Agrarian Revolution Revisited

Ismail Chaudhury

The peasant question continues to baffle the Indian communist movement. Though the communists in the pre-independence days were vociferous about peasant organising to attack the colonial-feudal land relations, they simply lost the course in the middle after independence, particularly after the abolition of intermediaries who acted as agents of colonial rulers to collect revenue and also stood in the way of expanding domestic market. The communists of all shades would like to live in the past by cashing in on their role in Tebhaga and Telengana. Partial land reforms carried out in different states following the passing of land reforms laws which were again the outcome of the Kumarappa Committee recomendations were neither socialistic nor purely capitalistic. It presented a peculiar mix of capitalistic-feudal orientation. In class terms it was a compromise between the banias and feudal lords. The ruling elites representing a composite interests of businessmen and feudals did not want to disturb the status or rather they emphasised to maintain it while empowering the peasant community marginally.


The government itself being the collector of land revenue, is the biggest landlord today. The most important land reforms law that has been a bone of contention since the sixties is the land ceiling act. And ceiling surplus land-or what is popularly called vested land has been the only area of agitation by the left parties ever since the agricultural land ciling acts were promulgated by different state governments in the sixties.


Distribution of vested land among the landless is the pivot of official land reforms policy. And the left parties too, barring a few naxalite groups, cannot think anything else other than vested land politics. Also, vested land is the perpetual source of violence in rural areas. Right now the continuing political violence between the marxists and their opponents in rural Bengal is actually over the demand of redistribution of distributed vested land. Looking back into the turbulent seventies one would be astonished to discover that the origin of naxalbari flare up could be traced to vested land. Nobody now remembers the Bigul Kisan episode. Political power grows out of vested land. It is an important factor in parliamentary battle but it matters in extra-parliamentary struggle as well. The crisis over vested land is compounding with every passing day because no political party, left or right, is serious enough to pursue the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’. The scheme of vested land distribution as envisaged during acquiring ceiling surplus land has been half-hearted, if not divisive, in most of the states including West Bengal where the left boasts of successful implementation of land reforms laws.


Industry being the sole and prime concern of the government authorities everywhere, political parties now pay less attention to the peasant question. The official policy of pacifying the rural aggrieved is to distribute doles under pompous schemes, not land. And the parliamentary left parties simply dance to the tune set by the policy-makers in Delhi. They ask the peasants to fight over grants and aid. In their curious world of revolutionary strategy peasants have no role to play other than to participate in vote.


If anything even limited increase in purchasing power of rural poor through limited land reforms, has created a market large enough for the Indian industrial empire. Despite stagnation in industrial growth West Bengal villagers now purchase more consumer goods, mostly imported from other states, than they used to do before implementation of partial land reforms. One reason the authorities feel shy of talking about ‘land to the filler’ is the ever increased land demand by industrialists. The captains of Indian corporate world are more interested in grabbing land than in actual industrialisation, albeit they always project rosy picture of industrial development. All the state governments irresepective of their colour are indiscriminately displacing peasants to make room for industrialists. Unplanned and hapazard urbanisation is the new name for development. Any industrial venture means eviction of peasants. These days ‘landlords’ do not evicct poor and marginal plasants but industrialists and state governments do. They are encroaching upon vested as well as non-vested prime agricultural land with impunity . Land to the industry, not land to the tiller, is the new mantra of crisis managers. The way they are destroying agricultural land for commercial purposes is bone chilling. Ecological disaster apart, it will rupture the social fabric to such an extent that agriculture is likely to lose its eminent position in the economy. The hard fact is that agriculture’s share of GDP is no longer omnipotent. Agriculture’s countribution to GDP in 1998-99 was 26.82 percent against industry's 27.01 percent. The projections for 1999-2000 are 25.00 and 27.40 respectively. Even in 1970-71 agriculture’s contribution to GDP was as high as 44.50 percent against industry's 23.60 percent. What is noticeable is  the abnormal rise in services sector. This way or that peasants in reality bear the actual brunt of changing pattern of economic culture. With globalisation proceeding at a neck-breaking speed and quantitative restrictions on import in the agricultural sector gone, small peasant economy which is still India’s backbone is going to be finished. In that event vested land politics cannot be anything but counterproductive. Green revolution has already changed agrarian land relations to a great extent creating a kind of deformed capitalistic   agro-culture in rural India. But uneven development of capitalistic practice in agriculture has generated more land problems instead of resolving them. Green revolution, a World Bank prescription, has failed to remove hunger despite increased food production, though it has given boost to agro-industries. One third of India's 1 billion people are still poverty-stricken. They have no purchasing power to buy enough food. About 5000 children die everyday of

malnutrition notwithstanding bumper crops. Shortage is no problem but abundance is. Indian granaries are literally overflowing and yet millions cannot afford a square meal a day. A problem of plenty !


Capitalistic farming or for that matter green revolution oriented farming is highly petro-dependent. Adoption of high-yielding varieties of seeds demands almost a six-fold rise in fertiliser use per acre. Yet the  quantity of agricultural production per tonne of fertiliser used in India has dropped by two-thirds. Over the past 30 years the annual growth of fertiliser use on Aisan rice has been from three to 40 times faster than the growth of rice-yields. Meanwhile farming cost has shot up drastically narrowing small and middle peasants’ reasonable return. In other words those who are able to keep expanding their acreage may somehow make up for their lower per-acre production.


India is not America. Nor is it Japan. Big farming is still a far cry. Pockets of green affluence as in Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and  elsewhere do hardly reflect the rural reality in general. Semifeudal relations with capitalistic tinge represent the pre-dominant agricultural scenario. Even the rich peasant lobby or what is called Kulak lobby a la Russia as symbolised in the movements launched by the people like Sharad Joshi, no longer attract media attention the way they did in the  eighties. Remunerative price was the issue and the communist left failed to adequately address the peasant question on that occasion too. They dismissed the entire problem as the unjust offensive of the kulak lobby without taking into account changing agrarian relations. Ironicaly, they find nothing wrong in big dam projects which again promote kulak lobby's interests. The river dam based irrigation exclusively benefits the so-called kulaks who basically produce for market.


With failure of green revolution in most third world countries, multis and of course WB-IMF cambine are now vigorously advocating genetically engineered food to save the poor peasants in the third world from hunger and starvation. They call it Green Revolution-II. The original Green Revolution (i.e GR-I) promised to end world hunger through the massive introduction of hybrid and high-yielding seeds and in the process destroyed traditional seeds and agriculture as well. As small farming is becoming increasingly uneconomic due to green revolution strategy, small and mariginal peasants who get small parcels of land because of vested land politics, will not be able to retain their land for a very long period, defeating the very purpose of land reforms. What gets less currency is the fact that patta-holders have already begun to illegally transfer their lands for commercial purposes, thanks to politico-bureaucratic corruption.


As for genetically engineered food, what awaits the peasantry of the third world is anybody’s guess. In the face of attack by bio-tech transnationationals like Monsanto, Novartis, AgrEvo, Dupont etc. traditional cultivation will be further crippled.


If small peasant economy is to be retained peasants must be encouraged not to buy into industrialised agriculture. The only model with the potential to end rural poverty, feed everyone and protect the environment and productivity of land for future generations is a viable and productive small-farm agriculture using the principles of agroecology.


For the communist left political stereotypes won’t work. For all practical purposes ‘land reforms’ in traditional sense will lose relevance and, those who are searching for jotedars (landlords) to complete agrarian revolution even in the pre-dominantly semi-feudal citadels of Bihar, Andhra and Madhya Pradesh will soon find themselves bogged down in a quagmire of stalemate. Unless the left reorients the peasant question in the changed context launching a sustained campaign against agri-business and petro-dependent agriculture, the post-WTO phase that begins April 2001, might be a nightmare for the vast masses of the peasantry. They are more interested in defending the lost battle on trade union front — the left. If Indian peasants die, nobody will survive. If green revolution has taught third world peasants one thing, it is that increased food production can, and often does, go hand in hand with greater hunger.


The peasant question is essentially land question but in the era of globalism it would be susicidal to judge it in isolation. It must be addressed in the perspective of rising capitalistic practices in agriculture. Dumping of agricultural products by American and European companies has virtually devasted agro-economy in Africa and Central America. With globalisaton in full swing onslaught against Asian agriculture has already begun. America has especially targeted India and China to cripple the age-old peasant economy.

Indian peasants like their third world counterparts need an alternative agriculture. Alternative farming means high per acre yields with significant reductions in costs per unit of crop harvested which again demands rejuvenation of traditional cultivation. Ploughing, mechanised or otherwise, does not really stand in the way of alternative, better to say, sustainable agriculture. The peasant issue is not merely land and it is less so when land gets fragmented almost every year. Heritence rights even for sharecroppers are bound to cause further fragmentation. And fragmentation again makes cultivation uneconomic even for middle peasant families. What is urgently needed is a total review of the agrarian scenario. Then the left is more interested in maintaining the status quo, at best it responds to spontaneity on adhoc basis but the 21st century agrarian crisis is radically different from what peasants in India encountered in the 1920s and 30s.