Rural Masses Still Short Changed
AFTER 75 years of independence, there is perhaps no other sector in India which is in greater crisis than the agrarian sector. As per the data of the NCRB, over four lakh farmers and agricultural workers have been forced to commit distress suicide in the 25 years from 1995 and 2020, a direct result of neo-liberal policies. Of these peasants, over one lakh have ended their lives in the last eight years of the Modi-led BJP government alone.
There is a decrease of 9 million cultivators and an increase of 30 million agricultural workers between 2001-2011. In 2015-16, over 47 per cent of rural households in India were landless. The proportion of landless households among rural dalits and Muslims is over 60 per cent. Although adivasi households, particularly in predominantly adivasi areas, have historically owned land, the extent of landlessness among adivasis has risen by over 10 per cent over the last three decades because of the high rate of dispossession. On the other hand, NFHS data show that over 20 per cent of the land in India was in the hands of households that owned more than 30 hectares (75 acres) of land each.
As per the MGNREGA official data, the average number of days for which agricultural workers got work during 2021-22 is only 49 days per year, as against 100 days mandated in the Act. As per data provided by CMIE, in June 2022, as many as eight million jobs were lost in rural India that month, with the rural unemployment rate rising 1.4 per cent to a massive 8 per cent. According to PLFS data, in 2018-19, 10 per cent of rural men and 72 per cent of rural women in the age group 21 to 59 years, the prime working age, did not have any employment. This figure was before the Covid pandemic, which made things much worse. The deaths of lakhs of children every year in the tribal belts of our country due to starvation and malnutrition continue unabated. In the Global Hunger Index, India has slumped to the 101st place out of 116 countries in 2021.
These are some of the glaring symptoms of the grim agrarian crisis in India today, in the 75th year of Indian independence. How and why did such a situation come to pass?
TWO BASIC RURAL CONTRADICTIONS
‘The Alternative Agricultural Policy’ document adopted by the AIKS and the AIAWU in December 2003 broadly divided the post-independence period of capitalist development in agriculture into two phases – the state-sponsored phase from 1947 to 1990 and the neo-liberal phase from 1991 onwards. In the light of this, it outlined the two main rural contradictions as follows:
“From the above analysis, it is clear that the present situation in Indian agriculture is characterised by two important contradictions. The first is the sharp division between the rural rich, comprising landlords, big capitalist farmers, large traders, money-lenders and their allies on the one hand and the mass of the peasantry, comprising agricultural workers, poor and middle peasants and rural artisans on the other. The second is the growing opposition to imperialist-driven LPG policies of the government, not only from the mass of the peasantry but also from sections of the rural rich.”
STATE-SPONSORED PHASE OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT
The agrarian policies of successive Congress governments after independence were aimed at transforming semi-feudal landlords into capitalist landlords and developing a stratum of rich peasants. This further intensified class differentiation in the peasantry. P C Mahalanobis had estimated in the late 1950s that no less than 63 million acres of land in the country could be made available for redistribution. Not even a small fraction of this land was ever taken over or distributed to agricultural workers or poor peasants. Land concentration remained more or less unchanged in most of the country; in fact, in recent years, it has further increased.
The Party Programme of the CPI(M) says in Para 3.15: “The agrarian question continues to be the foremost national question before the people of India. Its resolution requires revolutionary change, including radical and thoroughgoing agrarian reforms that target abolition of landlordism, moneylender-merchant exploitation and caste and gender oppression in the countryside. The bankruptcy of the bourgeois-landlord rule in India is nowhere more evident than in its failure to address, much less solve, the agrarian question in a progressive, democratic way.”
In the 1940s, to advance towards its aim of an agrarian revolution, the Communist Party and the AIKS led a series of historic struggles which have been engraved in letters of gold in the annals of the peasant movement in India. They include Tebhaga in Bengal, Punnapra Vayalar and North Malabar in Kerala, Gana Mukti Parishad in Tripura, Surma Valley in Assam, and the Warli Adivasi Revolt in Maharashtra. They were crowned by the glorious armed peasant uprising in Telangana.
All these struggles were directed against feudalism in all its forms. They demanded the abolition of the zamindari system and advocated radical land reforms. In the period after independence, it is no accident that it was only the Left-led state governments headed by the CPI(M) in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura that enacted legislation and carried out a programme of substantial land reforms and redistribution of land to the landless. A large section of the beneficiaries were Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Along with land concentration, government policies also ensured that irrigation and power facilities, subsidies to agricultural inputs, institutional credit facilities, agricultural implements, high-yielding seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, tube-wells, pump sets, vehicles, and transport were cornered by landlords and rich peasants. It was these sections that became the influential support base of the bourgeois-landlord parties in rural India.
Despite all these serious limitations, the State-sponsored phase of capitalist development had certain positive features, which are now being negated in the neo-liberal phase.
For instance, in the earlier phase, governments made large public investments for the expansion of irrigation, power, science and technology, research and development, extension, transport, communications, storage facilities, and considerable progress was made in these areas. Subsidies were provided for the purchase of agricultural inputs. Measures were taken to protect the interests of producers by establishing a minimum support price (MSP) and procurement mechanism in the case of certain crops. The public distribution system (PDS) was set up with a degree of government subsidy.
Efforts were made to provide institutional credit facilities to farmers, especially after the nationalisation of banks. Restrictions were put on the import of agricultural commodities in order to protect the domestic market. Investment in science and technology helped develop high yielding seeds, chemical fertilisers and agricultural implements. This led to the Green Revolution, which increased productivity and production and helped to attain food self-sufficiency. But along with that, two types of inequalities also developed – the inequality between regions and the inequality between peasants. All the above steps helped the agrarian sector to achieve certain levels of growth and development till 1990.
NEO-LIBERAL PHASE OF CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT
The neo-liberal policies in the country, and in agriculture in particular, were begun by the Congress central government in 1991, and continued ever since. They were exponentially speeded up by the BJP central government after 2014. They witnessed a reactionary change in the policies of the State under imperialist pressure. This phase is based on the retreat of the State from economic affairs and its surrender to the capitalist market.
The 27th national conference of the AIKS held at Hisar in 1992 was the first after the beginning of the neo-liberal policies. It tore apart the neo-liberal policies and warned, “The present policies of the union government will have a serious adverse impact on the peasantry. This will speed up pauperisation of the poor, the small and middle peasants. The number of unemployed youth, both in the urban and the rural sides will again rise to unprecedented heights.” Significantly, the AIKS made this assessment of the neo-liberal policies within a year, when most other peasant organisations were supporting the new economic and agricultural policies. The warnings of the Hisar conference were more than vindicated by agrarian developments over the last 30 years.
The neo-liberal policies in agriculture have the following disastrous components:
- Reversal of land reforms and dilution of land ceiling laws to enable the sale or lease of vast tracts of land to Indian big business and foreign multinationals. The slogan of land to the tiller has been replaced with land to the corporates.
- Slashing of government subsidies on seeds, fertilisers, irrigation, electricity and other inputs leading to a massive rise in the cost of agricultural inputs and a consequent sharp rise in the cost of production.
- Removal of quantitative restrictions on agricultural imports and reduction of import duties, leading to a flood of heavily subsidised foreign agricultural goods with a resultant crash in the prices of domestic agricultural products. Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have had the same impact.
- Sharp cuts in public investment in agriculture, irrigation, power, rural development, science and technology, research and development, and other infrastructural facilities.
- Privatisation of the vital sectors of electricity and irrigation, resulting in high costs of both and also in the creation of water monopolies.
- A severe crunch in institutional credit to peasants and agricultural workers, due to the policy direction of siphoning off of large chunks of credit to the corporates, increasing the dependence of the peasantry on usurious private money-lenders.
- Drastic curtailment of food subsidies and launching a targeted public distribution system instead of the earlier universal one, endangering food security for the poor.
- Withdrawal of the government from domestic market intervention measures like the minimum support price mechanism and the procurement system of crops.
- A policy thrust towards export-oriented agriculture, changing the cropping pattern away from food crops towards cash crops.
- Growing mechanisation of agricultural operations and sharp reduction in the employment and real wages of agricultural workers.
- Watering down of schemes of rural employment, poverty alleviation, public education, public health, housing and other social welfare measures, accompanied by privatisation of education and health services.
- The invasion of rapacious multinational corporations and domestic corporates in all agricultural sectors to the detriment of both the peasantry and the consumers.
WORST CULPRIT: BJP-RSS’ MODI REGIME
The present BJP-RSS central government has been the worst culprit in intensifying neo-liberal policies in agriculture, industry and all other sectors under imperialist dictates. BJP-led state governments have naturally followed suit. The disastrous agrarian scenario under the current BJP-RSS regime has betrayed every single promise of ‘Achche Din’ made to farmers by the BJP election manifesto of 2014. No greater farce has been enacted by the Modi regime than its promise to double farmers’ incomes by 2022.
In 2020 there came the three hated farm laws and the historic struggle against them. From the neo-liberal direction of the Modi government’s policies from the Shanta Kumar Committee of 2015 onwards, it is clear that the farm laws were meant to gradually dismantle the MSP regime, government procurement, and thus the entire PDS itself.
Eventually, this trajectory would also attack and usurp the land of the peasantry in distress. An attempt was already made towards this end by the Modi regime through the Land Acquisition Amendment Ordinance of 2015. But that was defeated through struggles on the ground and struggles in the Rajya Sabha. However, many BJP state governments later forced the same amendments through their state assemblies.
The BJP regime sought to hand over the entire agricultural sector to the domestic and foreign corporate lobby to increase its super-profits and its wealth. Within a fortnight of the enactment of the farm laws, 29 labour laws – which had been won by the working class after decades of bitter struggles – were annulled in parliament and were replaced by four anti-worker labour codes. The employment lifeline of agricultural workers – the MGNREGA – was cynically starved of funds.
The same basic classes that produce the wealth of the country through their labour – the workers, the peasants, and the agricultural workers – are thus being viciously attacked. This is the real meaning of corporate communalism. It has to be fought tooth and nail by forging a powerful worker-peasant unity.
THE UNFINISHED STRUGGLE
The major issues for struggles of agricultural workers today are as follows: 1. Implementation and expansion of MGNREGA, with increase in days of work and wages, and also immediate clearance of unpaid dues; 2. A central comprehensive legislation for agricultural workers, with increase of their minimum wage and social security; 4. Issues of landlessness and land rights; 5. Issues of homelessness and house-sites; 6. Universalisation of PDS and inclusion of other essential items; 7. Pension for agricultural workers and poor farmers over 60 years of age; 8. Problems concerning health and education; 9. Social atrocities and oppression of women, Dalits and Adivasis.
The major issues for struggles of peasants today are as follows: 1. Legal guarantee to MSP @ C2+50 per cent, as per the Swaminathan Commission recommendation; 2. Sharp reduction in input costs of seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, diesel, petrol, electricity, and irrigation; 3. Complete one-time loan waiver by the central government to poor and middle peasants and agricultural workers; 4. Withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill; 5. Radical changes in the anti-farmer and pro-corporate Prime Minister Fasal Bima Yojana; 6. Expansion of credit and irrigation facilities; 7. Land-related issues – against unjust land acquisition, for implementation of Forest Rights Act, against retrograde changes in the rules of the Forest Conservation Act; 8. Issues of peasant women; 9. Crop wise issues.
The two other fundamental and cardinal issues are the implementation of radical land reforms, and a halt to the selling off of the country for a pittance to the corporates through the BJP-RSS central government’s shameless privatization drive of the public sector.
The repeal of the three farm laws was a historic victory for the farmers and the people, and a humiliating defeat for the forces of corporate communalism. The SKM-led farmers’ struggle struck squarely at the anti-national policies of the BJP-RSS regime, which has always acted as the most servile agent of the feudal, corporate and imperialist lobby, right from the days of our freedom struggle. The inclusive farmers’ struggle struck a mighty blow for democracy and secularism. It was a patriotic struggle waged by millions of farmers not only for themselves – but also in defence of the people and the entire country.
With the inspiring impetus gained by the victory of this farmers’ struggle, the people’s struggle for the above demands, for a policy change, and for a regime change must and will go forth with even greater strength, confidence and determination. But for its success, it will be imperative for it to politically and ideologically combat and defeat the menacing and poisonous scourge of communalism, casteism and authoritarianism.