Towards AIALA National Conference

The All India Agrarian Labourers Association (AIALA)’s founding Conference was held on 14 November 2003 at Ara, Bhojpur. Its Second National Conference is due to be held on January 30-31 at Rajahmundhry, Andhra Pradesh. In the backdrop of the Conference, we would like to trace the broad contours of the crisis in Indian Agriculture, a crisis of which agrarian labour bears the worst brunt. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act passed recently by the UPA Government is yet to be brought into effect. However, past experience of similar schemes warns us that such an Act should be taken as a spur to sharpen agrarian struggles rather than an actual ‘guarantee’ of rural employment. We carry short reports of the experience of the NREGA’s predecessor in Maharashtra , and of a recent struggle in Sitapur, UP, which can teach some lessons on how to struggle for transparency and democracy in employment guarantee programmes. We also trace the theoretical and historical underpinnings of the evolution of our Agrarian Programme.

Contours of the Deepening Agrarian Crisis

- B Sivaraman

Suicides and Starvation

Thousands of farmers’ suicides and starvation deaths of the rural poor have taken place since Manmohan took over as the Prime Minister and his government has shown utter disregard towards this continuing phenomenon. The Union Minister of State for Agriculture, Mr.Kanti Lal Bhuria himself admitted in his statement in the Rajya Sabha on May 13, 2005 that farmers’ suicides had increased to 1,529 in 2004-05 from 1,164 in 2003-04. According to Bhuria, the Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh topped the list with 758 suicides. And among other Congress-ruled states, Maharashtra witnessed 524 suicides by farmers in 2004-05 and Karnataka 708 in 2003-04. Even in Tamil Nadu there were 31 suicides by farmers in 2004-05.

Outlay for Agriculture and Allied Sectors*
in Successive Plans




(in crores)



FIRST 2378 354 14.5
SECOND 4500 501 11.3
THIRD 8577 1089 12.7
FOURTH 15779 2320 14.7
FIFTH 39426 4865 12.3
SIXTH 97500 5695 5.8
SEVENTH 180000 10525 5.9
EIGHTH 434100 22467 5.2
NINTH 859200 42462 4.9
TENTH 398890 20668 5.2
* Includes Animal Husbandry, Special Area Programme, Rural Development
and Forestry and Wild Life

The figures provided by Mr. Kanti Lal Bhuria in the Rajya Sabha were a gross underestimation. Justice Ramchanna Reddy, heading the Commission on Farmers’ Suicides in AP, after completing his investigation, stated on October 8, 2005 that 1,110 cases out of 1,715 farmers’ suicides under YS Rajasekhara Reddy regime were genuine and 1,464 suicides out of 2,861 investigated cases which occurred during the earlier regime of Chandrababu Naidu of TDP were genuine. Unofficial reports have put the toll during the Congress regime in AP at more than 2,800. In Punjab , more than 3,000 farmers have committed suicide due to indebtedness in Malwa region alone and most of them were cotton cultivators.

Despite bountiful stocks of foodgrains in FCI godowns in the country, there is a perpetual famine condition among the rural poor. Thousands of labourers, especially tribals, have died of starvation in Maharashtra in recent years. Newspaper reports put the figure at 9,000. This, despite the fact that the Maharashtra government boasts of an Employment Guarantee programme predating the NREGA by three decades. Starvation deaths are taking place on a large scale in Rajasthan ruled by the BJP’s Vasundara Raje Scindia. Starvation deaths are high in Bihar and Jharkhand also. An AIALA investigation team has brought to light 18 starvation deaths in Jehanabad district of Bihar. The government has paid no compensation to the families of the victims. There have been numerous starvation deaths in Jharkhand, especially in the Palamu-Garhwa region and Deoghar district. Without doing anything about it, the Jharkhand Chief Minister, Mr.Arjun Munda shamelessly talks of sending farmers to Israel to learn modern farming! Starvation deaths in the Left Front ruled West Bengal , especially in Amlasol, have also hit the headlines. There have been innumerable starvation deaths in the perennially drought-ridden Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. Agricultural labourers are also dying due to diseases. An AIALA-CPI(ML) investigation team revealed hundreds of deaths among tribal landless poor due to Falciparum malaria in Visakhapatnam agency area, and this is the story in many areas all over India .

Declining Public Investment

Capital formation in agriculture has declined as a percentage of total gross domestic capital from 6.8% in 1993-94 to 5.5% in 1998-99. In particular, public investment has declined. The share of agriculture and allied activities in the total Plan outlay has declined from 6.1% in the Sixth Plan to 4.9% in the Ninth Plan. Irrigation and flood control have received just 6.5% over the recent Plan periods compared to 10% in earlier Plans.

As a share of investment in agriculture, public investment has fallen from 33 per cent in 1993-94 to an estimated 24.2 per cent in 2000-01. While private investment in agriculture has increased about a third during the same period, total investment in agriculture as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 1.6 per cent in 1993-94 to an estimated 1.3 per cent in 2000-01.

Most expenditure on agriculture and rural areas is undertaken by the state governments. Since 1980, agriculture’s share in total state expenditure on economic services has declined from 30 per cent to 20 per cent, and irrigation’s share has also declined.

Disaggregating government expenditure into its current and capital accounts reveals that almost all the increase in total expenditure since 1970 has been due to growth in the current account. Capital account expenditure has remained flat since 1970 when measured in 1960/61 prices.

For India as a whole, the percentage of the cropped area that is irrigated increased from 23% in 1970 to 33% in 1988. But the increase has been only marginal in more recent years. In the last five years, the percentage of area irrigated increased by only 1%. The overall situation of the irrigation projects throughout the country, unfortunately, is pathetic.  The percentage of allocation for these projects was ranging from 0.36 to 0.40 per cent of the total plan outlay during the period 1999 to 2004.  The allocation made for 2004-05 was a meagre Rs.4,000 crore.

Drought and Floods

Drought and floods have affected several parts of the country since 2003. The rural poor, especially the agricultural labourers, are the worst hit by these disasters. The Central and various State governments granted meagre amounts as drought and flood relief. Often, there was no package for agricultural labourers in them.

Experiences of Employment Guarantee Scheme in Maharashtra

Even as Parliament was debating and passing the Employment Guarantee Act, said to be modelled on the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme, Maharashtra was being rocked by a megascam in the selfsame scheme. In Solapur, a megascam to the tune of crores of rupees was unearthed, and it was found that huge sums of money were misappropriated through fake enrolment of labourers on the muster roll, while the work itself was done by machines instead of workers. The enquiry into the scam is still far from complete, and the DM who exposed the scam has been transferred as his reward!

The Maharashtra Government constituted a Committee in 2001 to review and restructure the Scheme. This Committee submitted its report to the Government recently, in April 2005. The Government has indicated that it plans to make changes in the schemes as per the recommendations of the Committee. The changes are expected to be enacted in the Winter Session of the Maharashtra Assembly.

However, the recommendations of the Committee are aimed at nullifying the basic aim behind the scheme: providing jobs to the rural poor. The recommendations encourage contractualisation, privatisation and use of machines instead of labour.

The Committee has strongly recommended that the work under the Employment Guarantee Scheme be done through contractors. It argues that 25,000 works are still lying incomplete because labourers don’t turn up for work! The real cause for the lack of enthusiasm among workers is that wages under the Scheme are very low and are not paid on time. Yet, this is being used as a pretext to advocate contractualisation, which will only benefit the cadres of the ruling parties and locally powerful people.

- Bhimrao Bansod

The worst drought in 2002-03 in the last two decades meant a 29.5 million tons fall in foodgrain output from 211.2 million tons in 2000-01 to 181.73 million tons in 2001-02. The further fall in grain production by 29.5 million in 2002-03 has been a major setback to the farmers. Out of 1,109 mandals, 1,035 were declared as drought-hit by the AP government and the Centre gave only 5 lakh tones of rice for drought relief. Agricultural labourers did not get this rice. Under Chandrababu Naidu Government, 350 govt. officials were suspended for diverting the bulk of this rice to the private sellers.

Bihar and Assam are the worst affected states due to floods every year. The banks of many rivers in the Gangetic basin get eroded and floods engulf hundreds of villages. There is no long-term plan to tackle this menace and the proposed Disaster Management Bill of the UPA Government makes no mention of flood control in the Gangetic basin and Assam . Chidambaram allocated only a meager outlay of Rs.180 crore in his budget for 2005-06 for flood control.

In July 2004, Darbhanga, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur and Madhubani districts were severely affected by floods. Police fired on flood victims scrambling for relief on August 17, 2004 . A massive scam in flood relief was unearthed in Bihar some months ago, with the involvement of top bureaucrats and politicians of almost every hue, but there has been a stubborn refusal to order a CBI probe into it and punish the guilty.

WTO and the Indian Agriculture

What has the WTO got to do with agricultural labourers, somebody might ask. The WTO has affected only the farmers, they might say. But, as Lenin pointed out, every agrarian crisis intensifies the misery of agricultural labourers manifold times as the well-to-do farmers pass on their burden to the shoulders of agricultural labourers and intensify their exploitation, often even reviving semi-feudal forms of exploitation.

In India , the sharpest decline in farming began post-WTO, immediately after the country opened its gates to competition. The production of all the agricultural commodities has been declining. Interestingly, economists are now zeroing in on 1995-96 as the watershed year when India ’s farm success story began fizzling out. There has been a decline in the growth rates of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, cotton, sugarcane, fishery, milk and eggs after ’95-96. That was the year India signed up under the Uruguay Round.

The Vajpayee Government eliminated the quantitative restrictions (QRs) on 714 agricultural commodities and products on April 1, 2001 , fully two years ahead of the time India was required to do so by the WTO. Average tariff level was lowered to 35%, far below the bound rate fixed by the WTO, which was 100% for crops. India has, therefore, opened its market widely. Already, cheaper imports of skimmed milk powder, edible oils, sugar, tea, areca nut, apples, coconut etc. have flooded the market. Rice, milk and milk products and various other agricultural commodities are highly protected in advanced countries like Japan , the USA , European Union , Canada etc. , while in India the tariff walls are very low. For example, in Japan 700% protection is on rice and 557% on milk products; whereas India is bound by an agriculture tariff at 100 per cent for raw commodities. The latest agreement at Hong Kong has only intensified the assault on Indian agriculture.

Curtain Raiser for EGA: Agrarian Labour Struggle in Sitapur

In Sitapur district of UP, a popular movement was launched for ‘Workers’ Identity’. Agrarian labourers went on hunger strike in 37 villages covering 3 Blocks, forcing the Administration to start registration of workers. After registration, an agitation was launched on the slogan ‘Provide Jobs to every hand, ensure full wages’; as a result, Labour Identity Cards were issued to registered workers and they started getting work under the Food for Work and Sampoor Grammen Rozgar Yojana schemes. Protesting against contractors and use of machines, labourers in Bisvan gheraoed contractors, and women workers forced the ADO (Panchayat) to appear before the SDM.

In retaliation, the Administration lodged cases against AIALA leader Comrade Sunila Rawat and others on charges of taking block employees hostage. But under movemental pressure, cases were withdrawn.

This powerful movement of agrarian labourers, and the resultant availability of jobs, has checked the movement of migrant workers toward neighbouring Lucknow. Also, workers are no longer forced to work on the fields of feudals and kulaks for a meagre Rs. 30 per day. In order to break the growing unity of the workers, the Administration sent a mischievous circular to all Block HQs that workers may get work only in their own village. But when agrarian labourers again came on the streets, burning effigies of the Administration in many villages of Bisvan, Kasmanda and Sidhauli Blocks, the Administration yielded and allowed them to work in neighbouring villages.

Responding to the issue of corruption in these schemes, the Administration proposed the formation of labour cooperatives, but the workers rejected the idea, and instead proposed to form self-help groups of workers and asked the Administration to send funds to these groups. The Administration agreed, but corrupt officials of the Development Department, contractors, and people’s representatives and feudal powers with a vested interest in cheap labour, are ganging up against the workers.

This struggle for proper identity records of workers and workers’ involvement and supervision in the process of job-allotment, should be seen as a curtain raiser for the kind of struggles that the EGA will call for once it is implemented.

- Brij Bihari

Agricultural Labour Situation:

Declining Employment and Increasing Landlessness

The share of agricultural labourers in the rural workforce (including cultivators and other workers) was 24.04% in 1961 and it increased to 32.65% in 1991 or 81.2 million. It further increased to 34.2 or 102.89 million in 2001. In absolute terms, the net increase in the number of agricultural labourers in the country between 1991 and 2001 was 21,686,895. This shows faster differentiation among the peasantry and proletarianisation of the poor peasants. Census data also shows that the number of women agricultural labourers increased by a phenomenal 38.15% between 1981 and 1991. It further increased by 29.58% between 1991 and 2001.

The NSSO reveals that the 1990s saw the lowest level of employment generation since independence (less than 0.7 percent per annum in rural India ). The Census of India 2001 and the 55 th Round of the NSSO, both show a dramatic slowdown (and in some states, actual decline) of employment growth in agriculture. The decline in wage employment in agriculture has not been accompanied by increase in employment in the non-agricultural sector.

Between 1991 and 2001, the number of agricultural workers in India increased from 7.46 crores to 10.74 crores. But the average number of working days available to agricultural workers has slumped from 123 in 1981 to 100 in 1991 and to 78 in 2001. It has further come down to 72 in 2003. Agricultural and non-agricultural employment rates increased in the early 1990s, while the growth in rural wage rates slowed down. The employment rates declined again in the late 1990s.

Agricultural labourers have no fixed working hours. Even some governments have not specified working hours in their notifications of statutory minimum wages. In some part of the country, landowners exploit labourers even for 10-12 hours a day. The Chicago slogan still remains very much relevant for them.

The number of landless in the rural areas is multiplying over the past few decades at an estimated rate of 2 million every year. There has been a steep increase in landless households as a percentage of total rural households, from around 35 per cent in 1987–88 to as much as 41 per cent in 1999–2000. Andhra Pradesh has the second highest number of agricultural labourers in the country, next only to Tamil Nadu. Andhra Pradesh also accounts for the highest share of landless.

Rural non-farm employment (RNFE) has been emerging as an important source of employment to the agricultural labourers. Hence, AIALA should evolve into a broad rural labourers’ organization, organizing rural non-farm labourers also by coming up with a comprehensive programme for them. But growth rate of RNEF declined drastically during the peak neo-liberal reform years. In theory, higher wages in RNFE is supposed to push up wages for agricultural labourers. But this is not happening since the wage levels in RNFE are very low and not high compared to agriculture. Hence, RNFE acts as a ‘residual sector’ for agricultural labour surplus population. In other words, having very little employment in agriculture, the labourers take to low quality employment outside agriculture despite very low wages.

It looks like the growth in RNFE is more a male phenomenon. Due to switch over of males to RNEF, more women are taking to agricultural labour and academics call this phenomenon ‘feminisation of agricultural labour’. But for the same reasons cited above, growth of RNFE has not induced wage increase for women labourers in agriculture.

The Burning Issue of Land Reforms

Land reforms are no longer on the agenda of any government in India . Rather, reversal of land reforms is the trend in many states, including the Left-ruled ones. Industrial houses are being given exemption from ceiling laws and ceiling limits are being relaxed. 277 land reform laws have been enacted so far in the country; more than five decades after the beginning of enactment of land reform laws, even according to the National Commission on Rural Labour, only 2% of the operated area in the country had been redistributed. Ownership rights were conferred on tenants only with respect to 4.42% of the area they operated.

In 2004, the Union government informed the Parliament that out of an original estimate of surplus land of 63 million acres, the total quantum of land declared surplus in the entire country was 73.74 lakh acres, out of which only 65.11 lakh acres have been taken possession by various state governments and out of that only 53.05 lakh acres have been distributed. Thus nearly 90% of the surplus land was not acquired at all.

Land reforms have been very poorly implemented in many states and in some states like Bihar they have not been implemented at all. A recent paper presented by K.Gopal Iyer in a CPI(ML)-AIALA convention on land reforms in Hyderabad pointed out that one million acres of land can be distributed to the rural poor in Andhra Pradesh alone. Another study points out that if land reforms are implemented thoroughly one crore landless labourers can be given land in UP alone. In Tamil Nadu, the ratio of the total area of surplus land distributed to beneficiaries to the total operated area was only 0.9 per cent.

Landowners have undone land acquisition by the government and its distribution to the poor by going to courts. A huge number of cases are being ordered by the courts in favour of the declarants due to delay in filing the counters by the authorities and on account of not furnishing the required documentary evidence to the courts. The revenue administration is basically in collusion with landlords. An area of 9.09 lakh acres distributed by various governments as ceiling-surplus land has been involved in litigation in various courts.

At the root of the crisis in Indian agriculture is the skewed distribution of land among different size-classes. Unless the land is redistributed more equitably through radical land reforms the agrarian crisis cannot be overcome.

In recent years, reverse land reforms has become a trend in many states. Maharashtra , Karnataka, Gujarat , Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal have passed legislations that either raise the ceiling limits or give exemption to industrial houses. Sharad Pawar pushed the passage of the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) (Amendment) Ordinance, 1993, which increased the ceiling limit. The Maharashtra government has handed over 15,000 acres to Maxworth Orchards ( India ) Ltd. In Karnataka, a similar amendment was pioneered in 1995 by Deve Gowda. The Kerala government has initiated a move to amend the land reforms act to exempt cashew and vanilla growers from the ceiling provisions. From June 1995, the Madhya Pradesh government started giving exemptions from land-ceiling laws for contract farming. The Tenth Plan document states that prohibition on tenancy “has not really ended the practice” but “has resulted in agricultural practices that are not conducive to increased production,” and calls for a fresh look at tenancy laws.

Land alienation among tribals is a very serious problem. Tribals are also being evicted from their traditional forest lands by different state governments due to a circular from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest and at the behest of Supreme Court directives. Manmohan Singh Government is delaying passage of the Tribal Bill. Despite laws in different states banning transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals, nearly 12 lakh hectares of tribal land has been encroached by non-tribals in 11 states. Encroachment of lands allotted to dalits is very high in Gujarat also. In April 1999, the Gujarat High Court directed the Gujarat government to complete a survey of lands allotted to them and restore their lands by June 15, 2000 . But this has not yet to be done.

The movement of agrarian poor and labourers is played out against the backdrop of the agrarian crisis described above; it faces the challenge of addressing the various aspects of that crisis and struggling to transform the very face of agriculture and the agrarian countryside in India .