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Sordid Story of a Betrayal – Part I
|by H.N. Bali|
India’s Long-neglected Agrarian Problem
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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)”.
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.
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