The crisis in agricultural sector in northern India particularly in Punjab has acquired serious proportions. Increase in prices of inputs like HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides/insecticides, diesel, farm machinery etc. and ever decreasing prices of agricultural outputs have destroyed the farmers’ community. The crisis of peasantry is more pronounced after the introduction of pro-imperialist policies of globalization, liberalization and privatizations. In all, ten thousand farmers have committed suicides in Punjab since the new economic policies started by PVN Rao regime of congress party in 1991 at the dictates of imperialist agencies like World Bank, IMF and WTO. The successive coalition governments of different parties have vigorously pursued these policies. But the effects of these pro-imperialist policies on agricultural wage labor of Punjab are yet to be assessed. This section is the worst affected section of society, but so far being non-vocal in political terms, it has not caught the attention of media and other social forces.
The Punjab economy is a classical model of imperialist particularly the US imperialist dictated capitalist development. The much trumpeted ‘green revolution’ started at the behest of the ‘Ford Foundation and ‘Rockefeller Foundation’ of the US had its roots in humiliating treaty of PL 480. Though it was said to be introduced to solve food problem of India, but its real purpose proved to be for imperialist finance capital and plunder of farmers by MNC’s/TNC’s. But this fact was not enough for success of green revolution. Other favorable factors were also at play. After partition of India, a great majority of Muslim tenant peasants got migrated to Pakistan. The lands were not only re-divided but also consolidated. The princely states were abolished. The peasants under the strong influence of the Tenant movement and Praja Mandal movement confiscated lands of ex-rajas and their feudal servants. These movements were mainly led by the Lal (Red) Party and the CPI. Panicked by the growing tide of peasant movements, the Punjab state had to pass and introduce land reform legislations. Though, many a feudal lords and their intermediaries were able to retain a major portion of land, utilizing loopholes in the land reform laws. But a large number of peasants having permanent tenancy rights also got lands. It is also true that most of the tenant farmers were evicted from lands, as they had no permanent ‘pattas’ in their favour. However, whatever the socio-economic implications of land reform laws could be, it changed the land structure of Punjab. The peasants became owner of lands. The farming community of Punjab is overwhelmingly of land proprietors.
Thus, emergene of owner peasants and liquidation of tenants led to differentiation of peasantry. The percent of agriculture labourers to the total agriculture work force has increased from 17.3 in 1961 to 40 in 2001, while the percent of agriculture workforce to total working force of Punjab has declined from 55.89 to 39 per cent during the same period. This shows that while overall population dependant on agriculture has declined considerably and ratio of agricultural wage labourers has increased tremendously.
Secondly, Punjab has plain fields and sufficient sweet ground water for irrigation. System of canals was laid at the times of Mugal Raj, which was further improved by the colonial masters to promote commercial crops. Hydropower generated at Bhakhra Nangal dam and other stations on main canal and afterwards by three thermal plants at Ropar, Bathinda and Lehra Mohabbat led to large scale digging of electric pump sets. All such factors created a favorable scenario for the introduction and success of green revolution.
On the other side, due to large-scale eviction of tenant peasants, they had no alternative than to work in the fields of big and rich farmers as wage labourers. At present, there are no landless peasants in Punjab or their number is negligible. Rather, rich and middle farmers lease in land from small farmers and employees who cannot afford farm machinery and manpower respectively. This phenomenon of reverse tenancy is peculiar feature of capitalist mode of production.
The Punjab model of agricultural development had the favorable results in the food grains production and its market supply. However, the high level of commercialization of agriculture distorted the self-sufficiency of villages and linked them with the market-oriented economy. The main objective of the paper is to examine the agrarian crisis from the perspective of agricultural labour and the role of the state in the context of Punjab economy. The study reveals that agricultural labourers of the state face a serious economic crisis as the permanent labour system has almost disappeared from the agricultural sector. The most important component of the agricultural labour household income is the hiring out of casual labour in agriculture. There is a considerable inequality in the distribution of income and consumption expenditure among agricultural labourers. Almost two-fifths of agricultural labour households live below the poverty line and about three-forth of them are highly indebted on account of borrowings from non-institutional sources, particularly landlords and village moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest. It is also found that mechanization of agricultural operations due to green revolution has reduced the work opportunities for farm workers. The plight of agricultural labour households remains precarious.
Presently, there is a serious crisis in the agrarian economy of Punjab. There is considerable decline in net returns from the principal crops. As a result, economic condition of the farming population is deteriorating at a fast rate and the number of the poor in the farming population is constantly increasing. Thus, one -fifth of the farming population of the state lives below poverty line. A large chunk of farming community is in the vicious circle of indebtedness. Due to the cotton crop failure, this problem became more serious in the cotton belt of Punjab where almost 90 per cent farming households are in severe debt trap. An abrupt rise in the number of suicide cases in Punjab is clearly an indication of sorry state of affairs of agrarian structure of the state. Those who committed suicides were mainly small farmers and agricultural labourers. Economic hardship, indebtedness, crop failure, and intoxications were the major causes behind the rural suicides in the state.
While the peasantry faces such severe crisis, one can imagine the plight of agricultural labourers in the state as major avenues of their employment (agriculture) got squeezed. After cultivators, agricultural labour is the largest rural worker category accounting for 30.5 per cent of total rural workers, slightly lower than that for India as a whole (31.8 per cent). Agricultural labour accounts for as much as 88.4 per cent of the total rural labour in the state, with the rest being mainly brick kiln workers (10.8 per cent). Further, about 25 per cent of the agricultural labour is migrant, and sixty six per cent are casual. Major reasons behind casualisation of farm labour in the state have been mechanization of major farm operations, inflow of migrant labour, slow down of agricultural growth, and non-viability of small and marginal holdings.
The use of tractors and harvester combines has displaced farm labour on a large scale, especially women and unskilled workers. The demand for human labour in the farm sector in Punjab has decreased significantly since the late 1980s. On the basis of per hectare labour use in the crop sector, demand for human labour in the state is estimated to have fallen from 479.3 million man days in 1983-84 to 421.93 million man days in 2000-01.
In Punjab, an average agricultural labour household earns about Rs. 21344 per annum from all sources. The main source of their income is hiring out casual labour in agriculture. On an average, about 51per cent of the total income is exclusively earned from this source. The second important source of income is the hiring out permanent labour in agriculture; about 23 per cent income is earned from this source. Income from hiring out labour in non-agricultural sector comes third having about 10 per cent shares in total income of the agricultural labourers. During the lean period in agriculture, they hire out their labour mainly for construction work in nearby cities and towns. They also earn 7.2 per cent of their income from non-agricultural enterprises like vending and petty shop keeping. Salaries and pensions account for 1.80 per cent indicating that agricultural labourers are under great constraints of job market. A few are working as a sweepers or part–time chowkidars/watchmen.
In brief, the most important source of livelihood of agricultural labourers, is the hiring out of labour power in agricultural sector, either as casual or permanent. Next important source of income of agricultural labourers are hiring out labour in non-agriculture sector, dairying, and non-agricultural enterprises. Other sources of income have marginal share in the total income of agricultural labour households in Punjab. There are considerable inequalities in the distribution of consumption among agricultural labourers in rural Punjab. All those people who live below this minimum desirable level of living are said to be living below the poverty line. About 72 per cent of agricultural labourers are under debt. They take about 86 per cent of the loans from non-institutional sources, out of which major part is from landlords and village moneylenders who charge exorbitant rate of interest. The extent of outstanding loan is observed to be considerably high in the case of those agricultural labour households, who used the loan for unproductive purposes. Thus, they are still in the clutches of landlords, and village moneylenders.
Punjab was in the forefront in the adoption of new agriculture technology due to well-established canal water system and large reservoir of sweet ground water floating under the surface. The modernization of Punjab agriculture also resulted in large increase in the use of current as well as capital inputs. Thus, Punjab accounts for more than 25 per cent of capital formation in agriculture alone in India, while its area is merely about 1.5 per cent. No doubt, this technology has increased the production and productivity of the crops and consequently improved the income and consumption of the farmers, though in different degrees. But, the employment opportunities of agricultural wage labour has got squeezed due to over mechanization. The permanent type of labour generally for one year in the rural sector of the state has decreased significantly.
The state has no agenda to mitigate the problems of landless labourers who were displaced with the mechanization of agriculture. The non-farm sector, which was the possible solution for providing gainful employment to displaced labour, has not been developed. Further, accidents due to threshers, electric motors, and digging/deepening of the wells are additional costs for labour for which there is no compensation. There are also issues of pesticide spray effect on agricultural labour as there is no training for use of these chemicals. There are reports of cancer in the cotton belt due to heavy use of pesticides where agricultural labourers are the main sufferers as these labourers perform most of the chemical spray work. The Panchayats have started selling or leasing out the common grazing lands which has meant that there is no place for members of labour households to even answer call of nature and for small ruminant grazing. These people are indebted mainly on account of borrowings from non-institutional sources, particularly village moneylenders who charge exorbitant rate of interest.
It can be seen from above description that Punjab agricultural economy is predominantly capitalist, but this capitalism is not a product of sharpening of inner contradictions i.e. contradiction between growing productive forces and backward productive relations in the feudal setup. It is distorted and lopsided and could not establish organic link with the industry. Therefore, it has failed to augment industrial development. It has occurred through the mechanism of imperialist finance capital. The agricultural population rendered surplus from farms has not been absorbed in the industry. Some other factors are also at play for non-absorption of surplus farm labour of Punjab in the industry. We would like to elaborate these factors in following lines: –
1. Initial period of large-scale commodity production generated substantial surplus value that not only improved the living standard of farmers, but also created and awaken aspiration of farm wage labour. Coupled with social and political awareness, they began to assert their economic and democratic rights. A middle class in the Dalit section of society, using reservation facilities emerged on the scene, from amongst the farm labour. It should be noted that overwhelming majority of farm labour belongs to Dalit communities. Therefore, living standard of farm labour in Punjab, had considerably improved.
2. A good number of socio-religious reform movements’ especially Sikh movements made severe blows from time to time on Brahmanical Hindu caste system. Consequently, social oppression based on caste system is not as humiliating as can be seen in other parts of the country. Hence, substantial part of surplus farm labour has been able to change patriarchal occupations and engaged itself in those occupations like barbers, tailors, masons, Sikh religious preachers, auto-mechanics, truck-bus drivers, small venders, shopkeepers, TV-radio mechanics, rickshaw-pullers etc. In all, sixty percent of rural agricultural wage labourers are engaged in petty jobs falling under the service sector.
3. The industry developed in Punjab is mainly of small-scale enterprises that cannot provide remunerative wages to the workers of Punjab. To say precisely, the amounts of factory wages are insufficient to cope with the living standard even of rural workers, rendered surplus from agriculture. A great number of migratory labour (at present numbering about 37 lakhs i.e. 40.21 per cent of total work force of Punjab) from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is working in Punjab on permanent and casual basis. They have unwillingly depressed the wages of industrial as well as farm workers.
4. Conditions of a tiny part (5 per cent) of agricultural wageworkers, working as attached labour (worker engaged on annual basis) are really disgusting. This section is caught neck-deep in the debt from the money-lenders/rich farmers. The amount of loan has become beyond return. This type of workers resemble to bonded labourers in other parts of the land. It has been noticed in the recent years, besides local labour, migrant workers are also dragged in this trap.
The recent onslaught of imperialist finance capital has wrought havoc on rural economy of Punjab. The worst affected section of society is rural and agricultural labourers. This already vulnerable class has pushed into unbearable poverty and impoverishment. The womenfolk are worst hit. As per some unofficial reports, a large number of women of rural poor are being pushed into the flesh trade, as their spouses are unable to find even petty jobs.
Privatization of health and education institutions has deprived this section of barest social security that was available to them prior of WTO regime. Not to talk of reservation in government services, this class has increasingly been unable to send its wards to elementary schools. Again girl children are severely hit, as their parents cannot afford their educational expenses. Dropout rate is the maximum among the poor families’ students.
The ruling classes and their parliamentary representatives of all hues have failed to ameliorate the plight of agricultural labour of Punjab. Instead the ruling elites and their political parties are being isolated among the rural poor. The revolutionary and democratic forces, though still weak in Punjab, are trying to organize, mobilize and lead them in struggles. The rural poor are awakening and they have already started coming on to the streets to raise their voices in support of their demands. They are realizing ill effects of so-called new economic policies being implemented at the dictates of WTO like imperialist sponsored institutions. That time shall definitely come when agricultural labourers of Punjab shall be part of a united resistance struggle, for some democratic forces all are striving to build up.