Thoughts on economics and liberty

Cornelia Lenneberg’s study of Sharad Joshi’s work in 1988

Cornelia Lenneberg of Melbourne (currently Executive Director, Brotherhood of St.Laurence) was a young woman in 1988 when she wrote: “Sharad Joshi and the Farmers: The Middle Peasant Lives!”, Pacific Affairs, Fall 1988. She is considered one of Latrobe University’s ten boldest thinkers. Looks like she had not completed her Masters degree when she wrote this article.

I’ve extracted some material from her article here. [Word version here]


THE WIDESPREAD EMERGENCE of militant “farmers’ movements” in India is primarily a consequence of a new level of politicization among the “middle peasantry” rather than a new militancy among the rural rich. Remunerative prices for agricultural products is the common demand of these movements which have arisen, in isolation from each other and the political parties and leadership, in the late seventies and early eighties. To dismiss them as kulak movements, as is commonly done by many shades of political opinion, ignores, for one, the crucial question of why rich peasants as a whole would need or want to protest publicly when, as most analyses of Indian politics have concluded, they are well represented and their interests well protected by governments at the centre and in the states. It also ignores the dramatic changes in the countryside, and is based on a misconception of the class character of cash crop cultivators. I will argue that these movements reflect the political consequences of rural development in its widest sense on the middle peasantry in particular. The reasons for the emergence of the movements and the bases of their support will be analyzed by focusing on the case of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra.

The Shetkari Sanghatana first rose to national prominence in 1980 with its rasta roko (literally “block roads”) agitation in support of higher prices for sugarcane and onions. For four days in November tens of thousands of peasants blocked the main railway line north of Bom bay at a number of points in Nasik district and brought road traffic to a standstill on many of the northern highways. The movement spread from Nasik and parts of Pune district to Ahmednagar, Dhule, most of Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada regions. Road blockades and demonstrations continued for six weeks at various places in the state and nine thousand people were arrested in Nasik alone and seven thousand on a single day in Vidarbha.

It quickly became apparent that Sharad Joshi’s movement had struck a responsive chord in the rural community and captured its imagination. Political leaders of all persuasions were suddenly trying to scramble aboard the Shetkari Sanghatana’s bandwagon to harness its momentum to further their own particular demands and to be seen as the true champions of peasant interests. The Congress (Urs), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India ( Marxist) (CPM), Janata and Peasants and Workers Party ( PWP) formed a Left Democratic Front to try to usurp the leadership of the movement. They demanded increased prices for cereals as well as sugarcane and onions, and an increase in the minimum wage for agricultural labour, and organized a “Long March” from Jalgaon to Nagpur.2 The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-dominated Cotton Growers’ Association in Vidarbha pressed for higher cotton procurement prices. 3 Two peasant organizations in Thane district demanded increased paddy prices, fair prices for tribal products and produce, declarations of areas as famine struck and investigation of the local employment guarantee scheme. 4 All manner of other groups-from trade union leaders and students to the Hindu Mahasabha and even the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization of ex-untouchables- expressed their solidarity with the cultivators or their intention to join the road block. 5 Within the Congress (Indira) as well, some members scrambled to associate themselves with the movement because of their concerns about the success of the campaign and also its usef ulness in the intraparty factional struggles. 6 These were particularly fierce at this time because the Maratha lobby had lost control of the chief ministership to Mrs. Gandhi’s nominee A.R. Antulay. In particular, Vasantrao Patil, a former chief minister with continuing leadership pretensions, openly supported the movement. 7

The movement succeeded in gaining some concessions from the state government but these were more rhetorical than real. By mid-December prices on the open market had risen to the levels demanded by the Sanghatana for sugarcane and onions, but no substantial structural changes were made to ensure the fight would not have to be resumed again the next season. The movement’s real achievement lay, in conjunction with similar movements in other states, in bringing the “farmers’ demands” to national attention. Henceforth few politicians would address rural electorates without the issue of “remunerative prices” being supported at least in principle. Before examining the subsequent activities of the movement it is appropriate first to look at its origins and philosophy. Sharad Joshi, urban Brahman intellectual, is the rather unlikely leader of this militant movement of the primarily Maratha peasantry, renowned for its anti-Brahmanism. Joshi comes from a nonfarming background going back at least four generations. His father was a civil servant in the Indian Postal Service. After taking a masters degree from Sydenham College in commerce and economics, Joshi worked for a short time as a lecturer in a small college in Kolhapur. In 1956 he sat for the IAS exam and, following in his father’s footsteps, joined the Indian Postal Service in 1957, where he stayed for a decade and rose to the rank of assistant director general, Foreign Relations section. He left to take up a position with the newly established statistics department of the Universal Postal Union- a United Nations organization. Joshi was based in Berne, Switzerland, earning, according to one report at least, Rs. 46,000 per month tax free. In 1975 he resigned to return to India and take up farming. Joshi explains: It was, however, not so simple. The failure of this experiment on the 2372 acres of dry land he purchased in Ambethan, a small village close to Chakan, 35 kilometres from Poona, led him to conclude that the peasantry’s poverty was not due to technological backwardness, ignorance or laziness. Rather, it was a direct result of deliberate government policy. Just as the British expropriated the surplus from agriculture to finance the industrialization of Britain, Joshi argues, once the British left, the Indian elite continued the policy in order to finance the industrialization of India. As the British exploited India, now India exploits Bharat:

India is that entity, economic, social, and cultural, which has inherited from the British the succession of exploitation . . . . Bharat is that social, cultural and economic entity which is being exploited for the second time. India and Bharat are like two separate countries. . . . But they do not coincide with the urban and rural sectors; in urban India there are refugees from Bharat and in rural areas there are representatives of India who in fact help India to rule Bharat. 9

The Shetkari Sanghatana was officially established in October 1979 when it opened a small office in Chakan, and began publication of its first weekly newsletter, Warkari. It was little more than a year since Joshi had organized a successful local agitation in protest against the government’s export ban which had sent domestic onion prices plummeting, in a region which produces almost a third of total Indian production. In March 1980, after the onion market again collapsed due to a bumper crop, rasta roko, which Joshi had observed French farmers use to good advantage, was employed for the first time. In Chakan one thousand bullock carts were reportedly overturned, completely blocking the Nasik to Poona highway for nine days, and Joshi went on a hunger strike. This agitation also succeeded as it forced Mrs. Gandhi’s government, only just returned to power, to increase the support prices paid by the National Marketing Federation though not to the level initially sought.

At the same time in different areas of Nasik district two men, Madhavrao More and Prahlad Karad Patil, were also organizing protests on the issue of onion prices. They were inspired by Joshi’s arguments and tactics and contacted him at that time. More, a Maratha, owns fifty acres of irrigated land and grows onions, sugarcane and grapes. For many years he had led local protests around Pimpalgaon-Baswant about onion prices. That March he ended up in hospital for several months after being beaten by police for leading just such a protest- two others were killed when police opened fire.10 Patil, a Vanjari (a former tribal community of middle to low caste status), owns one hundred acres-a joint family holding, growing onions, sugarcane, grapes and wheat. Patil, before he met Joshi, had been jailed ten times for launching agitations on the issue of prices. 11 The Shetkari Sanghatana’ s stronghold in Nasik was largely built on Patil’ s power base in the cooperative sector. He explains,

An agitation needs prestige [charisma] and Sharad Joshi has prestige because of his personality and social background. When Sharad Joshi came to our agitation I had the belief and faith that our agitation would grow. . . . We went to nearly every village in Nasik. Such a large scale mobilization was only possible because of my 30 years in the cooperative movement. I was untainted by the usual corruption associated with the cooperative movement and this provided a good basis on which to build the Shetkari Sanghatana. 12

Seven months later rasta roko was launched with the spectacular response already detailed.

Thereafter, with the exception of the Nipani tobacco agitation of April 1981, the movement’s support seemed to be declining until 1985. During these four years a number of agitations were announced by the leadership but they failed to have any significant support or impact. During the 1985 parliamentary and assembly elections, however, the movement again rose to national prominence. The Shetkari Sanghatana adopted a more overtly political stance, supporting opposition candidates in the elections rather than remaining aloof from party politics, and actively sought to broaden its base by linking up with other influential people and groups working with the rural and urban poor and women’s groups. It is credited with significantly reducing the margin of victory of many Congress (I) MPs in the parliamentary elections, 13 and the Congress (I) vote in the assembly elections two months later dropped a further eight percentage points from 51.2 to 43. 7. The fact that leaders of all the opposition parties accepted Joshi’s invitation to attend the movement’s Dhule convention in January 1985, and complied with his conditions for supporting them, indicates at least the perception of the Sanghatana’s widespread influence. 14

The Shetkari Sanghatana again demonstrated the extent of its support in January 1987 when its agitation over cotton prices attracted fifteen thousand peasants to Chowpatty Beach in central Bombay. 15 The “farmers’ movement” has also re-emerged in other parts of India since that time, the most notable of the recent agitations occurring in Uttar Pradesh in February 1988. Mahendra Singh Tikait organized a three-week-long siege of the divisional commissioner’s office in Meerut by approximately one hundred thousand peasants. 16 Moreover, the various state movements are making moves towards greater coordination of their activities. 17

So, what kind of movement is the Shetkari Sanghatana-a peasant or a farmers’ movement? What is the nature of its appeal? The Economic and Political Weekly editorial cited at the beginning of this paper offers a number of commonly advanced arguments to explain the rise of these movements since the late 1970s. Firstly, since the mid-seventies the terms of trade have moved decisively against the rural sector. An Agricultural Prices Commission report cited a decline in the trade index from 100.7 in 1974-75 to 87.7 in 1979-80, so farmers pay an increased share of their income for the same manufactured products essential to their farming operations and personal consumption. The editor also suggests that Mrs. Gandhi’s interference in state politics to erode the power of locally influential politicians and install chief ministers primarily loyal to herself has “loosened the hold of the established Congress leaders in the rural areas making it possible for ‘non-political’ leaders like Sharad Joshi . . . to emerge.”18 Furthermore, the tendency of these local leaders to throw their support behind movements like the Shetkari Sanghatana to embarrass the incumbent chief minister has added to their appeal. For example, in Maharashtra, Vasantdada Patil, a powerful leader of the cooperative sugar interests within the Congress (I), supported the demands of the Shetkari Sanghatana during the first agitation when he opposed Mrs. Gandhi’s choice for chief minister, Antulay, yet when he became chief minister he attempted to repress and discredit the movement. 19 Finally, the editor suggests that state governments, and I would add the central government too, have shown themselves vulnerable to pressure from rural interest groups. Not only have state governments raised procurement prices higher than levels recommended by the Agricultural Prices Commission, but the central government at times has actively encouraged them to do so.20 Also, the Janata government, and Mrs. Gandhi’s government on first returning to power, quickly conceded a number of demands made by “farmers’ movements”- for example, more favourable terms of reference for the Agricultural Prices Commission.2 1

These factors partially account for the rise of the “farmers’ movements” yet they don’t tell the whole story. The movements are commonly regarded as movements of the “rural rich” as their designation of “farmers’ movements” itself implies. Because of this widespread misconception about the bases of their support, the fundamental change in rural areas to which they testify is not appreciated.

According to Gail Omvedt, 22 and this is a fairly representative view, “it is safe to say that not only is the movement being led by rich peasants, but it is also a movement basically of the rural rich which is in contradiction to the interests of the majority of rural poor families. . . . Even middle peasants, who buy on the market as much as they sell, have little to gain. “23 Her argument is, however, based on a mistake in interpreting the statistics as well as misconceptions about the class character of cash-crop cultivators and peasant behaviour. Omvedt deduces that since the 1971 Agricultural Census shows that 83 percent of cane is grown on farms of more than two hectares (i.e., five acres), and “since 5 acres of sugarcane requires significant amounts of capital and labour, it is safe to say that over 85 percent of all cane is grown by capitalist farmers. “24 She arrives at the slightly larger figure because she takes into account that census statistics, based on village land records, are likely to be underestimates (these records being susceptible to manipulation by village power holders). The fundamental error she makes is that, though most cane cultivation is on holdings over two hectares, the complete area of the holding is definitely not devoted to that crop, or to any single crop for that matter. No one grows just one crop. In fact, the Agricultural Census reveals that the larger the holding, the greater the diversity of crops grown. Moreover, there are a number of specific constraints on the proportion of land which can be sown with sugarcane. In Maharashtra, cane is grown over eighteen months and is completely irrigated, requiring water on average every ten days. Only a small part of any holding is likely to be suitable for growing cane because less than 11 percent of the state’s cropped area is irrigated, and most of that not perenially. Only 2.6 percent of the cultivated area is irrigated for more than one season. Even that small part suitable for cane cultivation is not continually sown with the crop because of crop rotation. As Attwood points out, “each successive cane crop is grown on just one-third (at most) or one-fourth (usually) of the irrigated portion of the farmer’s land, since cane is always grown on a 3 or 4-year rotation with other crops.”25 Further constraints operate on those holdings irrigated by canal because the state government restricts the amount of cane which can be grown to a quarter of the holding.26 The weight of evidence, both from the census itself and about the details of cane cultivation, shows Omvedt’s deduction that 85 percent of sugarcane cultivators are capitalist farmers is fallacious.

Omvedt’s assertion – that anyone with a holding of over two hectares is a capitalist farmer-is also somewhat surprising. It is commonly accepted that the subsistence holding for dry land in Maharashtra is between five and six hectares for a family of six adults.27 The Agriculture Department defines holdings under one hectare as marginal, one to two hectares as small, two to ten hectares as medium-sized, and over ten hectares as large. Given that few holdings are completely irrigated, a holding of two hectares, perhaps partially irrigated, is more likely to be a bare subsistence holding rather than a large holding of a rich peasant or capitalist farmer.

The view that these movements are basically “farmers’ movements” is based on certain common assumptions about peasant behaviour. That is, briefly, that rich peasants produce for the market; middle peasants are subsistence oriented and will sell only a little in order to meet cash obligations and buy necessities like kerosene and small peasants are sharecroppers or small holders who need to supplement their income through agricultural labour. Furthermore, it is assumed that the increasing commercialization of agriculture is leading to greater polarization of classes and the middle peasant is disappearing altogether, as Lenin predicted. On this understanding of the divisions within rural society, the price demand itself identifies the class character of the movement because only rich peasants are involved in cash crop cultivation.

However, on what basis can one assume that small and middle peasants will not choose to grow some cash crops in order to buy a greater quantity of cheaper grains for the family’s subsistence than they could grow on their own land? The view that only rich peasants and capitalist farmers participate actively in the market, as opposed to the limited and basically involuntary involvement of the middle peasant, is no longer relevant, if indeed it ever was, in the consideration of peasant motivation. It is based on studies of pre-independence peasant movements and the responses of different strata of the peasantry to the colonial commercialization of agriculture in traditional societies. Scott, a principal proponent of this view, argues:

Living close to the subsistence margin and subject to the vagaries of the weather and the claims of outsiders, the peasant household has little scope for the profit maximization calculus of traditional neoclassical economics. Typically, the peasant cultivator seeks to avoid the failure that will ruin him rather than attempting a big, but risky, killing. zs

Peasants will try to keep the market at arm’s length and maintain the traditional village-based subsistence guarantees. As the commercialization of agriculture erodes these guarantees, he and others argue, agrarian uprisings can occur. But, after the long history of British commercial involvement in India, it makes little sense to suppose peasants are still trying to ward off the threats of commercialization and preserve their traditional subsistence arrangements in the 1980s.

A simple calculation shows that the return per hectare of sugarcane is eight times greater than that of jowar. 29 If a peasant has some suitable irrigated land, why wouldn’t he choose to grow cane, or some other cash crop like wheat, rather than some less profitable crop, regardless of the size of his holding? The cost of production for sugarcane is also twelve times that of jowar, and it might be objected that small peasants would be unable to raise the initial capital. To an extent this is true: large landowners tend to monopolize the available credit. However, the Agricultural Census for 1976-77 (see Table 1) shows that even some marginal landowners do manage to raise the necessary capital. Wheat, which is a potential cash crop in Maharashtra, costs only 1.5 times more to produce per hectare than jowar while the return is doubled. The risks with wheat cultivation are greater, yet the census shows that a significant proportion of marginal and small landowners do grow the crop. In fact, Attwood’s analysis of agricultural investment in Poona district found during the period from 1970 to 1979 . . . 64 per cent of the small farmers (those with less than 2.5 acres of land) raised their standard of living through saving and investing. The average level of investment for all small farmers was about Rs. 6,000 per family for the decade. Some of this was invested in land, the rest in irrigation equipment, cattle, implements, houses, and small business enterprises. 30

Furthermore, these small cultivators invested significantly more per hectare than did medium and large landholders- Rs. 5,200 per acre as against approximately Rs. 2,000 per acre, respectively. 31 This evidence demonstrates that a significant number of small and middle peasants in these districts have the resources to grow cash crops.

My analysis of the district-wise statistics on cropping patterns from the 1976 Maharashtra Agricultural Census for Nasik, Pune and Ahmednagar, districts of Shetkari Sanghatana strength, shows a greater proportion of the area in small landholding categories is devoted to the potential cash crops than in larger holdings. While there is less diversity of crops grown, there is a greater proportion of cash crops and higher productivity. Jowar and bajra are the staple cereals in these areas, less likely to fail than some of the other cereals because of their greater toleration of dry conditions. They are also relatively cheap to produce. Rice and wheat are the potential cash crops. Table 1 indicates that middle to small size holdings account for 45 to 60 percent of the area under sugarcane, vegetables, wheat and rice in these districts. So, a major share of cash crops are grown on holdings of less than five hectares. Moreover, the data reveals there is no difference in the cropping pattern for these crops between the different sized holdings- all categories of cultivators devote a similar and considerable proportion of, of ten their best, land to them.

It seems logical that a peasant would grow cash crops if he could because this would enable him to buy a greater amount of grain for his family’s subsistence than he could grow himself. Indeed, a study in the early seventies of two villages in Rajasthan, fairly similar to rural areas of Western Maharashtra, found that “the smaller farmers . . . market a higher proportion of their crops: 40-50 percent for small farmers, 25 percent for larger ones.”32 This kind of statistic is usually dismissed as merely evidence of distress sales by small peasants, but some recent evidence challenges this assumption. In a study of marketable surplus of foodgrains in Ahmednagar district, Nadkarni concluded that sales of cash crops by small farmers do not “appear to be distress sales but constitute commercial sales in their own right.”33 Furthermore he found that

whereas farmers with up to 4-at times even 6-hectares had negative marketable surplus in jowar and bajra [that is, they purchased additional quantities of these grains], they had positive surplus in wheat [that is, they sold wheat] . . . . Small farmers too were found to be market-oriented, selling one foodgrain and buying another for consumption.34

A small survey I conducted at the February 1984 Shetkari Sanghatana rally in Parbhani provides further evidence to support my argument that it is not only the rich peasants who participate actively in commercial production. From Nasik, two peasants with total holdings of only four and three acres of irrigated land, respectively, grew primarily wheat and sugarcane. One with only two acres of land, but that irrigated, grew wheat and bajra. Another two with six and seven acres, partially irrigated, grew sugarcane and onions on the irrigated land and jowar and bajra on the rest. A peasant from Nanded with seven acres, of which only two were irrigated, grew jowar and cotton on his dry land and sugarcane on the two irrigated acres. From Ahmednagar a peasant with only three acres of land grew rice, wheat, sugarcane and groundnut. Clearly the assumption that small and middle peasants have little or no objective interest in higher prices for agricultural produce is unjustified. Though small and middle peasants may buy as much as they sell on the market, they are not generally buying and selling the same crop. They are selling the more profitable crops of sugarcane, onions, wheat, etc., and buying the cheaper coarse grains for their own subsistence.

Most of the studies of agrarian change focus on the social and political consequences of the Green Revolution for the groups at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum-the large landowners and the landless. They highlight the uneven distribution of its economic benefits, the increasing landlessness and the accelerated breakdown of the legitimacy of traditional social and economic structures. Rather than solving the problems of rural areas, the Green Revolution is seen to lead to increased class tensions and violence despite some objective improvement in economic conditions.

But, what is happening to the groups in between these two extremes? It is ironic that, while the middle peasant is accorded a vital role in pre-independence studies of agrarian unrest, he is now almost totally ignored as an object for serious investigation. The Rudolphs, in a book published only a few months ago, are the only scholars to have addressed the issue of the contemporary politics of the middle peasantry. 35 In a clear statement of the assumption that lies behind most of the work on agrarian change Dhanagare claims that “the increasing polarization of agrarian relations has tended to eliminate the middle peasant as a very significant social category in India.”36 Itis assumed that the increasing commercialization of agriculture is leading to greater polarization of classes and the middle peasant is disappearing into the landless or land-poor stratum.

The evidence, for Maharashtra at least, does not support such a conclusion. While the state does have a high percentage of agricultural labourers, 43.5 percent according to the 1981 census, there is still a significant intermediate group of landholders. Irrigation is scarce-only slightly more than one-tenth of the cultivated area is irrigated and only a quarter of that for more than one season. Because of this lack of reliable irrigation we can assume as a general guide that five hectares of land, though large for elsewhere in India, is in Maharashtra a subsistence-size holding. Production on irrigated land is obviously better than on dry land alone. However, given that only five percent of holdings are completely irrigated, we can assume that peasants with holdings of less than five hectares are not rich peasants or capitalist farmers. Tenancy is almost non-existent and, as Table 2 indicates, about 50 percent of all cultivators fall into the intermediate category of between one and five hectares.

In fact, rather than polarizing, the proportion of cultivators in the intermediate group has actually increased and the marginal group decreased somewhat over about twenty-four years. If we classify cultivators with one to two hectares along with the small peasants, we are still left with a conservatively estimated middle peasant category representing about 30 percent of landholders. The large drop in the number of holdings over twenty hectares is a result of land ceiling legislation. If, as is likely, much of the above-ceiling land was merely transfered to near relatives to circumvent the legislation, it still cannot account for the significant increase in the n umber of middle-size landholdings alone. It seems unlikely, too, that the largest landholders would divide up their lands into parcels of less than four hectares when the ceiling is much higher-between 6.5 and twenty two hectares (for perennially irrigated and dry land respectively, dependent also on family size). A recent study by Attwood and Baviskar of sugarcane cultivation in the Deccan further supports the evidence of the existence of a substantial middle peasant sector. They conclude that small and medium size cultivators of cane, defined as owning less than one, and less than four hectares of irrigated land, respectively, control between 30 and 60 percent of the cane supplied to cooperative sugar factories.37

This significant section of landholders cannot be ignored, nor can its interests be assumed to correspond to one or the other class position. What is happening to this group in a situation of increasing class tensions? Does it quietly plod along amidst all these changes in total isolation from them? Does it perceive that its interests are being protected? I think not. It is the contention of this study that the contemporary “farmers’ movements” are not only the expressions of discontent of capitalist farmers, though some are involved, particularly in the leadership. The “farmers’ movements” primarily articulate the grievances of the middle peasants- peasants with changed aspirations resulting from having acquired some understanding of the political system and some awareness of urban lifestyles through modern communications, literacy and greater mobility. (See Table 3.)

By “middle peasants” I do not mean the self -sufficient, subsistence oriented middle peasant of the theoretical literature, but rather that middling group of small to medium-sized landholders who participate actively in the market in an attempt to maximize their economic returns. Middle peasants are those who can subsist on the income derived from their land in good seasons but cannot save from that to provide for subsistence in poor seasons. How these middle peasants meet their subsistence needs-by self cultivation, proceeds from cash crop sales, purely with family labour or by either hiring and occasionally selling labour-is irrelevant to their status.

Today, the Maharashtrian peasants’ visions are no longer confined to the horizons of their villages, as those of their fathers were. They are an increasingly literate, aware and mobile population whose frame of reference has moved far beyond the village. Almost 45 percent of the rural population over ten years old is literate-62 percent in the case of males alone. Around half of all children aged between five and fourteen attend school-almost 70 percent of teenage boys. The number of secondary schools and higher education institutions in rural areas has grown rapidly, as too has their level of enrolments. In Nasik and Ahmednagar enrolments in colleges of general education alone increased over 1200 percent in eighteen years. Another important link between villages and the outside world is the increasing number and availability of Marathi publications. In particular, many more are published in the districts themselves, from one daily in Nasik and Ahmednagar in 1958 to five and eight respectively twenty years later. Moreover, many more peasants are gaining personal experience of life outside their villages because of the development of the transport system.

Through the greater availability of education, children are coming into con tact with new people and ideas and are developing a wider, though not necessarily accurate, understanding of the world outside their villages and how it operates. These new ideas they impart to their families, who are also being influenced by radio, newspapers, politicians coming to their villages to canvass their support in return for material benefits, and their contact with the many new institutions now in rural areas. Furthermore, the greater mobility of the rural population means many more peasants are gaining personal experience of urban life.

While the figures on social development are not broken down into different peasant categories, one can reasonably assume that the middle and small peasants have been affected most by these developments. Sections of the rich peasantry would long have had the advantages of education and mobility, while the poorest villagers would still have little opportunity to avail themselves of them.

The Shetkari Sanghatana articulates the grievances and aspirations of this section of the peasantry- a group which is numerically important and increasingly uneasy and politically assertive. Mr. More is not addressing kulaks when he laments that increased prices are needed so that “we are able to build latrines for our sisters and mothers. . . . Our sisters and mothers have to relieve themselves unashamedly by the road sides.”38 Kulaks, like himself, already live in pukka houses with indoor latrines. Nor is Sharad Joshi appealing to kulaks when he draws the sharp distinction between life in “India” and “Bharat.”

The idle teenagers of India’s rich may burn Rs. 5,000 in one sitting in plush hotels like the Taj, whereas in the villages of our poor Bharat, an old woman puts up with the onslaught of heat while she searches for a 5-paise coin accidentally dropped in the dust. The children of India sleep on soft mattresses and fluff y pillows, dreaming sweet dreams of the morrow, while children of the same age group in Bharat set out to make cowdung cakes, slate on head for protection. “Indian” children take Ovaltine and toast for breakfast, don uniforms and go to costly schools for an “Indian” education, whereas the children of Bharat munch a morsel of stale bhakari, kill their hunger with a mugful of water, pick up a stick and go out to tend animals. . . . An Indiawallah does “work” when he shifts files from one pile to another. With what he earns he can support a family of five or six. His wife possesses at least ten saris. They can see a film a week and enjoy themselves in other ways. Their children have clothes, go to school, get medical help-all this on the wages of one man. In the villages of Bharat, however, the picture is just the reverse. The farmer and all the members of his family- from the smallest child to elderly folks-toil right through the year, and yet they cannot even feed themselves adequately, cannot clothe themselves well. The contrast is glaring. 39

Sharad Joshi’s appeal in terms of Bharat and India is particularly apt in Maharashtra where one of the most agriculturally backward regions in India surrounds Bombay, one of the most industrially advanced. Maharashtra is not usually perceived as backward because of the skewing effect that Bombay has on aggregate statistics, especially per capita income which is 35 percent above the average. However, in the early eighties the state competed with Madhya Pradesh for the dubious honour of second last rank in the yield of foodgrains per hectare. Punjab harvests more than 3.5 times more per hectare. 40 The negligible impact of the Green Revolution is apparent when one considers yields of foodgrains have increased only 24 percent in the twenty years since 1960.

So, increasing aspirations are frustrated by the near stagnation in agricultural productivity while the terms of trade are actually worsening. After thirty-five years of politicians’ promises i t is not surprising that Joshi’s conspiracy theory, that the government is deliberately keeping prices for agricultural produce low in order to finance industrial development, finds such ready acceptance. Mitchie’s study of political attitudes by landholding status in Rajasthan revealed that those owning land overwhelmingly perceived the government as the agency which could fulfill their needs. However, small and medium landholders were particularly cynical about politicians’ motivations; 75 percent believed they were only interested in getting elected and their own financial gain. While the large farmers and landless felt voting was important in a trade-off of benefits for support, only a third of the intermediate group subscribed to this view and they were in general unclear about why they thought voting was important. 41 Disillusionment with politicians is a major characteristic of the Shetkari Sanghatana and during the 1985 elections their campaign involved banning politicians from entering villages without the prior approval of the villagers. Further evidence of the disillusionment with the political parties is in the rising number of independents standing in each election and the dwindling Congress (I) vote in one of its former strongholds, particularly in rural areas in the 1985 assembly elections.

My research on the Shetkari Sanghatana over the past several years has led me to conclusions similar to some of those reached by the Rudolphs. In a recently published book, they argue the new agrarianism of the 1980s is the result of the political mobilization of “bullock capitalists” -the former middle peasantry. Using aggregate national data, they argue that this new agrarianism arose out of the changing balance of power in rural areas since 1971-72 which left the bullock capitalists as the dominant group in terms of both numerical preponderance and area of land controlled. They seem to imply their bullock capitalists are relatively prosperous and argue that the reason for their becoming politically active at this time is primarily a consequence of the changing configuration of forces in rural areas.42 My research on Maharashtra does not support this argument and indicates rather that the militancy of the middle peasantry arises out of the conjunction of new aspirations, born of greater knowledge about the world beyond the village, and out of economic stagnation. Itis a militancy engendered by the “revolution of rising expectations” and awareness of “relative deprivation. “43

At a time of political instability and mounting economic difficulty, disillusioned with politicians’ empty promises and increasingly aware of the disparities between urban and rural living standards and the efficacy of pressure group politics, the middle peasantry protested. Long dismissed as a political force, the middle peasantry is again demonstrating its potential militancy in defence of its economic interests. The rural rich have other avenues to voice their grievances and the assertion that this movement is primarily one of the rural rich is based on the mistaken assumption that only they actively engage in cash crop cultivation. The Shetkari Sanghatana articulates the grievances of the middle peasantry, whose economic position is growing more precarious while their ability to attain their new aspirations is diminishing. The movement is the response of an increasingly literate, aware and mobile population to economic stagnation and political impotence.

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, July 1988

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial