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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

New Tasks in Agriculture

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Bhowani Sen


Agriculture continues to be the weakest link in the chain of India’s Plan-progress. In a certain sense this is true for every country, whether advanced or backward, or whether under the capitalist or socialist system; because, as yet, there is an inherent difference between industry and agriculture. The main distinctive feature of the latter consists in its dependence on weather, as the science of astronomy and weather-control is yet very undeveloped. The application of science in agriculture continues to face many limitations. But in India, we are lagging far behind even the level imposed by the limitations of science. This is shown by the fact that under the first two Five-Year Plans, the rate of improvement in agricultural produce is only 3.3 per cent per annum at a cost of about Rs 1500 crores and we are compelled to import foodgrains at the approximate rate of three million tonnes per year.

If response to the agrarian measures adopted by the government is too weak in respect of agricultural production, the reason lies in three main factors: (1) perpetuation of old, semi-feudal agrarian relations; (2) growth of new capitalist relations in production in a way most unfavourable for increasing agricultural production; and (3) the increasing grip of capitalist monopolies in the rural sector. All these are inter-related, and the cumulative result blocks advance. These institutional factors account for the fact that productive resources pumped into the rural economy are grabbed by rural vested interests—both old and new—and the vast mass of the tillers of the soil are largely deprived of the benefits which alone can enable them to increase production. That is why the improvement recorded in agricultural production is so limited.

Low Productivity

How and why institutional factors affect agricultural production can be looked at from another angle. Small holdings (below five acres) constitute roughly 40 per cent of the total area under sugarcane, 32 per cent in jute cultivation and more than 50 per cent in groundnut. Only in cotton, big holdings (above 25 acres) predominate. Such is the position in respect of commercial crops in which production for the market is the general rule. In production of foodgrains, which accounts for two-thirds of the cultivated area, tiny holdings constitute the major part of the acreage. Productivity is so low in small holdings that, according to data obtained from a survey in Kodinar Taluk in Bombay, more than 80 per cent of the small and medium farmers have very little marketable surplus.

This does not mean that big holdings by themselves have an inherent capacity to produce more. According to the same survey, only 40 per cent of the big farmers (above 25 acres) had a marketable surplus exceeding 50 per cent of the crops.
No wonder that most of our peasant-farms have hardly risen above the level of self-sufficiency and the surplus they bring to the market is more artificial than real. It is common knowledge that the small-holders are forced to sell a part of the crops out of sheer need for money, without even providing for their own needs in respect of foodgrains; these people sell at the beginning of the season and fall back on the market to purchase during the closing months.

Hangover from Past

If the big farmers are unable to supply enough for the market, it is because in many cases they get their land cultivated by share-croppers and inferior tenants instead of by wage-workers. It is significant that in Bombay and West Bengal, the two most industrialised States, the percentage of the area cultivated by share-croppers is 30 and 22 per cent respectively; besides there are other types of inferior tenants who are classified as agricultural workers but who really are tenants-at-will. Daniel Thorner rightly observed that:

“The kisans are drawn primarily from cultivating or artisan castes; the mazdoor log primarily from Harijans, scheduled, depressed or ‘backward’ classes. Certain types of work locally considered degrading, such as ploughing in eastern UP; are reserved for these lowly servitors.” (The Agrarian Prospect in India, p. 11)
The preponderance of inferior tenants and crop-sharers, despite the various Land Reform Acts, accompanied by large land-ownership (divided into fragmented holdings) by parasitic elements (owners disinterested in the productive process), constitute the most important remnants of the old semi-feudal land relations. Barely four per cent of the households possess 33 per cent of the land. These outmoded agrarian relations were characterised by the Planning Commission as being “impediments to an increase in agricultural production as arise from the agrarian structure inherited from the past.” (Third Five Year Plan, p. 220)

Usury constitutes another important remnant of the old semi-feudal rural economy. Despite the extension of co-operative credit, three-fourths of the agricultural loans are yet supplied by usurious money-lenders, who charge extraordinarily high rates of interest. Small-holders are losing land to the money-lenders on an increasing scale, and the result is disastrous. While on the one hand poor and landless peasants have, to a certain extent, obtained land here and there through the imposition of ceilings, the land-owning peasants are simulta-neously losing their tiny holdings to money-lenders. Decentralisation of non-peasant holdings is accompanied by its re-centralisation into the hands of the same class of people. Naturally, by and large, the incentive to step up agricultural production is lacking, thanks to the prevailing state of unsettle-ment and insecurity, and the loop-holes in land reform legislation.

Certain changes have, of course, been brought about by Land Reform and other agrarian measures of the government. The changes include the introduction of the following principal elements of our rural economy: (1) the growing trend of replacement of tenancy by self-cultivation; (2) the increasing use of artifical irrigation and fertilisers; and (3) gradual rise of cultivation by wage-labour in the employment of enterprising peasants. But this process of transformation suffers from two serious limitations: First, irrigation facilities and the supply of fertilisers are still very inadequate; and secondly, land-ownership is still concentrated into the hands of a non-cultivating class (the old intermediaries as well as new money-lenders). These two factors are mainly responsible for holding back agricultural improvement. Improvement so far recorded is only due to the fact that, during the post-independence period, a section of the peasants have been able to extend their holdings and take recourse to the capitalist mode of cultivation, that is, cultivation by employing wage-labour instead of sub-letting land to unprotected tenants, by utilising irrigation facilities and fertilisers supplied under the Plan-projects. If this improvement is very limited, it is because the agrarian measures adopted by the various State Governments have not released this process sufficiently from the restraining grip of the outmoded practices. The ceilings have been imposed in such a way that the non-cultivating and non-enterprising old land-owners are able to retain substantial holdings, while enterprising peasants continue to suffer from land-hunger.

New Alignment

Nevertheless, in the course of the last ten years, a shift has taken place in the rural class structure. The peasantry, which was more or less an undifferentiated whole, despite the traditional division into agricultural workers, crop-sharers and occupancy ryots, is now being increasingly divided into such classes as employers of labour and wage-workers. Through the process of mass eviction, thanks to the government’s agrarian measures, land-owning peasants, along with non-cultivating land-owners, have been resuming land from crop-sharers and inferior tenants for the purpose of self-cultivation, including the employment of wage labour. Even the crop-sharers are being disintegrated into wage-workers and land-owners in diverse ways. But in the race between the peasant elements and the non-cultivating land-owners for the resumption of land for self-cultivation, the latter is outstripping the former by virtue of their existing position and influence in rural society. At the same time, old semi-feudal relations are also being produced. The extent of this competition between these two elements cannot be ascertained from official data because they place all categories of land-holders under the same vague characteri-sation—”self-cultivators”. But this reality is obvious to any observer of Indian rural society today.

One conspicuous consequence of the process of disintegration of the peasantry, however weak and confused, is a change of attitude of the peasantry towards all problems connected with land and labour. Formerly, the whole of the peasantry, including agricultural labourers, had a common consciousness of the need for radical land reform because the broad class division was between rent-receiving landlords and peasants.

Today the situation has changed because the rent-receiving landlords have been drastically reduced as a class. On the question of the imposition of a ceiling on land-holdings and on the question of conferring land-ownership on crop-sharers, the land-owning peasants, rich as well as poor, take a critical view, while a favourable reception is offered by crop-sharers and agricultural labourers. On the question of eviction, the crop-sharers and inferior tenants face the combined offensive of the land-owning class as a whole, irrespective of what they are: peasants or non-peasants, rich peasants or middle peasants.

The old type of peasant unity, as demonstrated during the great share-croppers’ struggles in 1946 and the anti-eviction campaigns during 1955-1958, are today almost out of the picture. Consequently, the struggle for sectional interests of specific categories of peasants can hardly evoke all-peasant unity under existing conditions, at least on the economic plane. Therefore, the interests of the agricultural workers cannot be served except by an Agricultural Workers’ Union. An anti-eviction struggle has to face the opposition of a section of the peasants too. A campaign for granting land-ownership, or even permanent hereditary occupancy rights, to share-croppers and inferior tenants has to face opposition from even middle peasants. These struggles and campaigns have therefore to be conducted relying mainly on landless tillers. Unity of the peasantry can be achieved by appealing to their patriotic and democratic instincts, by educating them about the larger interests of the economy as a whole; but spontaneous unity of the peasantry on the economic plane is now a thing of the past.

Enter Monopolies

The biggest unifying force of the peasantry as a whole is the fight against exploitation by the monopolies. Increasing penetration of monopoly-exploitation is a recent phenomenon, thanks to India’s industrial progress along the capitalist path. In rural trade, independent middlemen are gradually being eliminated by the industrial and trading monopolies. In the course of the last twenty years, three major changes have taken place in our rural economy: First, big mill-owners have appeared as traders and stockists; secondly, independent middlemen are either replaced or converted into agents of the big stockists; and thirdly, traders and money-lenders have appeared as big land-owners. According to the report of a marketing committee, in a particular year, in a particular region, 25 per cent of the small farmers sold their stocks to independent middlemen, while 75 per cent of them sold their stocks to the agents of urban monopolies. In the same year and in the same region, the large producers sold their stocks wholly to the millers and dealers. One-third of the farmers (rich peasants and non-peasant owners) were in a position to hold the stocks in order to raise the prices artificially. These facts clearly indicate the penetration of monoploy’s tentacles in our rural economy.
The monopolies hit the working peasants broadly through the price scissors. The latter get unremu-nerative prices for their own goods and pay exhorbitant prices for everything they have to purchase. As a matter of fact, the price scissors were always operative in the past, but with the progressive elimination of free middlemen, the two blades of the scissors are moving apart.

One of the results of this development is the increasing indebtedness of the peasants, the growing volume of land transfer and further impoverish-ment of the majority of the working peasants. Certain sections of the peasants, particularly the rich ones, have been able to improve their lot by taking advantage of the government’s agrarian measures; this improvement, however, is not confined to rich peasants alone. But despite this improvement the peasantry as a whole is feeling the pinch of the price scissors.

The trio consisting of the large land-owners, money-lenders and traders linked with monopoly capital in diverse ways are gaining at the cost of the peasantry as a whole. In an official Report on the Market Arrivals of Food Grains (1958-59), a significant remark has been made which throws new light on the problems of rural economic development. In this report it has been stated (page 145) that “on the trade side therefore there has been no lack of funds or shortage of credit in the market. In fact the major complaint of most of the dealers and millers has been that their funds are lying idle.” The Report comes to the conclusion that “there was no shortage of State credit in the current year but productive credit was in short supply, particularly for small farmers.” These observations corroborate the experience that the monopolies and their agents in the rural areas are responsible for denial of adequate prices and credit to the peasantry. The tie-up between the large land-owner, the money-lender and the trader, and the tentacles of the urban monopoly octopus are the main enemies of the entire peasantry in the countryside. It is this very tie-up which constitutes the main prop of Right reaction as represented by Swatantra and communal reactionaries, as well as by certain elements inside the Congress itself.

If this tie-up is permitted to grow, the very foundation of India’s parliamentary democracy will be imperilled. It is this parasitic trio which is growing into the new agricultural capitalist. The growth of capitalist relations in Indian agriculture is taking place generally by converting the non-cultivating owners into capitalist cultivators who are apathetic to revolutionising the production techniques.

Co-op Movement

Under these conditions, the main weapon of the peasantry against the monopolies and the parasitic tie-up is the co-operative. Co-operative credit, co-operative marketing, co-operative farming and service co-operatives of various types can hurl back the offensive of the monopolies and their rural agents. Even share-croppers and agricultural workers can be organised into co-operatives for purchasing land. Through co-operatives, peasant ownership can be protected and the transfer of land to big land-owners checked. Not only the entire peasantry, but all patriotic and democratic elements can be united on this platform for the fulfilment of a common objective, namely, regeneration of the rural economy. Co-operatives for small and medium industries in order to give employment to the rural surplus population will also reduce the internal conflicts of the peasantry. The fight for the share-cropper’s right of land-ownership can be advanced only by assuring other land-owners the industrial alternative.

It is not easy for the peasant to organise co-operatives. Government resources and aids offered for the organisation of co-operatives are grabbed by the rural reactionary vested interests by depriving the working peasants. Officialdom and many of the bosses belonging to the ruling party are so linked up with these vested interests that even the initiative to organise and run a co-operative itself becomes a struggle against reaction. But in this struggle the overwhelming popular forces are on this side of the fence. A large number of Congressmen are also worried as to the means and methods for developing a co-operative economy.

The co-operative movement must of course be accompanied by a movement for vesting land-ownership in all inferior tenants of every type for the betterment of the living conditions of agricultural workers, by extension of agricultural credit, through nationalisation of banks and by State trading in agricultural goods. The organisation of a peasant movement for the realisation of these objectives in order that a mass co-operative movement can emerge with a vigorous tempo is the common task of all those who are interested in the regeneration of our rural economy.

(September 1, 1962)

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