Tag Archives: Agriculture

A Murder in Asom and other links

Aruni Kashyap writes on the brutal murder of a local CPI leader by the Asom Police, an incident that by and large went unreported in the media:
Manoj Deka’s brutal murder by Asam police in the name of counter insurgency operation holds multiple shocking implications about current politics in Assam. Manoj Deka was a senior leader of the Communist Party of India, Assam and held the post of the Morigaon district CPI General Secretary. On 1st July 2008 he was stopped by the Assam police while returning home from the market and searched. He showed his bags and let him be checked. This was lead by the Officer in charge Kamal Bora and a PSO Rafikul Hussain.With the pretext of ‘searching’ the commodities bought from the market were poured down on the road and when Deka protested he was insulted, pushed with great force that he hit a nearby electric pole and fainted.

A report in Down To Earth on how one man went against the hybrid grain, and cultivated an indigenous variety of wheat that needs just one or two rounds of irrigation, as compared to six or seven required by hybrid varieties. (link via email from Rahul)

Soji Ram sowed Amrita wheat in the beginning of rabi season last year; it is a contemporary version of the indigenous Malwi strand, over 0.3-hectare (ha) last rabi season. Amrita has been developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at its Indore wheat research station. Amrita does not need much soil preparation; what it needs is only two rounds of irrigation.

Over at the State of Nature, Girish Mishra writes on globalization’s impact on culture.

The on-going process of globalization lays great stress on technology, which implies two things, namely, “machinery and the mental habits conducive to a dead thinking.” “Examples of such thinking are everywhere. We build mechanical connections between people and we call that the” infrastructure of community. “We convert the natural world into massive data sets, and we call that “ecological understanding.” We send trillion-dollar capital flows streaming daily through the world, seeking nothing more than their own mathematical increase, and we call that ‘social development.’ This is machine thinking.

Did you know?
The first communist Speaker of Indian Parliament Somnath Chaterjee is the son of one of the founders of the Hindu Mahasabha- NC Chaterjee.

The March of Neo Liberalism in India

The current issue of Frontline has a series of articles on ‘The March of Neo liberalism‘, including one by economist Utsa Patnaik on the agrarian crisis.

The story starts from 1991 when Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister started hounding farmers by reducing the fertilizer subsidy, cutting development expenditures so sharply that per capita GDP actually fell in one year and the death rate rose in one State, virtually doubling the issue prices of foodgrains from the Public Distribution System over three years in order to cut the food subsidy (which predictably boomeranged since the poor were priced out and the first episode of build-up of 32 million tonnes of unsold food stocks took place by 1995).

During the NDA period, the complete submission of the government to U.S. pressure and rapid removal of protection to agriculture between 1996 and 2001 – before the deadline set by the World Trade Organisation, resulted in farmers being exposed to the fury of global price declines. Between 1996 and 2001, prices of all primary products (cotton, jute, food grains and sugar) fell by 40 to 60 per cent and farmers who had contracted private debts in particular, became insolvent. The syndrome of hopelessly-indebted farmers committing suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab started in 1998 and rapidly spread to other areas where cultivation of cash and export crop was predominant. The crash in pepper, coffee and tea prices came a few years later after 1998 and farmer suicides in Kerala and insolvency of tea estates in West Bengal date from around 2002.

Most alarming is the situation of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, among whom extreme poverty has increased dramatically during the reform decade, with over three-fifths moving under the lowest level of intake, 1800 calories, by 2004-05 in urban India.

Meanwhile, at Foreign Policy, its editor Moises Naim asks whether the world can afford to feed the growing middle class in China and India.

If they don’t find the bread, perhaps they can eat cake, while the children of the poor will be fed via mid- day meals according to the Indian Finance Minister

“If we continue to grow at this rate, India would be among the most prosperous countries in the world” dominating in education, services and goods….

“Next year, thanks to growth, I will provide Rs 15,100 crore for this scheme. Similarly, in 2003-04 we had provided Rs 1,175 crore for the mid-day meal scheme.

The “growth” he is referring to is the 8-10 percent annual growth rate during the “reform” decades, of course. The amounts mentioned for his schemes are drops in the ocean of poverty that may engulf the small islets of “growth” in urban India, sooner than later. Of late, I have been wondering if I need to go back and re- read Mao’s thesis on the villages encircling the cities.

As to India soon dominating the world in education, it is a joke in a country with the world’s largest illiterate population and the UPA government’s continuing disinterest in it.

(you need to register at the outlook site to eat the cake… read the article in the link)

Budget Bonanza for the Indian Farmer!

The Rs. 60,000 crores loans waiver to the small and marginal farmer is little more than the corporate taxes foregone by the government in a year. Yet, we have IBNLive pose a rhetorical question in a most dramatic manner.
On the day when Finance Minister P Chidambaram unveiled his seventh budget – and his fifth for the UPA government – he left everybody stunned with a Rs 60,000 crores waiver of loans for small and marginal farmers.This has left open two huge questions – where is the money coming from, and if this year’s Budget is an attempt to get re-elected. (source)

No one, however, seems to be “stunned” at the thought of who bears the brunt of the taxes not paid by the corporates.

If you ask me, we should have elections every two years…

Update: See Madhukar’s excellent post on the topic

A Chinese Road for ‘Rural India’

Sagarika Ghose’s Farming the Colonial Dream  purports to be a criticism of policy makers, “leftist intellectuals and politicians” as well as certain type of journalists. In essence what the article suggests is that wasteful schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) need to be discarded, agriculture needs to be liberalized and mass migration from rural hinterland encouraged to enable the people to move into manufacturing.

In the course of her ‘argument’, Ghose takes a few potshots at un- named “celebrated journalists who have made the “rural areas” into their personal visiting cards” as well as “careerists of poverty, the vote-seeking politician, and the westernized romantic.” There is nothing in the article that, however, suggests that she herself belongs to a different universe. Perhaps as not to be accused of being a ‘Westernized romantic’ herself, she deftly alludes to the Chinese way where mass migration from the villages to the cities is ostensibly paving the way for the uplifting of the impoverished rural masses.

After having disarmed the windmills, Ghose goes on to demolish the NREGS lock, stock and barrel for an aim which was never intended for the NREGS. She accuses the NREGS of “ignoring a basic right of every Indian, that is the right to migrate …The right to migrate is an inalienable right and applies to every Indian equally.” Not just that, “according to the NREGA, the rural poor must stay trapped in their socially unequal and violent villages, and undertake meaningless exercise in earthworks to be then handed a paltry wage”.

Wow! The NREGS seems to be having a dramatic impact on rural India !  This, however, is not really the case. Recent reports, suggest that the scheme with Rs. 15,000 crore in its first year has been nothing short of a failure benefiting just about 7- 10 percent of the intended beneficiaries (link). (Jean Dreze and associates on NREGA).  She herself is closer to the mark when she acknowledges later in the same article that “the NREGA, at best is a semblance of a safety net for the absolutely destitute, that those surviving by eating worms on riverbanks, can be assured of some food for a few days, if that.” If that is the case why accuse it of holding back the “rural masses” from the urban paradise in the first place?

One, however, cannot disagree with Ghose’s assertion on the “socially unequal and violent village”, but the urban landscape hardly offers a better picture for the migrant poor. With the prices of houses in cities sky rocketing, even the middle classes outside the IT and BPO sector shudder at the thought of owning a flat. For the urban poor, in the absence of any worthwhile housing schemes by the government, the situation is deteriorating fast. In the 1980s and 1990s, China was alone in the developing world to construct decent housing for the urban poor. Even then, the population of slum dwellers in China is as high as 193.8 million, or 37.8 of the urban population, compared with India’s slum population of 158.4m constituting about 55.5 percent of urban dwellers. (Planet of Slums by Mike Davies, page 24).

Worse still is Ghose’s recipe. Liberalize the agriculture sector, she says, which for her means abolishing ceiling laws that impact the farmers’ mobility. Not a word for the landless, not a word for land distribution as if something like land reforms did not exist. If at all it exists, it does so only in the sense of ‘buying and selling of land’. While accusing others of ‘glorifying a monolithic rural India’, she herself does no better.

What does one do for those who do not own any land at all? Though the landless do not seem to exist in her article, implicitly Ms Ghose’s recipe for them is to send them to the cities, along with those smart farmers who can now easily sell off their land under a liberalized agriculture. In that, Ms Ghose discovers the solution in China. 

Follow the Chinese path, she declares. No, not that of the Chinese Revolution but its counter- revolution in the era of ‘colourless cats’:

That only 20 per cent of our GDP comes from an occupation in which 60 per cent of Indians are trapped against their will, should wake up the babus and ministers to the fact that agriculture equals poverty and the only way out is to follow the Chinese example by creating avenues to allow the millions to move out of agriculture into mass producing industry. China has done exactly this with tremendous success. The descendants of Mao have got over their “farmer glorification legacy” far quicker than us.

The trouble with those who call for copying China today is that they want the thin icing without the cake, that is to copy everything minus the Chinese Revolution itself !

She ignores what is practically an urban nightmare in China. Overwhelming migration from rural areas, a reversal of the 1960s forced migration, has led to increasing social problems. While uprooting the people from their villages and providing cheap, unprotected labour in a country that does not permit forming of labour unions for unrestricted exploitation so severe that in many areas, there is a reversal in trends with people migrating back to villages (link). The example of the Chinese peasants who are ostensibly migrating to the cities to become productive clogs for industries manufacturing everything from diapers to electronics for the Western consumers, is a cruel joke which would be hilarious were it not just sad in its implications.

To the chimera of the rural migration to Chinese cities, this is what Li Changping has to say in his essay The Crisis in the Countryside (One China, Many Paths ed. Chaohua Wang, page 213-14):

But the new regulations also meant that the peasant could not alter his or her rural registration status. Economically they ensured a huge supply of cheap labour to developed regions along China’s coastline, as some 80 million peasants rushed to join its booming cities. Socially, however, the result has been a set of injustices that have got steadily worse. …”

In the same book He Qinglain (page 179-80) points to the increasing tendency to form criminal gangs in urban China.

The large number of wandering peasants in Chinese cities and suburban areas are also a well- spring of various forms of criminal activity in the PRC today. The majority- over 75 percent- of criminals in big cities such as Beijing, Guangzong and Shenzhen, are non- resident ‘three-have-nots’. …three demographic features defined these peasant offenders. The majority- 64.5 percent were unmarried; most- 59 percent- had criminal skills; and not a few- 16.5 percent- had been in jail before… the most shocking finding of the survey, however, is the changing motivation behind peasant criminality in recent years. Previously, many peasants displayed clear signs of psychological imbalance, which had led to conflict with the law without any deliberate aim of challenging it. By contrast, majority of those caught after 1996 had committed crimes with the conscious intention of breaking the law and defying moral prohibitions. ‘Since other people are living a highly enjoyable life’, one prisoner said, ‘I, who am lonely and impoverished, should be able to find some stimulus and relaxation too.’

That is the direction that the Chinese path leads to. This is at a time of an overall boom in the manufacturing sector and the absence of a recession in the developed world, which is what has sustained China’s growth. One wonders what the situation will be at a time of decline.

Whatever be Ghose’s motivations for such a misdirected ‘solution’ for rural Indians, the fact is that rural India has always subsidized the city. Those who claim that India needs to move away from its ‘socialist’ past are actually treading an extreme version of broadly the same path as the ruling classes have followed since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, using whatever little pretensions it had to being ‘socialist’, as a punching bag.

The fact is that the total outlay for rural development is measly as compared to the incentives given to the industry that is producing some of the world’s richest people even as the rest patiently await their promised trickled down share. In a recent article, economist Kamal Nayan Kabra observes that the “public expenditure on rural development … in the Net National Product that used to be 3.6 percent for a population of 70 percent has come down after liberalisation and is just 2.7 percent…. Similarly, the share of total public expenditure in agricultural and allied activities, including irrigation and flood control, that used to be 37 percent in the First Plan total expenditure has come down to 16.5 percent in the Tenth Plan period.” In contrast, the corporate tax foregone (Rs. 50,000 crores in 2006-07) by the Union government last year is only trivially less than the total amount spent by both Union and state governments on all rural development schemes. (link)

People like Ms Ghose would like the amount for rural development to come down further so that the largesses can be given to urban India. Perhaps in her universe, all urban Indians own companies. In reality the corporate beneficiaries are not even one percent of the population.

But then, perhaps it does not matter.

Related Post: An Alternative to Globalization

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Albert Camus

This BBC talk on Albert Camus reminded me of my own enriching encounters with the writings of the Algerian born French existentialist many years ago.

Existentialism did not appeal to my primarily Marxist leanings, not even Sartre’s philosophical works and his attempts at synthesis of Marxism and existentialism had any long lasting impact, though the writings of Sartre, Beauvoir and Albert Camus instigated one to think critically. Even then, it was their literary works that held greater appeal. Some of the most influential works I was introduced to after having read the English and Russian classics, were those by these three writers. Camus, especially his novels The Outsider, The Fall and The Plague opened up a new landscape for me. In case of Sartre, I found his literary works like Nausea, very difficult to read. Funnily, his philosophical writings (like the supremely unreadable A Critique of Dialectical Reason) appealed more, despite their languid dreariness.

Sartre was a hero for us, mainly for his political stands and the fact that he continued to be a Marxist of sorts. Camus, on the other hand, despite his one time membership of the Communist Party (or perhaps because of it, some would aver) disowned Marxism, and was hence pretty much dismissed as a renegade. The only major philosophical work that I remember reading, with some trepidation, is The Myth of Sisyphus (of which my friend Rahul Banerjee is very fond of, incidentally.) The absurdity that the French existentialists spoke of did not strike a chord even then.

However, lately I found reading some of Camus’s philosophical works like The Rebel, Resistance, Rebellion and Death to be rather pleasant, which is perhaps a reflection both of the distance I have traveled since, and also the relative obscuring of ideological debates and dilemmas since Camus’s times.

It is still difficult to accept the ideological and philosophical positions of Camus, and as the talk on BBC radio indicates, Camus’ literary writings will rightfully outlive his philosophical works.

(Link to the BBC Talk via the excellent blog Ready Steady Book blog that I discovered today).

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P. Sainath on India’s Winter of Discontent

P. Sainath writes on how post- reform poverty differs from that of pre- reform era. Poverty is, after all, as much a relative phenomenon as an absolute one.

The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farm household is a long way from Rs.15 lakh. And further from $115,000. It is, in fact, Rs.503. Not far above the rural poverty line. And that’s a national average, mixing both giant landlords and tiny landholders. It also includes States like Kerala where the average is nearly twice the national one. Remove Kerala and Punjab and the figure gets still more dismal. Of course, inequality is rife in urban India too. And growing. But the contrasts get more glaring when you look at rural India.

About 60 per cent of that Rs.503 is spent on food. Another 18 per cent on fuel, clothing, and footwear. Of the pathetic sum left over, the household spends on health twice what it does on education. That is Rs.34 and Rs.17. It seems unlikely that buying unique cellphone numbers is set to emerge a major hobby amongst rural Indians. There are countless households for whom that figure is not Rs.503, but Rs.225. There are whole States whose average falls below the poverty line. As for the landless, their hardships are appalling.

It is not that inequality is new or unknown to us. What makes the last 15 years different is the ruthlessness with which it has been engineered. The cynicism with which it has been constructed. And the scale on which it now exists. And that’s at all levels, even at the top. As Abhijit Banerjee and Thomas Piketty put it in a paper on “Top Indian Incomes 1956-2000,” “The rich (the top 1 per cent) substantially increased their share of total income [in the reform years]. However,
while in the 1980s the gains were shared by everyone in the top percentile, in the 1990s it was only those in the top 0.1 per cent who made big gains.”

“The average top 0.01 per cent income was about 150-200 times larger than the average income of the entire population during the 1950s. This went down to less than 50 times as large by the early 1980s. But went back to being 150-200 times larger during the late 1990s.” All the evidence suggests it has gotten worse since then.

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Palagummi Sainath: Reporting the Rural Poor

Madhukar Shukla has a collection of quotes from the writings of Palagummi Sainath, who last week won the Ramon Magsasay award for developmental journalism.

P. Sainath started his career with the tabloid Blitz and was groomed by the late Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who willed that after his death, Sainath would continue to write his column. He left the Blitz in 1993 when its proprietor BK Karanjia changed his political colours. Sainath’s book Everyone Loves a Good Drought published a decade back is a chilling indictment of the elite in India.

Excerpts from my own review of the book:

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy.

Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, rinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

Sainath discovers 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. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

The book brings out the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyevsky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idiocy of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

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

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

The complete review of the book Everyone Loves a Good Drought
Alexander Cockburn’s profile of Sainath at Counterpunch.

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Imagining Punjab in the Age of Globalization

(a) Sikh Women grinding grain, 1945 (b) A gurudwara of Dalit Sikhs, 2004 (c) A modern agro industry


Guest post by Surinder S. Jodhka

Regions and regional identities are inherently fluid categories, constantly changing and being constructed by the people in given social, political and historical contexts.

The history of Punjab or Punjabiyat during the 20th century offers a good example of such a process. Though the Indian Punjab was reorganized as a separate state of independent India on the basis of language, it is often seen as a land of the Sikhs, despite the fact that Hindus and Muslims were in larger numbers in the region.

While dominant Hindu elites geared towards de- regionalizing themselves and claim opportunities opened up by the new nation, the Muslims elites of Western Punjab veered towards Urdu and legitimizing their dominance over the new nation- state of Pakistan.

Post- independence, Punjab also came to be identified as mainly a state with prosperous agriculture, the success of the agriculture also consolidated the position of the land owning classes/castes, the Jutt Sikhs.

The success of canal colonies in West Punjab had motivated the British colonial rulers to lay an extensive network of canals in the region. The Bhakra Nangal dam, one of the first major irrigation projects launched by the government of independent India, was also located in Punjab.

The Jutt Sikhs were also the ones who constituted the armies of the British Raj, and were the pioneers of the migration to Western countries a century ago.

Apart from the long tradition of migrations and global contact, the Indian Punjab also had a vibrant urban economy. Until recently the industrial growth rate of Punjab was higher than the average for India. Punjab continues to be among the more urbanized states of India and ranked fourth in terms of the proportion of urban population among the major states of the country during the 2001 Census. Against the national average of less than 28 per cent, the urban population of Punjab in 2001 was 34 per cent.

Of all the states of India, Punjab’s growth rate in agriculture was the highest from the 1960s to the middle of 1980s. The annual rate of increase in production of food grains during the period 1961-62 to 1985-86 for the state was more than double the figure for the country as a whole.

While Punjab had 17,459 tractors per hundred thousand holdings, the all India figure was only 714. The same holds true for most other such indicators. These achievements have also been widely recognized.

At the sociological and political level, this growth of rural capitalism during the 1960s and 1970s imparted a new sense of confidence and visibility to the agrarian castes in different parts of India. Institutionalization of electoral democracy helped them dislodge the so-called upper caste elites from the regional and national political arena.

In the case of Punjab, the landowning Jutts had already been the ruling elite of the region. The success of green revolution and institutionalization of democracy helped them further consolidate their position. Even Sikh religious institutions came under their sway.

The triumph of agrarianism and the rise of the dominant caste farmers in the 1970s also set in motion a phase of populist politics at the regional and national levels in India. The newly emergent agrarian elite not only spoke for their own caste or class but on behalf of the entire village and the region. Their identification was not just political or interest-based and sectarian, as they saw themselves representing everyone, encompassing all conflicts and differences of caste, class or communities.

The rise of the Khalistan movement, a secessionist demand by a section of the Sikh community during the early 1980s, was a somewhat unexpected development since apart from its economic success, socially and politically too the border-state of Punjab had been a well-integrated part of India, having been at the forefront of the national freedom movement.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the rise of a secessionist movement in the state was for many a puzzle.

Contrary to much of the academic speculation that employed every known school of thought- from modernization theory to psychoanalysis, after some fifteen years of violence and bloodshed, Sikh militancy began to decline.

By the mid 1990s, the Khalistan movement was virtually over without having achieved anything in political terms. The end of the Khalistan movement, however, did not mean an end of ‘crises’ for Punjab. It was now the turn of economics and agriculture.

The green revolution had already begun to lose its charm by the early 1980s. Several scholars had in fact attributed the rise of militancy directly to the crisis of Punjab agriculture. By the early 1990s, there were clear signs of economic stagnation. Unlike some other parts of India, Punjab had lost out on the opportunities opened-up by the ‘new economy’ and investments of foreign capital that had begun to come to India with the introduction of economic liberaliztion.

The discourse of crisis found more ammunition during the post-reforms period when Punjab and some other parts of India saw a sudden spurt in the incidence of suicides by cultivating farmers.

By the turn of the century, agriculture in Punjab had lost nearly all its sheen, the emblematic Punjabi farmer seen nowhere in the new imageries of a globalizing India.

The changes that came about in the countryside with the success of the green revolution also produced a new class of rural rich who had experienced economic mobility through their active involvement with the larger capitalist market.

The new technology gave them tractors, took them to the mandi towns and integrated them with the market for buying not only fertilizers and pesticides but also white goods and an urban lifestyle.

Most agricultural households in Punjab today have become or are trying to become pluri-active, ‘standing between farming and other activities whether as seasonal labourers or small-scale entrepreneurs in the local economy… Agriculture and farming is no more an all-encompassing way of life and identity.’

The available official data on employment patterns in Punjab has begun to reflect this quite clearly. For example, the proportion of cultivators in the total number of main workers in Punjab declined from 46.56 in 1971 to 31.44 in 1991, and further to 22.60 by 2001. While the share of cultivators has been consistently falling, that of the agricultural labourers had been rising until the 1991 Census. However, over the last decade, viz. from 1991 to 2001, even their proportion declined significantly, from 23.82 to 16.30. In other words, though two-third of Punjab’s population still lives in rural areas, only around 39% of the main workers in the state are directly employed in agriculture. The comparable figure for the country as a whole is still above 58%.

The trend of moving out of agriculture is perhaps not confined to any specific class or category. While marginal and small cultivators seem to be moving out of agriculture, the bigger farmer is moving out of the village itself. The big farmers of Punjab invariably have a part of their family living in the town. Their children go to urban schools/colleges, and they invest their surplus in non-agricultural activities.

The rural social structure has also undergone a near complete transformation over the last three or four decades.

Over the last twenty years or so a large proportion of dalits in Punjab have consciously dissociated themselves from their traditional occupations as also distanced from everyday engagement with the agrarian economy and even investing in building their own cultural resources in the village, in gurudwaras and dharamshalas.

The growing autonomy of the dalits from the ‘traditional’ rural economy and structures of patronage and loyalty has created a rather piquant situation in the countryside with potentially far-reaching political implications.

In the emerging scenario, local dalits have begun to assert for equal rights and a share from the resources that belong commonly to the village and had so far been in the exclusive control of the locally dominant caste groups or individual households.

Seen purely through economic data, Indian Punjab continues to be an agriculturally developed region of the country, producing much more than what it requires for its own consumption. Even though occupying merely 1.53% of the total land area of India, Punjab farmers produce nearly 13% of the total food grains (22.6% of wheat and 10.8% of rice) of the country.

Interestingly, in terms of objective indicators, Punjab has been a ‘progressive’ state otherwise also. For example, in terms of the Human Development Index, Punjab is second only to Kerala.

The growth rates of Punjab – agriculture or industry – are no longer negative. Notwithstanding the frequent reports of corruption and scandals, the urban centres of Punjab seem to be picking-up in terms of growth of infrastructure and real-estate.

However, the Indian Punjab today needs to be re-imagined in more than economic terms alone. The canvas of its change is much larger and broader.

Given that Punjab has a large proportion of Scheduled Caste population, the newly acquired agency among the dalits can also have serious implications for regional politics.

The earlier hegemony of the rural Jutt culture is fast disintegrating and this will change the manner in which the larger interests of Punjab are articulated politically.

Globally, the Punjabi/ Sikh diaspora has been investing in building its cultural resources and participating in local political processes, getting elected to local and national political bodies, more than any other component of the Indian diaspora.

At home, the fast changing geopolitics of the world during the opening decade of the 21st century has important implications for the Punjabs and their futures.

Though the hostile visa regimes of India and Pakistan continue to be an obstacle, traffic of common citizens across the Indo-Pak border has been steadily increasing. The opening up the border between Indian and Pakistan has produced a sense of excitement and opened a window of hope for all shades and sections of Punjabis .

What implications would these new processes have for the manner in which we have imagined Punjab and Punjabiyat – within the national and global contexts? Will the processes of globalization and the new technologies enable the two Punjabs to rediscover their common cultural heritage? How would a loosening of the border and opening of trade routes influence the economies of the two Punjabs? Would the decline of agriculture and rapid urbanization of the state develop a new middle class imagery of the state?

Though it is not easy to answer these questions, some of these processes are sure to bring positive and enriching outcomes.

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has done pioneering work on Dalits in Punjab and authored a number of works on the subject.

This guest post is further elaborated in ‘The Problem’ statement in this month’s edition of The Seminar magazine Reimagining Punjabwhich he has edited. (online next month)

Image acknowledgements:

Comrade Sunil Janah’s Site
Punjab govt Official Site
The Hindu

Pravachans on Farmers’ Suicides

The Vidarbha Jan Andolan on why the Rs 17,000 crore package announced by the Indian government does not sufficiently address the continuing farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha:
The complete loan waiver and restoration of cotton price @ Rs.2700/- per quintal is only solution to stop these on going farmers suicides in Vidarbha but administration has diverted economic issues of agrarian crisis to social issues and spending more than Rs.3 million on spiritual gurus parvachan-kritans who are not aware of any of rural problems of rural Vidarbha.

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"What the heart does not feel, the eye can never see"

Farm suicides have also been on for several years in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. To imply they are only happening in Vidarbha is false. The agrarian problem is nationwide. So are many of the policies driving it. But all regions are not the same. Some crops are more subject to price shocks. Some communities more vulnerable than others. Some cultivation practices more destructive than others. And some governments are far worse at handling distress than others.

P. Sainath, author of Why Everyone Loves a Good Drought, on the myths surrounding the farmer suicides.

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Globalization and the Assamese Farmer

” Because of the lack of proper agricultural policies, the Assamese farming community lost their rights on their own fertilizers.With the use of hybrid fertilizers, the farming lands of the country are on the verge of destruction.” Pabitra Daimari, executive president of the Samiti, urged the farmers to raise their voices against the unfair policies adopted by the Government against the farmers. The meeting also urged the Government to declare Nagaon as a drought-hit district and provide ration for the farming community of the district for six months starting November.

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I dont like my job

According to a recent survey, 40 percent of Indian farmers would like to change their profession, one can hardly blame them. However what is surprising is that 76 percent of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh seem to be liking their profession, I dont know how it ties to the high suicide rate in that part of the country. And Punjab and Haryana are not even mentioned, but these points make me doubt the veracity of the survey.I was once part of the Jan Vigyan Science Movement and we conducted a survey among students of class 6 to 8 in a decent middle class, small town school in Himachal Pradesh. Besides many questions related to science, we sneaked a question on: Which social system is the most suitable for development of science? And in those days of Soviet Union’s existence, an overwhelming majority of 65% students voted for socialism, which made me and my comrades see stars in our eyes and also left us somewhat unprepared for the devastating turn against socialism less than a decade later.

Anyway, here is the report on the farmers’ front:

NEW DELHI, AUG 1: More than a third of Indian farmers are into farming due to compulsion rather than choice. According to a survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), about 40% of Indian farming households have reported that given a choice they would take up some other career.

The reasons stated for the farmers’ dislike for their profession included non-profitability, risk and lack of social status, the NSSO situation assessment survey conducted as a part of the 59th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) revealed. The survey was conducted in 2003.

The highest proportion of farmers satisfied with their occupation was in Andhra Pradesh where 76% of farmers surveyed said they liked farming. This was followed by Tamil Nadu where the proportion of satisfied farmers was 69% and Kerala and Gujarat where the proportion was 67%. Relatively poor states like Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have the lowest percentage of satisfied farmers at 49%, 53%, 53% and 54%, respectively.

Of the 40% farming households that disliked their profession, 27% did not find farming profitable and 8% thought it was too risky, 2% disliked farming as they thought it lacked social status and the remaining 3% disliked their profession due to other reasons.

Bihar and West Bengal both had the highest proportion (36%) of farming households that disliked farming due to its non-profitability. Amongst farmers who thought farming was too risky, the greatest proportion (17%) were concentrated in Chhattisgarh, followed by those in Assam (13%). In Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka, the proportion of risk averse farmers was 11%.

Rajasthan had the highest proportion (9%) of farming households that considered farming as less respectable. On the other hand just 2% of the farming households in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat felt that farming lacked social status, said the report.

At an all-India level 60% of the farming households surveyed, expressed their satisfaction in agriculture as a profession. On a state-wise basis, AP had 76% of its farming households happy with their profession.

A Name of the Suicide

The agrarian situation in India- the one major factor in the NDA’s defeat and the UPA’s return to power last year, continues to deteriorate. For the rural poor, the biggest group left out of the positive gains of globalization in India, suicide still seems to be the easier way out of debt.P. Sainath writes on how the suicides continue while the government agencies try and camouflage them under a different name while Anne Applebaum examines why the neo- rich in India are all for Americanism.

In other words, the writing on the wall for the UPA is still there, it hasnt been erased since the NDA departed.

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished…

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family 1947-1997
By Siddharth Dube
Harper Collins Publishers India Rs. 395, Pp. 297, 1998

After the recent CPI(M) Congress, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus: “There has been no social reform movement in the state”. This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

However, even this recognition of the specificity of the state of Uttar Pradesh is a recent phenomenon. For a long time, its endemic poverty was perceived as not very fundamentally different in nature from that prevailing in the rest of the country. It is only very recently that attention has been drawn to the abysmally poor performance of the state in the key areas of literacy and health- care and the large- scale prevalence of casteism and traditionalism.

Jean Dreze has termed the state as India’s “burden of inertia”.

The book under review is an attempt by the young writer Siddharth Dube to understand the vertical implications of this inertia by relating the broader political economy of the state to the actual life experiences of a marginal family. It recounts the memoirs of three generations of a Dalit family from Pratapgarh district. Its narrative is an interweaving of the family’s recollections of their life stories and the writer’s own scholarly interjections. Surprisingly, the result is a stirring jugalbandi and not a cacophony of illiterate voices and noisy economic jargon, which is what it may have become in the hands of a less skilful chronicler.

The central character of the family is Ram Dass (aged about 65) of Baba Ka Gaon village in Pratapgarh district. This district has been the focus of much interest since the publication of Gyan Pandey’s impressive study on the Awadh peasant revolt (published in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies). Zamindari in this district had existed here in its extreme form. It was buttressed by a rigid caste system in which the untouchables were treated as “neither fully Hindu nor fully human”. The upper caste zamindars on the other hand, enjoying the patronage of the British colonial state, extracted many types of taxes and dues from the tenants and labourers, who without exception were untouchables or belonged to the intermediate castes.

Says Ram Dass, ” (when I was a child) If our family got a letter, we had to go and plead with the Thakur or Brahmin to read it for us. We had to wait till they were free. Or we would work extra hard and finish all their work and then beg them. Even then, they would read it if they felt like it or otherwise they would shout, ‘Get out, go away!’”

“The upper castes would treat us untouchables worse than dogs. They would at least accept water served by the middle castes, but from us they would not accept water, nor would they ever sit with us. If by mistake we touched any of their eating vessels they would throw them away, but if a dog licked the vessels they would just wash them”.

Ram Dass’s son today is a primary school teacher, the first scheduled caste teacher from his village. His grandson now faces an uncertain future because though he is the first of the three scheduled caste graduates from his village, he finds that he has to compete in a highly difficult job market. His degree is not of much help in the face of the demand of the few jobs that are available.

Blatant casteism over the years has slowly became less pointed- though even Ram Dass’ son Shrinath had to sit separately from high caste students in school. Nowadays, scheduled caste children even play with upper caste children”, observes Shrinath.

Ram Dass and his family are at a barely sustainable level, they are an example of a family that has risen from the lowest of the lowest to a family that is now hovering around the poverty line. Land reforms over the years have enabled the family to own 2.5 acres. It is only because of his son’s government job which pays Rs.4000/- a month, that the family of 17 manages to eek out an existence, keep hunger at bay and afford two sets of clothes. The next generation faces an uncertain future again. The gains of the seventies have not progressed linearly.

The most prosperous families in the village are, as during Ram Dass’s childhood years, still the 20 Thakur families that own most of the village land and orchards. Besides, most of them have a family member in a job- army, police or the university. Of the land that has been sold by the Thakurs over the last 50 years, the bulk was bought by the intermediate castes, with only a small amount purchased by the scheduled castes. The rest of the families in the village have been too impoverished to purchase any land at all.

The author’s prescription is what may nowadays be termed as Sen- ism (after Amartya Sen): the government should carry out land reforms, promote good health-care, foster social equity and encourage local democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav’ s 1995 act on the reservation of posts of the village pradhan for intermediate and scheduled castes is an example of empowerment of these castes. Hitherto, Baba Ka Gaon had the same Thakur pradhan since 1952 till 1995.

“The 1995 elections irrevocably changed caste equations in Baba Ka Gaon. The village Thakurs threatened to kill the former army sergeant from the Maurya middle caste who, with the backing of the scheduled castes, decided to stand for the pradhans’s post. They then burnt the crops of a particularly militant scheduled caste man. A week before the elections, in mid afternoon, a group of Thakurs entered the hut of a middle caste family and started thrashing the wife with their staffs while others pinned her down. But for the first time in the history of Baba Ka Gaon, the scheduled castes- including Prayaga Devi (Ram Dass’s wife)- and the middle castes hit back at the Thakurs and chased them away”.

The memoir is a testament against the notion that the illiterate are not capable of participating in electoral politics. The perceptive awareness that Ram Das and his family members have about the reasons responsible for their poverty is amazing.

Besides this, there are two major points that the book establishes.

First, that serious debate in the era of liberalisation is turning towards what Marxists have traditionally termed as the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The hair splitting debates that dominated the seventies searching for that elusive algebraic equation of the balance of class forces, which in turn would decide the stage of the revolution, now belong to a bygone age. Similarly the euphoria of the liberalizers in the early nineties is giving way to more introspective studies.

The second is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as the most oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness. This has now changed, and rightly so. This was evident in another recent and comparable work that comes to mind: Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath.

Dube’s misgiving that the Congress represented the interests of the propertied classes only both before and after independence betrays a direct influence of the subaltern school of historians and indirectly that of R.P.Dutt. This is not only contestable but is the result of too narrow a perspective that students of peasant studies have usually held. The only other problem that mars the text is the author’s straight- jacket perspective that sometimes reads like the CPI(M) party programme. That towards the end of the book Ram Dass turns out to be a Communist (if not a CPI(M)) sympathiser is perhaps indicative of this bias.

December 04, 1998

Published: The Tribune 10 Jan 1999

Review of Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P Sainath

Everyone Loves A Good Drought
By P.Sainath
Penguin India 1996, Price : Rs 295/- Pages: 470
ISBN: 0-14-025984-8

Palagummi Sainath is a bitter man.

On a Times of India fellowship in the year 1992, Sainath has toured some of the poorest districts in the country to know how the poorest of the poor citizens of free India live.

Exist might be a better word.

The book under review is 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 these were a drop in the ocean, and provide only an academic satisfaction in the otherwise grim scenario.

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy. Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, grinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

There is a story of the farmer who earns more money by selling water than by agriculture. A super hi- tech project in one of the most backward regions- Godda in Bihar, creates jobs for not more than 1300 people- many of them from outside the region, at the cost of Rs. 65 lakhs per job ! Meanwhile, the foreign consultant has been involved in transactions worth Rs. 645 crores, out of the total outlay of Rs. 966 crores. In the same district, loans have been given to members of a tribe to purchase cows, in some cases two cows per family, little realizing that the tribe does not consume milk products at all, and instead consumes beef in large quantity. At the end of the benign exercise, the cows ended up in the dinner plates of the lucky recipients, and the latter in a life long debt trap.

Sainath discovers 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. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

Then there is the case 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, the 400- 500 families were evicted on an “angry monsoon night” . They moved to another location (on the land they owned themselves) and resettled there. Nostalgically, they named the new village as Chikpaar.

In 1987, the families were evicted again for the Kolab multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place.

However, ‘development’ has chased them to their new place of residence and the residents have received eviction notices for the third time. Needless to say, the displaced persons were either paid a pittance as compensation and in many cases, the money took years to come by.

On the state of the Sekupani village in Gumla, Bihar, a government official himself demands from the author: “What if residents of Malabar Hill in Bombay have to evacuate each time the navy has an exercise ? And are paid Rs. 1.50 a day for their pains ? This is happening here because the people are adivasis. Since this is a backward, cut- off region.”

An adivasi artist, Pema Fatiah is discovered by a bureaucrat and goes on to win laurels for his murals. But that is about all that he earns, after his recognition, come the hordes of SPs, DSPs , SDMs and tehsildars who force paintings out of him free of cost, with a flunky or a havaldar looking over his shoulders all the while he paints.

There are stories upon stories like these- Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause, like in the case of the tribes gifted cow in a loan mela. Sainath has, in a fabulous sweep, captured this entire net of linkages in his stories, often peppered with ironic insights.

The book under review can be seen to be operating at a number of levels.

First and foremost is the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyvesky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idocity of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

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

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

NTC, 15 Aug 1997