Agrarian Crisis and Agrarian Struggles

1. A serious crisis has broken out in the field of Indian agriculture. The crisis is most glaringly manifested in the growing incidence of starvation deaths and farmers’ suicides. While the largest number of starvation deaths are still routinely reported from the backward regions of the country, especially in Orissa; the trend of suicides generally prompted by heavy indebtedness, crop failure, or inability to find a market for the produce, is noticed even among well-to-do farmers in the agriculturally developed areas of Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The crisis has also led to a new phase of agrarian unrest. Peasants and farmers have strongly opposed the WTO, growing penetration of giant agribusiness firms and attempts to corporatise agriculture. Once again powerful farmers’ movements are being witnessed in the green revolution areas, Punjab and Haryana in particular. But the original exponent of farmers’movement in the country, Mr. Sharad Joshi, now stands on the wrong side of the fence. This erstwhile World Bank official-turned-farmer leader today advises the NDA government on matters of agricultural policy while the farmers are braving lathis and bullets on the streets.

2. While the WTO agreements and the thoroughly unequal competition with heavily subsidised big corporate farmers from the western countries have aggravated the present crisis situation, the root of it lies in the accumulated anomalies of the landlord path of capitalist development in Indian agriculture. For the overwhelming majority of poor and lower-middle peasants, the landlord path pursued in India under the slogan of green revolution has largely reinforced conditions of semi-bondage and extreme hardship. Of course, there were dramatic results initially in the late 1960s and all through the 1970s with foodgrains production recording major increases.

The green revolution thus helped in tiding over an alarming situation of extreme food scarcity and dependence on external aid, and part of the gains of this productivity also percolated to sections of the upper-middle peasantry. But its further spread to relatively backward areas was constrained from the beginning by serious infrastructural problems. With declining public investment in agriculture and rising prices of all key inputs, green revolution soon reached a point of saturation even in its initial strongholds. The farmers’movement in the 1980s with its loud demand for remunerative prices and cheaper inputs reflected this brewing crisis.

3. Against this backdrop, bourgeois ideologues within the farmers’ movement started demanding liberalisation of agricultural trade and reversal of land reforms. Sections of big farmers started dreaming about exporting to the world market and securing super-remunerative prices. This was akin to the corporate clamour for freedom from ‘licence-permit-quota raj’. But whether it be the would-be ‘Indian’ MNCs or the Indian big farmers eyeing their share in the world market, it did not take long for the dream to turn sour. And then just as the corporate sector started demanding a ‘level-playing field’ even while it was forging closer ties of collaboration with the MNCs, big farmers came up with the demand for insulation from the WTO even as they too were developing a nexus with agribusiness corporations. Just as the working class has to see through the corporate clamour for level-playing fields, so must agricultural labourers, poor peasants and their small farmer allies see through the rich farmers’ ‘crusade’ against the WTO.

4. The official explanation of the present crisis veers around the hypothesis of overproduction. Instead of expanding the system of public procurement and distribution, the government wants to privatise the foodgrains trade and run a truncated distribution system in the name of better targeting. Farmers unable to sell their crops at the minimum support prices announced by the government are therefore being advised to go in for crop diversification and switch over to cash crops. This indiscriminate diversification is bound to pose a serious threat to food security. Figures of per capita availability of foodgrains already show a stagnating and even declining trend.

The new agricultural policy reflects the official response to the growing crisis of the landlord path of capitalist development. Reversal of land reforms, corporatisation of agriculture, contract farming, crop diversification, expansion of food-processing industry etc. constitute the main components of this new policy while dismantling of the official procurement and public distribution system and privatisation of agricultural trade constitute the other side of the coin.

Just as a practical consensus has evolved among almost all bourgeois parties, national and regional, over the new economic and industrial policies, with even the CPI(M)-led state governments complying with it, a similar agreement has also begun to crystalise around the new agricultural policy. And if anybody needed further proof of this emerging consensus, it is supplied, once again, by the Left Front government of West Bengal which has commissioned the American consultancy firm Mckinsey to formulate a policy blueprint for what the CPI(M) calls ‘consolidation of the Left Front’s gains in the field of agriculture’.

5. Barring small sections of big farmers the current agrarian crisis has adversely affected various sections of the agricultural population. The demand for remunerative prices has now been pushed back to the demand for minimum support price and guranteed procurement, or in other words, freedom from distress sale. Similarly, in the case of agricultural labour, the demand for assured employment has become one of the major demands even as wages often remain depressed way below the officially proclaimed minimum level. But with their relative economic power and much greater political clout, the rural rich, the kulaks and well-to-do farmers always try to transfer the burden of the entire crisis on to the rural poor. It is the latter who are being forced to make the greatest sacrifice and to surrender whatever gains they had achieved through years of struggle.

One look at the picture emerging from Left-ruled West Bengal will indicate the extent of the growing burden of the accumulating agrarian crisis on the rural poor. We are singling out the case of West Bengal precisely because it is one state which boasts of the best record of land reforms and it is in rural Bengal that the longest serving Left-led state government of India is known to be most deeply entrenched. According to a recent status report released by the Land Reforms department of the Government of West Bengal, over 13% pattadars (who had been allotted land under the land reforms act) have been dispossessed and among the recorded sharecroppers 3.02% have been evicted from their barga land. If this is the officially declared trend in Left-ruled West Bengal¸ the conditions in Congress and BJP-ruled states or for that matter in Laloo Yadav’s Bihar and Mayawati’s UP are not difficult to imagine.

6. This changing agrarian scenario has once again sharpened the debate between the reformist and revolutionary agrarian programmes, in practice as well as in theory. The reformist line calls for broad peasant unity which is nothing but a euphemism for abject appeasement and unchallenged domination of the kulak lobby. And the interests and struggles of the rural poor are sacrificed at the altar of this undifferentiated peasant unity. It is to this end that in its updated party programme, the CPI(M) has watered down the land redistribution clause by deleting the provision that land for redistribution would be seized without payment of any compensation.

In practice the CPI(M)-led Kisan Sabha in West Bengal is now in many cases already brokering land deals and that too on behalf of the kulaks. In spite of resolutions to organise agricultural labourers as a class force, in West Bengal the party is still hesitant to make any beginning in this direction. The party’s West Bengal State Conference held in February this year confessed that wage struggles of agricultural labourers were being increasingly neglected by most district units of the party and that the wage question was completely at the mercy of market forces.

In sharp contrast to this pro-kulak collaborationist approach, the revolutionary approach takes up the task of mobilising the rural poor and defending their interests. Organising agricultural labour and other rural labour as an independent class force – the rural proletariat – and protecting the specific interests of marginal and small farmers in the face of a deepening agrarian crisis remain, are our highest priorities. Instead of watering down the concept of radical land reforms, we must in practice intensify the struggle for implementation of land reform laws while raising the demand for lowering of the land ceiling so as to make more land available for redistribution. Even in a state like West Bengal, the total area of redistributed ceiling-surplus land amounts to a mere 8% of the total cultivable land in the state.

Our agarian programme attaches a lot of importance to the issues and demands of the middle peasants and our class line calls for a close alliance with middle peasants. In practice, however, our reach within the middle peasantry remains quite limited. Given the intensity of caste-class divide in many parts of rural India, especialy in states like Bihar and UP, and the rise of kulak-based regional parties, it has been difficult for the party of the proletariat with its strong identification with the rural proletariat to make inroads among the middle peasantry. The present situation of agrarian crisis marks a major opportunity for us to boldly address the issues of the middle peasantry without in any way diluting our primary commitment to the rural proletariat.

7. It is against this backdrop that we have to review our ongoing agrarian struggles and decide our future course of action. Recent times have witnessed a surge in agrarian struggles not only in our traditional stronghold of Bihar, but also in pockets of UP, Andhra, Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Punjab. While land, tenancy, wages and employment remain the basic and most common issues of agrarian struggles, we also find many powerful initiatives on issues like privatisation of electricity, increased electricity rates, debt relief, procurement of food grains and various aspects of rural development and functioning of the panchayat system.

In Bihar, West Champaran district, which borders Nepal and Uttar Pradesh, has emerged as the latest stormcentre of land struggles. This district still has a very high incidence of well entrenched landlordism. Estates controlling thousands of acres of land are still quite common. Electoral politics in the district is directly dominated by these large estates and apart from having their own armed henchmen they also enjoy the loyalty of the local police. There is also the case of two MLAs who jointly own one estate (Vilaspur), one MLA elected on a Congress ticket serves as a minister in the Rabri Devi cabinet while the other MLA elected under the banner of the BJP sits in the ‘opposition’! The agricultural labourers’ association (khet mazdoor sabha) in the district has successfully redistributed 400 acres of land in Gaunaha block among 600 agricultural labourers. In Mainatand block, 300 acres of land belonging to one Markandeya Pandey of UP has been captured. The district administration is trying to suppress these struggles by unleashing barbaric police repression, but the masses are offering determined resistance.

In East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, fierce land struggles are going on centring around more than 80 acres of ceiling-surplus and bhudan land in Peddasankarlapudi village located about 50 km away from Kakinada. The landlords, closely aligned with different TDP MLAs in the district have hired the services of a local mafia outfit operating under the banner of a Janshakti faction. In this district more than 3,000 acres of land have been captured and distributed during the last two decades.

In Rayagada district of Orissa, intense land struggle is going on in Padampur and Ramanaguda blocks. In addition to 75 acres of land captured and cultivated since last year, another 60 acres of ceiling surplus land has been rescued from the illegal occupation of landlords well-connected to both the Congress and BJP. On several occasions, hundreds of tribal people have gheraoed the block office, police station and even court and jail. The Party secretary of Rayagada district unit has been booked under several false cases and is currently in jail. Peasant struggle is also gathering memoentum in Kalahandi district.

In North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, poor peasants and agricultural labourers belonging to various SC-ST communities wrested 82 bighas of vested land in Raiganj block from illegal control of local CPI(M) bigwigs. Hundreds of peasants led by our party and the peasant association had sucessfully repulsed the CPI(M)’s initial attacks to regain control over the land. Lately, the district administration has unleashed police repression and several activists, including a newly elected member of the Party’s West Bengal State Committee have been booked under false cases.

In Uttar Pradesh, land struggle has acquired fresh momentum in Lakhimpur district. More than 100 displaced families of trans-Sharda area have been successfully rehabilitated in 300 acres of fallow land lying with the forest department. The new settlement, known as Kranti Nagar, has always been actively involved in Party-led political struggles and mobilisations. Defending the settlement against constant attacks by the local land mafia-police-criminal nexus remains a major challenge. So far the rehabilitated families have been succesful in retaining their control and beating back the enemy nexus. In the eastern region of UP, the Bairaath farm comprising 1,000 bighas of land illegally held by the ‘Raja of Banaras’ in Chakia tehshil of the newly created Chandouli district has been the focal point of land struggles. The Raja had however fraudulently managed to secure a stay order from the High Court to prevent the state government from acquiring this land. The struggle initiated by the local CPI(M) unit had also ended in an abject betrayal in 1998 with the CPI(M) reaching a black agreement with the Raja under the mediation of the tehsil administration. Under this agreement, the CPI(M) gave up its claim over half of the land and the remaining half was given personally to a local leader of the party on condition that he would get it cultivated by labourers and deposit 40% of the produce in the government treasury. Our party district committee rejected this agreement. There was tremendous resentment among the people against this agreement and, with the balance of social forces gradually tilting in our favour, the land in the Raja’s possession was captured in 2000-01 under the banner of the Poorvanchal Kisan Sabha. The Party also called upon those cultivating the portion of land under the CPI(M)’s control to stop surrendering 40% crop to the UP Government and instead insist on getting patta for the land being cultivated. However, we failed to consolidate the local Party organisation and in June this year the Raja’s henchmen mobilised criminals and their allies and recaptured the land that peasants in our party had taken possession of. They also captured around 100 bighas of land under the CPI(M)’s control, and now their intention is to capture the entire 1000 bighas of the farm. We are preparing our forces for the next round of battle to foil the Raja’s game plan.

8. The Sixth Party Congress had emphasised the task of organising agricultural labourers as an independent class force. In fact, agricultural labourers’ struggles and organisations had already started coming up in different pockets of our rural work. However, it was only during the Strengthen the Party Campaign conducted between April and October 2000 that the task was really taken up in a serious way. More than 3,00,000 members were recruited in Bihar during this campaign. State level organisations have since been built in Bihar and West Bengal while district and regional level organisations are functioning in UP, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh.

In most of our areas of work, we witness spontaneous short-lived and localised struggles of agricultural labourers during busy seasons to clinch a wage hike or secure job guarantees in the face of increased mechanisation. Of late, conscious attempts to organise struggles of agricultural labourers on a whole set of issues ranging from land, wages, employment, and social dignity to housing and other basic amenities of life and various schemes of rural development, have also increased. In Bihar and West Bengal, state-level strike actions preceded by extensive mass awareness campaigns have been organised with a view to popularising basic class demands and raising the level of class-consciousness.

In Bihar, the agricultural labourers’ strike held on 22 July was implemented in nearly 2000 villages and demonstrations were held in 134 blocks. Some 70,000 agricultural labourers joined this class action all over the state to demand implementation of the minimum wages act, enactment of welfare legislation at central and state levels, CBI inquiry into the PDS (public distribution system) scam in Bihar and mandatory inclusion of all families with an annual income of less than Rs. 20,000 in the BPL (below poverty line) list. Earlier, a major campaign was conducted in the state on the issue of PDS scam demanding removal of the civil supplies minister and unconditional release of all arrested activists. Block level people’s courts were organised in 116 blocks in 20 districts in which nearly 75,000 agricultural labourers and red card holders (those who are legally entitled to subsidised supply of essential provisions but who, in reality, are often denied this while the rich and influential corner all these facilities).

The question of equal wages for men and women is also being taken up in many states. In August 2000, in about 45 villages of Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts of Tamil Nadu, women agricultural workers led by the Tamizhaga Vivasaya Thozhilar Sangam (Tamil Nadu Agricultural Labourers’ Union) struck work for days together to demand the legally stipulated minimum and equal wages. Though the strike succeeded in winning only a partial victory, the message spread far and wide and generated tremendous enthusiasm among women agricultural workers.

9. Peasant organisations led by the Party have also been quite active in organising peasant resistance against hikes in input prices, mounting debt burden and distress sale of food grains. In Mansa and Bhathinda districts of Punjab, our peasant comrades waged a militant struggle under the banner of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta) on these issues. They fought successfully for cancellation of debts to the tune of millions of rupees and blocked the railways for days to force the Akali Dal government to purchase the crop at an increased minimum support price. In Rajasthan, tens of thousands of farmers marched to the State Assembly in Jaipur to oppose the privatisation of the state electricity board and hike in power tariff. The Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan carried out a sustained and vigorous campaign on this issue. In Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh, the Kisan Sabha forced the local administration to open separate purchase centres to procure the crop from small and marginal farmers.

To develop the Party’s initiative on the agrarian front and give an all-India thrust to our intervention in the new thrust of peasant movements, the Party reorganised the erstwhile coordination of peasant associations as an All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti. The AIKSS organised a peasant conference at Faizabad in UP against the new agricultural policy in March 2001. This was followed by a ‘lutera bhagao, krishi bachao’ (‘stop the plunder, save agriculture’) campaign in the course of which mass signatures were collected on a ‘freedom charter’ against the WTO. In September an impressive ‘freedom from debt’ conference was held at Mansa in Punjab and finally on November 9 an immense anti-WTO rally was held in Delhi to protest the launch of a new trade round at the Doha summit of WTO. This all-India initiative can however only be sustained if peasant associations in different states function properly. Occasional all-India campaigns are no substitute for vibrant local initiatives round the year. Striking a proper balance between national coordination and all-India campaigns and decentralised initiative and local agitations remains crucial for ensuring real all-round growth of our peasant organisations.

Now that we have launched a separate organisation for agricultural labourers, we are faced with the challenge of maintaining the separate identity of both agricultural labour and peasant organisations and yet combining the initiatives of the two organisations to raise the level of the overall movement. We should gradually move towards building an all-India organisation for agricultural labourers. With growing inter-state migration and the rise of common class demands including that of a comprehensive central legislation, elements of class-consciousness are growing among agricultural labourers and an all-India organisation with periodic national campaigns can accelerate and consolidate this process. In some areas where our work is concentrated primarily among either agricultural labourers or middle peasants, it is not necessary to rush immediately to form two separate organisations. In real life, agricultural labour and poor peasants are often indistinguishable and so a certain degree of overlapping between the agricultural labour organisation and the peasant association may be unavoidable. Any attempt to make a hard and fast distinction is liable to create a mechanical division and inhibit our overall initiative. Agricultural labour organisations may also be registered as trade unions and affiliated to our central trade union organisation. But this must be understood as a purely technical arrangement, agricultural labour organisations must not be confined to any narrow framework of trade union legalities or trade union mode of functioning.

10. The Agrarian Programme adopted in the Party’s Third Congress (1982) and the Policy Resolutions on Agrarian Question adopted in the Varanasi Congress (1997) have already clarified the Party’s position on the essential question of developing the proletarian agrarian strategy in opposition to the bourgeois strategy of reformed landlordism. Many issues may come to the foreground in the course of the movement and every issue that concerns the broad masses of agricultural labour, poor and middle peasantry is a legitimate issue of our peasant movement. Of course, we must learn to relate specific issues to the overall agrarian programme and take a dynamic view of the developing situation. Just as the ongoing reversal of old government policies relating to agriculture in the present context of market liberalisation do not amount to a negation of the essential strategy of landlord path of capitalist development, we must also develop our response to the changing agrarian scene on the basis of our agrarian programme.

Periodic investigation and systematic study of the situation is central to a Marxist understanding of agrarian relations. And in the absence of a solid Marxist approach, things will be left to spontaneity and our response will remain ad-hoc and empiricist. In this regard we need to lay special emphasis on a Marxist study of the agrarian conditions in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, because the dominant discourse in this region is obsessed with caste, crime and communal violence to the utter neglect of the underlying agrarian reality. In the academic arena too, peasant studies have gone out of fashion. If the spotlight of official research is at all focused on the rural poor, it is either in the framework of devolution and decentralisation of power as opposed to any radical social and political transformation, or as obscure cultural identities that apparently ‘celebrate’ economic exploitation or social oppression as a different lifestyle.

11. A complaint is often heard these days that many people who have benefited from land struggles are becoming passive. Their involvement in various struggles and political mobilisations is on the wane. In some cases, we even come across situations where some people have developed unhealthy vested interests and creating factional divisions among the masses on the question of control over land and other resources the people have won through bitter struggles and great sacrifices. Such a negative turn in the situation is generally sought to be rationalised by referring to the change in the class position of these persons.

This is just a case of barking up the wrong tree. A landless peasant gaining a plot of land may at best turn into a poor or lower-middle peasant but that by no means automatically renders him passive, corrodes his class outlook and weakens his spirit as an activist. This passivity is nothing but an expression of economism which in turn breeds all kinds of bureaucratic or anarchist distortions. Just as a ‘pure’ economic struggle or the general framework of trade union movement can never break the barriers of bourgeois consciousness, no amount of militant land struggle can, on its own, guarantee a durable revolutionary consciousness or spirit. The gains of any economic struggle are bound to turn counter-productive after a point unless such gains are politically consolidated under the conscious leadership of the Party. Winning and enforcing the people’s right to basic natural resources like land, water and forest is a fundamental question of people’s democracy. We must not allow any laxity in matters of formulation and enforcement of proper policies of land redistribution and collective democratic management of all resources under the Party’s close guidance.

12. Our experience shows that agrarian struggles everywhere are confronted with systematic state repression and organised feudal-kulak violence. In the concrete conditions of Bihar where the caste-class division is very rigid and feudal remnants are particularly stubborn, this feudal-kulak violence often takes the shape of private armies perpetrating brutal massacres. In contrast to the liberal viewpoint that tries to explain away this phenomenon as nothing but caste war, we must grasp the underlying content of intense class antagonism that displays features of fascist violence. A private army like the Ranvir Sena, for example, stands out not only for its much larger scale of operation compared to other groups of henchmen and hirelings but also for its strong anti-poor, anti-communist ideological content and intricate political-operational nexus with the state.

The pattern of violence becomes further complicated with the entry of militant anarchist outfits. In areas where the revolutionary movement is not strong, the anarchists appear to be operating ‘independently’ against the state and powerful local interests, but since they are devoid of any political perspective and any vision of real proletarian independence, they invariably end up serving the political interests of the ruling classes. In almost all our major areas of struggle, we are faced with a serious anarchist nuisance. Operating at the behest of bourgeois parties and often in tandem with private armies and criminal gangs, anarchist outfits are bent upon disrupting the movement by killing our leaders and activists and even large-scale massacres of our supporters.

Combating and defeating this violence is an all important agenda of agrarian struggles. There is no doubt that this violence is intended to crush and derail the agrarian struggles and trap us in a war of attrition. But it is also equally true that we cannot wish it away and we cannot imagine a smooth and peaceful development of agrarian struggles. In the Varanasi Congress we had rightly emphasised the twin tasks of delivering a decisive blow to the private armies and criminal gangs that are trying to block the progress of our peasant movement and keeping up the momentum of the movement even in situations where the entire local organisation is preoccupied with the agenda of resisting the enemy’s violence. We must stick to the policy of developing mass resistance as an integral part of agrarian struggles so as to deliver a decisive and comprehensive blow to the perpetrators of feudal-kulak violence.

The present juncture of acute agrarian crisis makes this challenge all the more critical. The self-styled champions of the beleaguered peasantry who have all along accused us of pitting agricultural labour against peasants are getting increasingly exposed. The social support of the private armies has started thinning out. The growing internal crisis of the Ranvir Sena, which led to the recent surrender of the infamous Sena chief, has to be seen in this context. We must strike while the iron is hot. A renewed all-out emphasis on agrarian struggles in all its dimensions is the need of the hour.