People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 15

April 10, 2005


The Problems Of Agricultural Labour And Neo-Liberal Reforms

Suneet Chopra


OVER the last fifteen years the condition of the rural masses has deteriorated considerably. The survival of agricultural labour, who are a third of the rural population, depend primarily on employment. The Economic Survey of 2004 and 2005 has noted how rural employment has declined from 60 per cent to 57 per cent of all those employed in just one year. We have been noting all along how the days of work of agricultural labour have come down from 122 in the eighties to about 72 now. But what is significant is that a recent study of Punjab and Haryana’s Green Revolution areas shows that the decline is sharper where mechanised and corporatised  agriculture, in keeping with the views of our present planning commission, is being practiced.


In other words, working days are being reduced on account of the policies enunciated and pursued by the Indian ruling classes for their immediate advantage under the cover of WTO prescriptions. The Indian ruling classes are working to tirelessly dispossess petty producers like marginal farmers, weavers, village craftsmen and agricultural labour. To do that they are first attacking their jobs, and then they will take over their meagre assets using the multinationals with their eye on the huge Indian middle and upper class market as a cover for their predatory policies.


This is evident in agriculture already. It is through the introduction of labour saving machinery, the use of pesticides and shifting from grain production to cash crops, that landlords are squeezing out higher profits by reducing jobs and increasing the work load. The point to note is that while they are themselves under pressure because of the cutbacks in subsidies and through the competition of foreign produce, they are not prepared to side with the mass of peasants and agricultural labour. On the contrary, they are squeezing the miserable income of agricultural labour and attacking even their subsistence.


Moreover between 1991 and 2001 some 3 crore 30 lakh peasants lost their land and have entered the ranks of landless and migrant labour. Every year some 30 lakh such people join the ranks of agricultural labour reducing the possibility of work even further. Also the practice of using women and child labour at cheaper rates further complicates the issue.  


Under these conditions we are left with no alternative but to ask the state to ensure the right to life enshrined in the Indian Constitution by guaranteeing rural employment. This is necessary as the rate of growth in industry and private enterprises cannot cope with the massive unemployment resulting from the ruin of the working peasantry, craftsmen and small-scale producers by WTO dictates that the government by its policies has generated. It is its duty to ensure an alternative source of employment.


Another feature that accompanies the shift of government favour from price controls and subsidies to free trade and profiteering is holding the consumer to ransom and squeezing every penny out of him. Even those below the poverty line have not been spared. The prices of rice and wheat, both for APL and BPL categories, have been doubled by the previous NDA government without an increase in earnings. This incapacity to buy has resulted in a glut in government-held food stocks which were sold to the USA as cattle feed at Rs 4.30 per kg while Indians were expected to pay between Rs 5.80 to Rs 7.90 for the same grain.


The present government too is trying to avoid its responsibility towards the PDS. Every day we see news items about government held grain being sold on the black market as an excuse for dismantling the PDS. The union budget also has targeted the Food Corporation of India that is the single buyer of grain for the government. There is a move to multiply buying agencies now, which is likely to discredit the PDS even further and lead to its collapse. This is not acceptable to us. We demand the government to ensure a properly functioning PDS on the Kerala pattern and the provision of rationed goods at BPL prices to all agricultural labour families. Let the government understand that with the rise in price of all items, particularly in the last three months of NDA rule, many agricultural labour families are able to afford only one meal a day. So adequate food-for-work programmes and BPL cards to all agricultural labour families have become necessary for their survival.


Then there is the crucial question of providing the basic infrastructure for agrarian production. This includes subsidies for fertiliser, minimum support prices and cheap or even free electricity. The dismantling of the state electricity companies will lead to people being forced to do without it in the villages because it will become unaffordable for the majority of those living there. The effect will be similar to that of the increase in price of foodgrains on the PDS. Only it will affect rural production more, as a considerable amount of water for irrigation is provided by electrically operated tube-wells. Craftsmen and petty producers in the villages too, like power loom weavers, many of whom come from agricultural labour families, will lose their sources of income with electricity costing three to four times the present price. So we demand that the rural poor with holdings below one hectare and agricultural labour, be given free electricity to give them ‘a level playing field’ to compete in. In fact in states like Punjab, which provide free electricity to landlords, the SEB continued to send agricultural labour exorbitant bills and forced us to fight for free electricity for agricultural labourers as well, which they only agreed to implement partially.


The question of electricity is also linked to the question of water. The poorest sections, often debarred from community wells on the basis of caste, rely almost completely on government water supply. But, as in UP, state governments are dismantling the Jal Nigams and handing over their tube wells to village panchayats which have neither the funds nor the political will to operate them. We demand that the state governments take the responsibility to provide proper drinking water to the rural poor. This retreat from providing a proper water supply to the poorest sections will affect both farmers and women of agricultural labourer families who work side by side with the men. They are employed more often than the men for lower wages. So if they have to spend more time to fetch water, their capacity to earn and support their families will be severely restricted.  


Finally, even when it comes to rural credit, it is unavailable to those who need credit most, agricultural labour. They are forced to borrow money as subsistence loans, for marriages and deaths. Both social and economic necessities force them into debt and often into bondage. The government should address this question with utmost seriousness so that agricultural labour are able to go through the different stages of life without being reduced to dependence as they are traditionally. The best way to do this is for the government to institute subsistence, marriage and death loans without interest to allow agricultural labour to live as human beings and not as attached labour living in near-animal conditions. But if one looks at the present budget, one sees that the government has totally ignored this section in its perspective of rural credit. Worse, it has chosen to provide more credit to those sections that take bank credit to run money-lending businesses or even to attach migrant labour to themselves as bonded labourers. This lacuna in the government’s perspective must go. And, it can go only when the mass of agricultural labour, together with farmers and the working class, unleashes struggles for their rights.


This finally brings us to the question of assets. One of the most pernicious developments of the opening up of agriculture to the corporate world is the dispossession of the rural small producer and the rural poor. Not only are their small garden plots up for grabs, so are their house-sites. The women are even more insecure than animals. If they as much as demand the minimum human treatment they can be forbidden to use the village fields to defecate and urinate in. They are subject to rape and murderous attacks. And today, the extra-judicial powers of the rural rich have reached such proportions that inter-caste marriages are often punished by lynching young couples. Without giving these people land, house-sites and lavatories at least, we cannot expect them to live as citizens and as human beings.


The new forest ordinance passed by the BJP-led NDA government in 2002 has dispossessed nearly 16 lakh tribal people as encroachers on land they have lived in for generations. This has increased the oppression of forest officials and made the tribal people insecure. Worse, it has increased the number of migrant labour and made the job situation worse for the rural masses. The forest policy that was drawn up in the interest of multinationals and corporates was successfully opposed by the mass of tribal people in Kerala and by the governments of West Bengal and Tripura. While there is a promise from the government to stop evictions, forest officials and vested interests continue to harass forest dwellers. Much more vigilance will be needed to protect them.


In these conditions, it is not an exaggeration to say that under the neo-liberal market life has become unbearable for the rural poor and especially agricultural labour who are the most oppressed and exploited among them. They cannot survive without struggle against their economic exploitation and against social oppression. And their struggles will not succeed without a perspective and an organisation to ensure it is implemented. As such, they are that section of our society that most needs an agrarian revolution. So it becomes the primary duty of our Party to organise them as the crucial link in the worker-peasant alliance and to unleash its momentum with their full participation.