Why do farm concerns not get as much political attention as they should?
- A large majority of the population at the bottom of the social hierarchy in India does not have significant stakes in agriculture.
An analysis of the report of the latest Situation Assessment Survey (SAS), the findings of which were first reported on September 11, offers an insight into the reasons for the problems in the agriculture sector not finding a resonance in politics.
A large majority of the population at the bottom of the social hierarchy in India does not have significant stakes in agriculture. The social groups, who are still invested in farming, are also the ones who are more successful in getting out of villages. This creates a political vacuum for a social-economic class that can build pressure for an effective policy framework to rescue Indian agriculture from its current crisis. Even those who are left in villages are sidetracked by other issues and unlikely to make efforts to develop a genuine farmers’ solidarity.
Here are four charts which explain this argument in detail.
The socially downtrodden are over-represented in rural India
BR Ambedkar, India’s most important social reformer and also the father of the Indian Constitution, wanted Dalits or the Scheduled Castes (SC) to get out of villages. “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic... What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” Ambedkar wrote.
Ambedkar’s was not a subjective rant against village life, something Mahatma Gandhi, the tallest leader of the Indian freedom movement always eulogised. Dalits hardly owned any land in the village and during Ambedkar’s time, they were mostly bonded labourers for the upper caste “oppressors”. Ironical as it is, it is the upper castes which took Ambedkar’s lesson seriously and started moving out of villages. A comparison of estimated population shares of SC, scheduled tribes (ST), other backward classes (OBC), and others, shows that SCs and STs are significantly over-represented in India’s villages.
Population share of SC-ST-OBC and others in rural and urban India
Even today, a rural Dalit is more likely to be a labourer than a farmer
What makes SAS unique among many surveys which are conducted in rural India is the fact that it separates those who are significantly invested in agriculture. To be sure, this criterion is pretty inclusive.
SAS defines an agricultural household as one that has at least one member self-employed in agriculture and that produced agricultural products worth at least ₹4,000 in the 365 days preceding the survey.
Among the four broad social groups in India, SCs are the only ones where the majority of rural households are non-agricultural households. More than anything else, this is a reflection of poor landownership among SCs. SCs account for 21.6% of all rural households in India, but they own just 10.2% of total land.
Share of agricultural and non-agricultural households among each social group
The social asymmetry in agrarian stakes kills any potential farmer solidarity
Because SCs do not own any land, and are therefore not invested in agriculture, they end up being the biggest source of cheap and often heavily exploited labour in India’s villages, including farms.
The numbers speak for themselves. SC households have a share of 21.6% in rural India, but their share among the casual work-dependent is 32.8%. In relative terms, SC households have the largest share among casual work-dependent in rural India. It is important to note that casual work-dependent households are not just those who belong to the non-agricultural household category. Even agricultural households might be dependent on casual work for their main income (so long as they produce the ₹4,000 quota from agriculture). As is to be expected, SC households have the largest relative share among casual work-dependent both among agricultural as well as non-agricultural households.
Social group-wise relative share among employment categories in agricultural and non-agricultural households
Given the deeply entrenched discriminatory practices in India’s villages, an SC worker is likely to suffer more exploitation than his upper caste, even OBC peers. In fact, a 2016 Economic and Political Weekly paper by Amrita Datta at the Institute for Human Development (IHD) shows that migration might be helping those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder — the most being in Bihar. For Dalits, Ambedkar’s advice of getting out of the village is still relevant. This also means that more than one-fifth of the rural population has no material interest in fighting for policies to address agrarian distress.
The Mandal rhetoric against upper caste feudalism is not true anymore
Social justice politics in India has moved far beyond the trajectory of annihilation of caste which Ambedkar and his comrades wanted it to take. The real political game changer in social justice politics was not the rise of Dalits but that of OBCs. The OBC resurgence in politics drew a lot of initial legitimacy by claiming to challenge oppressive feudal hierarchies dominated by a handful of upper castes.
While this rhetoric still continues, facts have changed dramatically on the ground. OBC landlords – if one uses the term for those who own more than 10 hectares of land – outnumber their upper caste counterparts by a ratio of 2:1. This is most likely the result of upper castes selling their land to OBCs (the only social group which had the means to buy it) to migrate out of villages. To be sure, OBC households in general are twice the number of upper caste households in rural India. It is the fact that this ratio is maintained even among the biggest landowners is the sign of land transfer from upper castes to OBCs.
Social composition of HHs by size class of land
These facts outline the difficulty of forming a social alliance to generate political pressure for rescuing agriculture.
SCs are still the poorest and most exploited community in Indian villages, making them adversaries of the “farmers”. Anecdotal accounts do not offer any evidence that OBCs are any less oppressive in dealing with the SC worker than upper castes.
Upper castes and OBCs could make a case for supporting agriculture, and they have a rich farmer class which can take a lead in this cause. But they do not see eye to eye on other political issues, especially reservations.
The challenges facing political mobilisation to rescue Indian agriculture from its current crisis are partly a result of India’s feudal past. The socially downtrodden never had enough land, and hence stakes in agriculture. A democratic revolution sans redistributive reforms – land reforms were a stillborn project in most parts of India – has only complicated these problems further, where political parties find it easier to ignore the agrarian crisis and exploit other avenues for mobilising votes.