said to The Logical Indian.
Many Dalit women who have an entrepreneurial spirit avail loans from private companies to add to the family income. Dalit population in the state is predominantly rural and found in high concentration in Malwa region or Southern Punjab. Majority of the Dalit men are employed in informal sector while the women do menial jobs.
As a large number of men lost their jobs or were not able to get work due to Covid-19 pandemic, it were the Dalit women who were taking care of the families by doing menial works in Punjab. Many women had availed loans from private companies to buy cows and buffaloes to earn an additional income apart from working at the homes of high caste 'Jat' Sikhs.
As per the census of 2011, Dalits form 88.60 lakh individuals out of total 2.77 crore population of Punjab. The total population of Dalit women is 42.20 lakh. Out of the total 5.23 lakh families Below Poverty Line (BPL), Dalits form 3.21 lakh families meaning that Dalits are the major victim of poverty in Punjab.
Another Dalit, Paramjit Kaur from Barnala who had availed a loan to purchase a buffalo has to sell the animal during lockdown as she was not able to repay the instalments. "I again availed a loan to buy a cow at a cost of Rs 25,000 during the lockdown period but can sell milk at a cost of only Rs 20 – 25 a litre in the village. This has created difficulty for me as the finance company sends their employees to recover the loan even during this time when some relaxations should be extended to the poor," said Paramjit.
Dalits to protest
Dalit and workers organizations have now decided to raise their voice against the finance companies and have demanded not to pressurize those poor who have availed the loans to re-pay it, at least till the Covid-19 pandemic continues. Several protests have taken place in different districts including Mansa, Sangrur, Bathinda, Barnala among others in which the government has been criticized for not taking any action regarding the issue. Rallies have also been organized recently raising the issue of pressurizing tactics being used by micro-financing companies against rural women.
A major rally has been scheduled for August 31 in Bathinda district in which all those women who have availed loans and are not able to pay it back will take part.
Makhan Singh Ramgarh, senior leader of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha that is leading the agitation in favour of rural women says that during the lockdown period all those women who had availed small loans were severely hit. "The government neither helped them financially nor were their loans waived off due to which thousands of families are under stress," said Ramgarh.
"Like so many farmers have committed suicide when they were unable to repay the loans in Punjab, we are afraid that these women may follow the same path as the finance companies were harassing them to get the instalments. In some cases women were asked to sell their household goods to pay instalments" said Makhan Singh Ramgarh.
However, experts believe that taking loans from micro-financing companies becomes necessary for Dalit population of Punjab as they do not own any property to be mortgaged with the government agencies or banks. "Institutional agencies issuing loans demand guarantee before providing loans. These poor Dalits have small homes in which they live and are left with no option but to take a loan from micro-financing companies," said Prof Gian Singh, economist and retired professor of Economics department, Punjabi University, Patiala.
He said that despite many promises, successive governments in Punjab have failed to do justice with the Dalit population of the state due to which their condition is still deplorable. "Government should enter the scene and rescue the Dalit women who are trapped in the net of loans by ensuring minimum income and providing jobs under MGNREGA," said Gian.
Dalit women were now even threatening the government to face consequences if their issues are not resolved. Kiranpal Kaur, a resident of Barnala says that political parties come to them every five years and forget them after elections. "We will ensure that those political parties who do not fulfil their promises are called out and their leaders boycotted during elections," said Kaur who had availed a loan for a sewing machine.
Also Read: Lack Of Migrant Workers Amid Paddy Sowing Season Has Forced Dalit Children In Punjab To Work In Fields With Parents