Sordid Story of a Betrayal – Part I

India’s Long-neglected Agrarian Problem

Gloucester's show
Beguiles him, as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow, snares relenting passengers.

                        — Henry VI, Part 2 — Shakespeare

The ancient belief has it that crocodiles shed tears while consuming their victims. Though not true, it’s very applicable to politicians, especially those who claim allegiance to the Congress Party who have, of late, been shedding copious tears on the plight of our farmers.

There has, for instance, been such an almighty hullabaloo about the death by hanging of a farmer from Rajasthan at an AAP rally. (That it later turned out to be an Agatha Christie mystery is another story. The so-called destitute farmer had a family land holding of 20 odd bighas with a six-room concrete house and handsome Rajasthani safa-tying handsome side income.) Shan’t we, in this light, drastically revise the Suresh Tendulkar definition of poverty to suit the current definition of agrarian destitution?

There have been – let’s not forget – over one lakh suicides by farmers during the inglorious decade that the Congress-led UPA ruled the country. So, if there’s a single party responsible for the deplorable state of our agrarian sector, it’s the Congress party.

Desperate State

For over six decades, the Grand Old Party has, in the name of pseudo-socialism, been giving doles and handouts to farmers instead of providing them basic facilities like irrigation, roads, markets and financial help. No wonder, therefore, an overwhelming majority of our farmers live in a state of desperate poverty. In fact, the situation is so desperate that even if one crop fails, it spells ruin for them. An Indian Express columnist lately observed that an “average Indian farmer often makes less money in a year than beggars make in the streets of Mumbai.” No wonder they flock to nearby towns in search of some work just to eke out a living. The much-publicized Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) devised to enhance the livelihood security of people in rural areas by guaranteeing hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to a rural household who volunteer to do unskilled manual work, has made no dent to the long-neglected agrarian problem.

Classic Description

May I refer here to the 1996 classic Everyone Loves A Good Drought by one of India’s most intrepid journalists, Palgummi Sainath. He wrote it after touring some of the poorest districts in the country to know how the poorest of the poor citizens of free India live.The book was a collection of reports that the author filed during his tours. Some of the reports kicked up controversies and in a few cases even led to some action on the part of the authorities. It is another matter that Sainath opended just a window of the house steeped in utter darkness of centuries. In reality the scenario is far more grim.

Sainath’s main findings can be summed up in just one word - apathy. Apathy towards the victims of chronic rural poverty is a specter that haunts our polity. Around this theme Sainath – who knows the rural poor as few people know – wove the stories about real people of flesh and blood who were – and still are – victims of grinding poverty handed down from to generation after generation – people who lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data that our politicians mouth as rural poor.

Sainath discovered that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non-existent students.

He told the story of the residents of a village called Chikpaar. The village was first acquired in 1968 for the MiG jet fighter project for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in 1968. Some 400-500 families were evicted on an “angry monsoon night”. They moved to another location (on the land that was owned by them) and resettled there. Nostalgically, they named the new village as Chikpaar.

In 1987, these very families were evicted again for the Kolab multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place. Again, ‘development’ chased them to their new place of residence and the residents received eviction notices for the third time.

The book was a scathing indictment of the elite in this country who like our leaders visit the remote areas in a jeep, get photographed and scurry back before sunset. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically came out in the study.

Sainath was describing in words the protest of the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (a role brilliantly played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.

Persistent Dilemma

That India lives in villages is a tired, stale cliché. We all know that the basic problems of Indian polity – social as much as economic – have agrarian roots. During the last 50 years, while missing no opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the agrarian problems, we have done precious little to tackle what F. Tomasson Jannuzi of the University of Texas calls India’s Persistent Dilemma.

The fact that a foreigner has studied in depth our festering agrarian malaise – while most Indian economists took it for granted – illustrates how readily we learn to live with our problems rather than do something about them. And most (if not all) of the discredit for this failure squarely belongs to Jawaharlal Nehru who had the opportunity – an opportunity that comes in centuries – to initiate a long-due action, but didn’t have either the inclination or the will to do so. The result is as Jannuzi sums up:

As a result of the Government of India’s failure and the failure of most Indian states to enact into law and implement agrarian reform measures designed to transform its historic land systems so as to confer new rights and economic opportunities on actual cultivators, India now faces an uncertain future. India’s existing political economy is one that denies generally its rural majority the socio-economic changes long ago promised by India’s Founding Fathers and made explicit in the Directive Principles. The existing political economy in rural India is shaped mainly, as it was prior to independence, by the interests of a minority of landholders whose political and economic power are derived from secure rights in land.

Heart-rending indeed is the account of our failure to devise a systematic national program to bring about the much-needed agrarian reforms in post-1947 India. Had Nehru the foresight to facilitate such a program and win national support for it, we would have emerged from the long-lingering shadow of British colonialism into a truly democratic era rooted in an empowered mass of humanity which had been ruthlessly exploited for centuries. The account of our failure to do what we could have done on this front is the most telling commentary on Nehru’s post-1947 business-as-usual approach. All that was done in the name of agrarian reform was to conjure up a camouflage to ensure the continuity of the old order. In Jannuzi’s words:

If the government of a country is dominated or strongly influenced by landholders, the very persons whose powers and prerogatives are to be curtailed by agrarian reform, no one should expect effective measures of reform to be enacted or, even if they could be successfully enacted, to be implemented.

Those who Mattered

Allow me a small diversion. Before Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Indian independence movement was an upper middle class Xmas week diversion of resolution passing. It was he who gave it an altogether new dimension by involving the Indian peasantry, whom he egged on to stop paying lagan. He gave the clarion call: “Swarajya is my birthright, and I shall have it!” And this was the demand of a new generation. No wonder the British colonial rulers called him “Father of the Indian unrest.” In the fitness of things the newly-awakened masses conferred on him the honorary title of “Lokmanya”, which literally means “accepted by the people (as their leader)”.

Tilak’s mantle fell on the shoulders of Gandhi. He went a step further to involve the peasantry. Remember his Champaran campaign in North Bihar. And this made the independence movement an unstoppable juggernaut that the ever-opportunist upper middle class clambered on realizing that independence of India is on the way. Ironically, once again as usual the peasantry was let down when independence finally arrived.

Let the present generation be reminded that our independence movement was given a mass base by Gandhi only by successfully mobilizing the peasantry. Emphasis on land reforms once we were independent was a recurring theme whenever Congress leaders talked of their priorities. Even after 1947 the exercise continued perfunctorily. The First Five Year Plan document pompously proclaimed:

The future of land ownership and cultivation constitutes perhaps the most fundamental issue in national development. To a large extent, the pattern of economic and social organization will depend upon the manner in which the land problem is resolved.

However, the reality is entirely different. What goes in the name of land reforms was supposedly implemented in two phases. The first consisted of the abolition (on the statute book) of the zamindari system, conferring on the tenants the rights to the land that they had cultivated for generations. In the so-called second phase a ceiling was fixed on the size of the holdings. The ostensible purpose of the second phase – most deftly defeated in practice − was to bring about a more equitable land distribution. Let’s however remember that land reform was a State subject. Had the Central Government been really serious about it, the subject would have been, while the Constitution was being finalized, at least brought on the Concurrent List to thwart the designs of land-owning classes dominating State legislatures.

The result of this unpardonable lapse, as they say, is history.

Continued to “Festering Agrarian Problem: How Long Can We Dither?” 


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3497      Comments: 10

Comment Every one has to fight for his or her right, rich or poor. Why rich are born or why poor are born......fate? World goes that way every where. We were free people and we lost freedom. Backward countries try to match with the industrialized ones, so are their people. Doing so poor people have suffered more than the rich. It seems to be order of the day. It is so every where. My suggestion is get united for what you want, rich or poor, every one should get united and work for betterment of nation where they are living or residing....United you stand, divided you fall. Poor may to suffer more than rich, in the end poor will get rich (even after more pain) Poor has to pay price, who says rich does not. Shall we live with that so that all can be happy.

pranlal sheth
14-May-2015 14:44 PM

Comment Insurance is the best way to support farmers in a calamity. In addition a very low interest loan to bridge difficult times between two crops. There cannot be give-away money with no way to recover or loan waiver. You may restructure the loan. This is no avoid being seen playing vote bank politics. We hear these politicians loudly scoring over other on loan waving or organizing loan melas, this should stop.

14-May-2015 04:05 AM

Comment India is independent since about 68 years. It is an agrarian country. Farmers' death is a matter of concern for so many years. While India has seen green revolution, and we have massive Government procurement and stocking in Food Corporation it is lack of brains on the part of law makers and administrators that farmers have to die. Why can we not have Agrarian Insurance on the lines of Life Insurance. Why have we not been able to put in place such an insurance even after sixtyseven years of insurance. Law makers and our administrators are to be blamed. They should be ashamed of themselves. Can not the Block Development Officers get into this act? It is a shame. Secondly, wherever crop fails, why can not the Government send truckloads of grains to those farmers equivalent to their expected returns from their fields so as to offset lack of production for whatever reason, draught, pest, hail, whatever. A Modi as a Prime Minister can make required systemic changes in our administration to put such instruments in place.

08-May-2015 23:13 PM

Comment Let us wait till Mr. Bali tells us where he is going with it. It will be premature to judge this essay at this point.

I have checked the details of his research on the subject and the historical facts and I do not find anything misleading.
I am eager to read Part II.

08-May-2015 11:27 AM

Comment 'How it is to be achieved? Over this question I have been pondering in my mind and through my work for quite some time. I don't know whether I shall be able to give the right answer, because it takes time. No matter whether I succeed or fail in this, the fact remains that a simple answer has got to be found out. And the answers to all other incidental issues will be found in that answer. Otherwise all ad hoc measures will be wastage of time and who knows if the one for whom they are meant will at all remain so long alive.' - This is being re-quoted from Tagore's essay. The poet didn't tell lies. He did many things both in his zamindari as well as at Sriniketan for solution of rural poverty which Mr. Ashby is not aware of. He may read his works and also my blogs on Zamindar Rabindranath where I am yet to deal with his works on rural reconstruction.

08-May-2015 02:47 AM

Comment Mr Bali's rigorous essay amounts to a protest, as does Mr Biswas's article (quoted in stages as he deems necessary). Both end on a note of futility, but depend on the eloquence of the protest, precise observation of the circumstances, even direct apportioning of blame, to suffice the while. Both articles are mere representation of the facts as they stand; and to suggest something can be done, and to purport not to know what it is, is as good as saying that the space after the final full stop is in each case meaningful. Rather let the facts reveal themselves as the typical workings of power in the Indian polity, which trend cannot be undone because we are talking about the structure of power that props up the edifice. Even in the case of a successful peasants' revolution as occurred in the Russian revolution, it is the structure of power to stabilise the whole in the name of that revolution that incorporates new hierarchies and even worse tyranny. Never does the dream of peasant come true, because the new order uses, nay exploits, his labour for the greater glory of the party/nation. In a modified sense, so it is with India, or for that matter any democratic nation, but in varying degrees and shades of evidence. India is a country of vast population, so will experience acute disparity between the privileged and the exploited as precisely delineated in the respective accounts above. There is nothing more can be said than is already observed. Hope for the poor in India is in the greater awareness of the dignity of humanity as a global phenomenon, a movement of the times, alas, often resisted, whereby injustice is exposed in the world's eyes - creating its own heroes and martyrs - and prompts reform in the countries concerned.

I personally believe poverty is a blessed state if it is a context for awareness of the presence of God as would occasion a spirit of acceptance, which I realise is easier said than achieved in this materialistic age. There again, one observes the suicides of farmers in India only to lament the fact. Could not these farmers seek solace through faith in Almighty God? As I have said elsewhere, suicide is not a unilateral decision to act, but the whole circumstances affecting an irresistible compulsion to end one’s life. In this sense, the circumstances of suicide are integral to the act, ultimately the structure of power that occasions them.

06-May-2015 23:12 PM

Comment Here is the concluding part of the same Tagore essay on our agrarian problem.

The basic problem is this - the raiyats are very simple; they are illiterate, weak and extremely poor. They don't know how to protect themselves. None is more dangerous than those among them who know it. Nobody knows better than me how dangerous can be a raiyat who thrives on other raiyats. The devil himself is present in his various forms in the various modes of their operation through which they gradually fatten themselves into a zamindar. They don't feel any qualm of conscience in committing forgery, instituting false civil and criminal cases, arson and looting. Repeated imprisonments harden them into expert criminals. Like big businesses in America gobbling up small businesses the more powerful raiyats by hook or by crook misappropriates the small holdings of weak raiyats and become zamindars. In the beginning they themselves cultivated their lands, sold their crop in the market carrying it in their own carts drawn by their own bullocks; except their cunning character they were in no way different from other raiyats. But as the extent of their landed property grows bigger and bigger they begin to use clubs in place of their fingers. The outer limits of their bellies bulge out; they need a dumpy bolster behind their back, by conducting false civil and criminal cases they become prosperous and there is no end to their blustering and bullying. Small fries can escape through big nets but small nets do not spare even the smallest fry, all of them get caught. And these smallest fries are the small raiyats.
In this connection one thing needs to be borne in mind - the real skill of the litigant is seen in his capability to turn the unfavorable provisions of law in his own favor. To hit back with the same law which is likely to hit one is the lawyer's masterly trick like that of a master wrestler. Many master wrestlers are engaged in this job. So long as the raiyat remains poor in both cunning and money he is likely to fall in deep waters even where the law is in his favor.
It is neither pleasing to say nor to hear that the raiyat should not be allowed to use his land in the manner he would like. In a sense full freedom also includes the freedom to cause harm to one's own self. But such freedom suits him who is not immature as a child. To prohibit someone who is a mature person to walk along a road which is used by motor cars is nothing but an unlawful restriction; but if we do not prohibit an immature person to use that road we would be guilty of inconsiderate action. From my experience I would like to say that to give the raiyat the right to transfer his land without any restriction is to give him the right to commit suicide. In course of time he will have to be given that right; but will it last long if it is given now? In commenting on your monograph I only express this doubt.
I know it well that the zamindar is not without greed. Wherever there are restrictions on the right of the raiyat over his land the zamindar gets ample scope to exploit the raiyat. In our society there is a time limit within which daughters are to be married and that time limit gives the party of the groom a scope to squeeze the parents of the bride. These cases are similar. But there are no reasons to feel elated at the prospect of the zamindar's ultimate loss as a result of gradual transfer of land to the moneylenders. To the raiyat the grip of the moneylender is more remorseless than that of the zamindar - even if you don't agree on this point, you must admit that it would be an additional grip.
It is very much true that the rent payable by the raiyat should not be enhanced. The revenue paid by the zamindar to the government will remain fixed forever whereas, like a sentence in which putting commas and semicolons but no full stop are allowed, the enhancement of rent payable by the raiyat to the zamindar will be allowed under certain conditions but cannot be totally stopped is indeed inequitable. In fact it acts as a great disincentive to the improvement of the land. Hence it is harmful not only to the raiyat but also to the country as a whole. Moreover, the bar on felling of trees, erection of pucca (brick-built) houses, digging of ponds etc can by no means be supported.
These are small issues; the most important thing is - no law can protect the man who cannot protect himself. And this capability is to be found not in any stray process but in the whole way of life. It is inherent not in law or in the charka (spinning wheel), or in khaddar (home-spun cloth) nor in the right to vote in the Congress party bought with four annas (quarter of a rupee). If we can infuse our villages with life in its full vigor in a comprehensive manner only then their vitality itself will find out the power of self-protection.
How it is to be achieved? Over this question I have been pondering in my mind and through my work for quite some time. I don't know whether I shall be able to give the right answer, because it takes time. No matter whether I succeed or fail in this, the fact remains that a simple answer has got to be found out. And the answers to all other incidental issues will be found in that answer. Otherwise all ad hoc measures will be wastage of time and who knows if the one for whom they are meant will at all remain so long alive.'

05-May-2015 00:08 AM

Comment I may be excused for further quotes from the same Tagore essay. I couldn't resist it. Moreover, my blogs on Zamindar Rabindranath are also relevant. Tagore was a fierce critic of the Non-cooperation movement which he considered as a negative movement. For this he was even physically attacked by the Bengali Gandhians. He was also against our blind adoption and imitation of Western political institutions.
'Today that politics has turned its face in another direction just like a lady feeling hurt and offended in her love turns her face away from her lover, telling her friend, 'No, I won't look at those black clouds any more'. So long it was a time for courtship and love tryst, but now the relationship has soured and is threatened by separation. The style has changed but the game goes on. Previously we said very emphatically, 'We want', now we are saying equally emphatically, 'We don't want'. We however hasten to add that we want to improve the conditions of our villagers. In other words, we want to say that they are our own people and the rulers are not. But we exhaust all our energies, both vocal and physical, in noisily shouting 'we don't want'. What we want we utter in a very feeble voice. What little money we are able to collect is spent in organizing the political fracas of our gentlemen and what remains for the welfare of our villagers is only some noise. That means, from the beginning of our modern day politics we have been practicing what may be called an unidentifiable patriotism, precluding from it the people of our country.
Those who supply money for the practice of this kind of hollow patriotism are either zamindars or factory owners and those who supply noise are legal practitioners. The villagers have no place among them; that means in this ghostly world what we call our country is not to be found. They have no power, either of making noise or of money. When civil disobedience is launched they may be needed only to die stopping to pay their rents; those who live from hand to mouth are also called sometimes to shut down shops and markets to make a hartal successful. The purpose of all these is to display our unfriendly political stance before our rulers.
Thus the matter relating to the raiyats always remains postponed. First let the throne be in place, the crown be made, the scepter be brought in and Manchester be pauperized ' only then we shall find the time to attend to the problems of the raiyats. In other words, politics will come first and the people of the country would come later. This is the reason why, like a tailor making a dress, we are busy fashioning the form of our polity. It is very easy because we do not need any living creature to take the measurements. What we have to do is only to send to the tailor a ready made sample borrowed from abroad where the people of those countries made their dress after a lot of experiments keeping in view their physique and their climate. We know the name of the dress - it has been crammed right from the pages of learned treatises - because in our factories the name of the product comes long before it is actually produced. They are democracy, parliament, the constitutions of Canada, Australia, South Africa etc, all of which we can imagine with our eyes closed - because we do not have to take the trouble to take measurements from a living human being. To enjoy this ease we say that we should have swaraj or self-rule first, the people for whom it is meant will come later. Everywhere else in the world people are evolving their self-rule themselves according to their nature, capabilities and needs whereas we are the only people on earth who will have their swaraj on an auspicious first day of January chosen from the almanac and then we will somehow impose it on the people of our free country. Meanwhile there is malaria, there are epidemics, famines, moneylenders, the zamindar, the policeman, the marriage of the daughter like a mill-stone around the neck, the last rites of the mother, taxes of various kinds and above all baring its fearsome jaw there is the rapacious lawyers' court of law.'

04-May-2015 20:16 PM

Comment 'The following is quoted from my translation of the Tagore essay Rayater Katha or The story of the Rayat already published in boloji. It is highly relevant in this context and interested readers may read the entire essay.

'According to our scriptures this world is like a strange tree which has its roots above. It grows from the top and spreads its branches downwards; which means it is not standing on its own, it is hanging from above.
Reading your 'Raiyater katha' (The story of the raiyat) it seems to me that our politics is of a similar kind. At the time of its birth the Congress party was found to have struck its roots among those who rule us ' both for its sustenance and existence it was dependant on the same higher sphere.
Those whom we call gentlemen appear to have decided among themselves that politics consisted in their sharing the power of ruling this country with its rulers. All its fights, truces and treaties were to be conducted with lectures from the podiums and writings in the pages of newspapers and the weapon to be used was the King's English ' sometimes it was an incessant whining for some small pittance and sometimes it was the heated expression of some anger. And when this whirlwind of voluble verbosity is creating airy bubbles in the upper atmosphere those who are the sons of the soil are being born and dying as they have done for generations ' they are ploughing their fields, weaving their cloth, feeding both men and beasts with their flesh and blood and lying full length they are bowing before the temple of the very god who loses his purity by their mere touch, they are laughing and crying in their mother tongue and with all kinds of indignities pouring in on their head like a heavy shower they are striking their forehead with their hands and saying, 'It's all our fate!' Between those politicians and the common people of our country there is an immeasurable distance.'

04-May-2015 19:58 PM

Comment Brilliant!

02-May-2015 23:07 PM

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