I. Neo-liberalism and the Republic of Hunger
India has now gone through some seventeen years of a neo-liberal prescription. Its results are there for us to see. If India has produced some 39 new dollar billionaires on the one hand, it has seen the increase of those unable to meet the 2200 calorie intake from 56.4% in 1973-74(the then poverty line for consumption) to 58.5% in 1993-94 and to 69.5% in 2004-05 of the rural population of the country. The All India figures for urban India in the same period were: 57% in 1993-94 to 64.5% in 2004-05. It is evident then that a handful became richer at the cost of impoverishing the rest. In fact in 2004-05, nearly 84 crore people lived on an expenditure of Rs.20 per person per day, of whom some 24 crore lived on less than Rs. 9 per person per day.
How did the government show decline in its figures of poverty? It simply brought down the definition of those living in poverty from 2200 calories to 1800 or less. In other words, the decline of the percentage below the poverty line was a statistical fraud. There are other figures that support our contention. While the necessary minimum availability of food grains is 478 gms in per person per day, the figure in 1998 was 450.9 gms in 1998, and some 428 gms in 2004-05, a reduction of 50 gms. per person per day. The figures for lentils are similar. The government tried to hide this fact by saying people had diversified their diet, drinking more milk and eating more meat and grain. But if that were so, the amount of grain required would be considerably more to produce a lesser weight of meat and milk. The figures of the steadily increasing stocks of unsold grain with the Public Distribution System are proof of the fact that this is yet another fraud on the people by the votaries of neo-liberalism.
The state of employment also reflects the same reality. Not only has the growth of employment come down from 3.21% from 1980-1990 to 1.01% in 1990-2000, but the percentage of unemployment rose from 6.3% to 7.32%. And it has since increased to 8.3%. The wage situation is worse. In 1989, profits were 19.07% of value added and wages no less than 50.78% but in 2005, profits had increased to 55.64% and wage fell to only 32.37%. In the last three years profits have increased two and a half times while wages have gone down by a third. This is the state of affairs of the organized sector. Those in the unorganized sector are much worse off. If we take the agricultural labourers, the days or work available to them have come down from 100 a year in 1990 to 70 in 2000 and possibly only 38 in Punjab today. Surely this does not reflect their prosperity in the absence of alternative employment. True, some alternative employment is emerging in the form of work in brick kilns and at construction sites, but it can hardly be said to be a replacement for the days lost in agricultural work.
The farmers are, if anything, worse off. Every year, for over a decade now, 33 lakh farmers are forced to sell their land and enter the ranks of the landless. State after state, not excluding Punjab, has reported farmers’ suicides. The figure of suicides in the whole country from 1997-2007 is no less than 1, 66,304. Of these 78,737 committed suicide between 1997-2001, but the figure increased to 87, 567 in 2001-2006, reflecting these are a growing phenomenon.
The causes are not difficult to identify. This tragic state of affairs began in 1991 when Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister cut back on fertilizer subsidy and on development expenditure so sharply that the per capita GDP came down in a year and we saw the first suicides of farmers. In the same period, the issue prices of grain from the PDS were doubled, so that by 1995 there were 320 lakh tones of foodgrains lying unsold with the government.
Worse, in 1994, following the redefinition of the priority sector for loans by the M.Narasimhan committee report on financial liberalization, the earlier policy of 1969 treating agriculture and small scale industry as a priority sector was given up adding a personal financial crunch to the collective one, with rural development expenditures coming down from 4% of the Net National Product in the seventh plan period to 2.6% now. We were told if the government left the space vacant, private players would step in. They did not. The United Front government with Chidambaram as Finance Minister further compounded the distress of the rural poor by creating Above and Below poverty line categories of the PDS. The BPL virtually excluded all but those who could not buy from the system, while the APL prices were raised so much that they often were the same or more than the market price. Further, between 1996 and 2001, the NDA intensified the attack on farmers by doing away with Quantitative Restrictions on the import of most agricultural products over four years before it was required by WTO, leading to a fall in the price of cotton, foodgrains, jute, sugar tea and coffee fell between 40% -60% ruining farmers all over the country and suicides were reported from not only Karnataka, but Kerala, Andhra and Punjab as well. The stock of food rotting in the government’s godowns rose to 640 lakh tones and was eventually sold as pig feed to the USA and Europe at half the price it was being sold to Indians by the Atal Behari government. The work begun by Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram as finance ministers was completed by Yashwant Sinha with devastating effect.
The UPA government, with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, P.Chidambaram as Finance Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, was expected to see the World Trade Organisation policies implemented to the hilt. Indeed, it has, if one looks at the cut backs on funds for rural development schemes and failure to spend an adequate amount, as noted in the Standing Committee Report submitted to Parliament. But the restraint of being a minority government with Left support under a Common Minimum Programme that enjoined secularism, legislation like Employment Guarantee, Womens Reservations, the welfare of Agricultural Labour and unorganized workers, restraint on privatizing PSUs, spending 6% of the GDP on education, protection of the PDS, no reduction of EPF rates, land reforms, forest rights, the Right to Information Act and an independent foreign policy, among other provisions prevented this trio from going full steam ahead with policies that would make our foreign policy subservient to USA, sign the Doha agreement and push the final nail into the coffin of India’s agriculture dominated by petty producers, giving the go ahead with vast takeovers of land for SEZ’s with tax holidays for the rich and no protection for the workers, outright sales of Public Sector Units and the destruction of the PDS.
The Manmohan Singh government has gone along expected lines. But it has been prevented from doing the worst. It has had to beat a retreat on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Doha round discussions too are likely to come to a dead end. The attempt at the creeping privatization of BHEL and the sale of NALCO and NLC were stopped. This was a major victory. The foreign entry into the Insurance sector, retail trade and banking was stalled. The use of EPF funds for private investment was partially stalled. The complete dismantling of the APL category of the public distribution has been prevented. The Minimum Support Price for wheat and rice has been raised. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Information Act, the Tribal and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, have all been passed, while the pernicious Seed Act that would have ended farmers right to experiment and develop their own seed, has been stalled as have anti-worker changes in labour laws and new amendments have been made to the patent law to allow cheap life-saving drugs to the produced. Funds for education, health and credit to farmers have been increased and 71,000 crore worth of debts of farmers have been waived.
But this must not make us complacent. Many of these exercises are “wait and see” delaying tactics or mere eye-wash. The farmers’ loan waiver is only an account book exercise that allows the state to pay banks interest on what may well have been bad debts and gives the farmers nothing. That is why farmers continue to kill themselves even in Vidharba despite the Prime Minister’s package. On the other hand, the steps taken by the LDF government of Kerala in bringing relief directly to the farmers have put an end to the spate of suicides there. The funds given for the NREGA are so inadequate as to make it ineffective. The framing of the Rules of the Forest Rights Act has been excessively slow so as to permit evictions. Back-door entries into the newspapers have reduced most to becoming puppets of foreign capital. Funds for education, health, irrigation, rural credit and development have decreased or have only seen a nominal increase. It is evident that the UPA government intended these measures as eye-wash. This is obvious from the way a crisis was allowed to develop in our grain markets with foreign players being given free access to buying grain in India at prices well above the minimum support price and by allowing futures trading in the necessaries of life, so that the price mechanism has gone out of control and PDS system has been all but destroyed. At the same time in the name of checking prices that have risen to an unprecedented 8.75% the UPA government has removed import duties from a number of agricultural products, thus carrying out the job of implementing Doha prescriptions without being seen to do so.
Further, the prices of oil that could have been held back, were raised again by giving fraudulent accounts of public sector oil companies’ losses and by refusing to tax private oil companies for their super profits or reduce government taxes on the value of oil. This forces us to conclude that the Government of India is still firmly committed to carrying India along a path in which the rich will get richer and the poor poorer. And large sections of the will be dispossessed driven form their homes and forced to work in conditions not were different from slavery.
II. The Question of Social Justice
Indeed, it is the tendency of retreating from every humanitarian concern that is evident from the braying of the votaries of neo-liberalism for “less government”, “fiscal responsibility”, “pseudo-secularism” and “jobs on merit” for the already privileged that should make us doubly conscious that in the conditions of India, the ideology of the ‘Devil take the Hindmost’ takes on a particularly dangerous character. This is because we live in a society where humanity itself is called into question. There are the Brahmins from the head of Brahma, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the stomach and Shudras from the thighs. The god is one but the people are not. Humanity and human rights cannot exist in caste society.
It follows from this that there is nothing like “human rights” or common principles of justice. The violent crushing of attempts at seeking social justice is given religious sanction in the Ramayana (being extolled by the BJP and a man projecting himself as the future Prime Minister) that begins with the murder of Shambhuka, a shudra who was meditating, by Rama, at the request of a Brahmin who claimed his son had died because of this. What is more, even a radical like Tulsi Das, who was expelled from Kashi for writing the Ramayana in Avadhi, cries out in it: “Drums, peasant, shudras, animals and women need to be kept in order by regular beating” and “the powerful can commit no mistake”. The present-day Congress Party too, is equally insensitive when it gives ‘Dronacharya’ awards to teachers, honouring a man who had got his tribal student to cut off his thumb as guru-dakshina.
Today in Punjab we find a curious alliance between these casteist elements and the self-proclaimed devotees of the Sikh Gurus who went to great lengths to break the prejudices of caste, untouchability and brought people of all castes together to share common meals in gurudwaras. But today castes are encouraged to have their own gurudwaras. Often dalit Sikhs are not allowed to serve Prasad to congregations of other castes. Inter caste marriages often lead to “honour killings”. And recently an old dalit woman was physically prevented from being cremated in the village cremation ground.
These are ominous signs, especially when we see them in the context of India having the largest number of murders in the world, nearly twice as many as in the USA, which was known for its crimes. Since 1981 to 2000, no less than 3,57,945 atrocities against SC/ST have taken place. In 2000 alone, there were 486 cases of murder, 3298 of grievous hurt, 260 of arson, 1034 of rape and 18,644 other offences. This gives us serious cause for concern as 19.2 % households in the country belong to the scheduled castes and 8.4% to the scheduled tribes. Together they constitute 27.6% of the population. Every fourth person in the country belongs to this category. Can we preserve our national unity if this oppression is not brought to an end?
Economically too, they are losing ground. In 1991, 70% of the total scheduled caste households were landless. By 2000 the percentage had risen to 75. In terms of fixed capital assets only 28% had any while for the rest the figure was 56%, in 2000. At the time 49.06% of the SC working population were agricultural labour as compared to 32.69% for STs and 19.66% for other castes. As against a national average per capita income of Rs. 4485, the SC income was only Rs.3237. The unemployment figures were also higher. Moreover, even though 15% and 7.5% of Central Government posts are reserved for SC and ST respectively, only 10.15% posts in Group A (class I), 12.67% in Group B, 16.15% in Group C and 21.26% in Group D were filled. Not only are SCs and STs relegated to Class IV jobs, the quotas are not filled there too. Of the 544 judges in High Courts only 13 were SC and 4 were ST. Only 6.7% school teachers were SC/ST, while the figures were only 2.6% for College teachers. It is evident they are being excluded in every sphere of life and the exclusion is becoming more evident with “devil take the hindmost” policies being implemented today. Of the 600 lakh child labour in India, 40% are from SC, while the figure rises to 80% in arduous and “dirty” jobs like carpet weaving, tanning, dyeing, lifting dead animals, cleaning human refuse, soiled clothes, waste from slaughter houses and sale of local liquor.
In the field of day to day life, we find that the literacy rate for SC was 54.7% while for STs it was 47.1%, compared to 68.8% for others. The infant mortality rate for SC was 83 per 1000 compared to 61.8 for others. This is not surprising as only 11 % SC houses and 7% houses have access to sanitation, as opposed to a national average of 29%. Similarly, while the national average for the use of electricity was 48%, only 28% of the SC population and 22% of the ST had access to it. Now, given the vast reduction of expenditure in the social sector, their condition can only worsen.
This is all the more important for Punjab, which has an SC population of 32% of the total households, well above the national average of 19.2%.Moreover, since 2000, their share of Punjab government jobs has declined from 23.98% to 23.01% in 2005. Predictably, only 1880 are there in Class I of a total of 11703 filled posts. The figures from Class II are 2168 of a total of 12754. For class III the figures are 47836 of a total of 2,21,517, while for Class IV they are 21594 of a total of 61833. Clearly the caste bias of reserving only menial posts for SCs is visible here and it has to be fought.
It is evident from these figures that caste is not class. There is no untouchability when seed is sown in the field, watered, harvested or threshed. It is only the cooking pot that untouchability applies to. Similarly stone carvers can be dalits, they can carve the images of temples, even carry them there, but they cannot pray in them. Untouchability does not touch the sphere of production in general, except where certain types of unclean work is not permitted for Brahmins and Kshatriyas. It is grafted on to it to divide the working people. The rich and powerful “have no caste” as the old adage goes, “Raja Ki Jat Nahin Hoti”. Worse, the members of the scheduled castes and tribes have themselves taken on the ideology of caste to their detriment, as we can see from the legend of Eklavya in the Mahabharata when he cuts his thumb as Gurudakshina for Dronacharya. In the same way, it took Dr. Ambedkar nearly three decades from the late twenties to the fifties to realize caste institutions were intrinsically linked to the practice of Hinduism and were incapable of being reformed. They needed to be destroyed. That is why he and his followers converted to Buddhism. It must be noted, however, that conversion is no solution. In our history, the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals, who were muslims, patronized Brahminism as a way of keeping the masses divided. And the British, like Warren Hastings, had caste practices codified as law that gave caste a far greater force under colonial rule than it ever had under Hindu rulers. So the caste problem has wider ramifications than the mere religious fabric of Hinduism. The exploiting classes, especially the landlord class and rural vested interests have given it a function beyond just one religion. And social discrimination exists even after conversion to other religions so the benefits of reservations should be extended to them as well. It is obvious that it must be fought primarily as a struggle of the oppressed against their oppression. As part of this the oppressed castes must take up the tasks of ending discrimination among themselves to present a unified resistance and not squabble over a few reservations. The dalit identity must be an inclusive one and not a number of mutually exclusive fragments. Encouraging inter caste marriages can play an important role in this process.
III. Building a Broad Coalition of the Exploited and Oppressed
As for the exploited, they must challenge the divisive agenda of caste by targetting untouchability, oppression and the implementation of reservations along with struggles for land, work, a living wage, a universal public distribution system, against rising prices, for better education and health and protection of the civil rights of all citizens. From the perspective of the neo-liberal reforms, SEZs and the corporatisation of forests and farming must be resisted alongside job-killing mechanization. The privatization of PSUs must be opposed as reserved category jobs are eliminated along with downsizing that increases unemployment on one hand and the workload on the other. At the same time a demand for reservations in the private sector can be raised. Jobless growth with its increasing workload affects workers as a whole and it must be resisted collectively, especially in government employment that affects both dalits and non dalits. Discrimination against dalits like giving them only “unclean” or “class IV” work must be resisted together as it is a question that impinges on inhuman working conditions. If the conditions of work of dalits, like scavengers being forced to carry nightsoil on their heads, are allowed to continue, others will also find themselves in the same state of affairs in a period of casualisation of work, lower wages and no checks on working norms.
So under neo-liberal pressure with an all-out attack and oppression unleashed on the workers, peasants, artisans, like seizing their assets, underpricing their products and cutting subsidies on their inputs, abandoning food security and destroying the PDS, while refusing to implement minimum wages acts, denying cheap credit or even diluting criminal laws so that the legal system and the police work for the highest bidder, gives us a remarkable chance to unite the working people, the discriminated against and oppressed, the petty producers and tradesmen in one coalition to fight privatization, corporatisation, asset grabbing, unemployment, casualisation, hunger, non-payment of wages, inhumanity at the work place, untouchability, physical violence and even the most gruesome crimes against those who are exploited and oppressed, for the first time since the national movement.
The choice before dalit organizations is also more flexible than ever before. They can choose to join workers’ and peasants’ movements, as they have in Andhra Pradesh and become part and parcel of a process that has has distributed three lakh acres of land among four lakh people or they can choose the path of the BSP which has integrated with the system, has had to mute its anti-Manuvadi perspective, alter its coalition of Bahujan Samaj to include oppressors of the Sarvajan Samaj and dilute the Harijan Act that has led to a sharp spate of attacks on Dalits in UP under the Chief Ministership of Mayawati. Earlier, in direct contrast to the slogan of “All Government Land is Ours” (Jo Zamin Sarkari Hai, Voh Zamin Harai Hai), Mayawati had transformed surplus land into Ambedkar Parks, denying dalits their land but also satisfying their egos by honouring Ambedkar. Still, while being aware of this being an either-or situation, we must allow dalit organizations to find their own path in relation to the level of their consciousness. Social awakening follows complex paths and we must encourage it and not impose our own views on others. Nor must we romanticise the dalit movement and see it as an alternative to class movements. On the contrary we must do everything in our power to attract dalit leaders, cadres and organizations to take part in them and awaken to the task of leading the toiling masses as a whole and not just a section of them. The time is opportune for this. And those who seize the time make history. Let us make history then.
Suneet Chopra, Joint Secretary, All India Agricultural Workers Union
This is the text of a talk delivered at the Desh Bhakt Yadgar Hall at Jalandhar in Punjab on 14th June, 2008.