Anatomy of poverty

Print edition : February 01, 2008

The book, written after decades of dedicated fieldwork, analyses how south Gujarats subalterns suffer double denial.

FOR over three decades, Jan Breman has been known through his widely read publications on the working and living conditions of the subalterns, especially the tribal Halpatis, of south Gujarat. In the face of a number of claims that poverty was on the wane in the closing decades of the last century, Breman in The Poverty Regime in Village India focusses sharply on the question whether the rural poor have been able to share meaningfully in the process of development. He is dissatisfied with quantitative analysis based on large surveys, which fails to capture the multidimensional nature of poverty. He feels these formal sector research methodologies fail to interpret properly the fuzzy landscape of informal economy.

Breman brings together his extensive and protracted research spread over four decades in four villages. To understand the causes for deprivation in rural India, he feels it is necessary to expose the linkages between the poor and the non-poor. Since there has been sustained inter-relationship between economic status and social identity, caste becomes the basis of fieldwork. And the focus is on the dynamics of rural transformation with the landless underclass on the one side and the landed upper castes on the other. He adopts a network approach of following the subject as it moves, going beyond the anthropological approach of village studies, to understand the translocal phenomenon of informal sector that extends across the rural-urban continuum.

In these four villages of south Gujarat, the underclass is the landless tribal Halpatis, while the economically dominant land-owning castes are Anavil Brahmins (Desais) in three villages and Kanbi Patidars (Patels) in one. Breman began his fieldwork in Gandevigam and Chikhligam in 1962-63 and has been periodically visiting these villages to track the dynamics of development. In both the villages, much of the fertile land is owned by Anavil Brahmins. Over the years, the Anavil landowners of Gandevigam have gradually converted much of their paddy and sugarcane fields into orchards. A similar change took place in Chikhligam but rice continues to be a major crop there.

With better education and availability of urban employment opportunities, many Anavils have turned their back to agriculture but without leaving their land. Those who remained in the villages have transformed themselves from cultivators to managers supervising their agrarian property. Anavil men and their wives try to exempt themselves as far as possible from physical work. Conspicuous leisure has become the demonstrative behaviour of all members of the landowning households and they need to be catered for from morning until evening (page 64). In contrast, the typical occupational profile of landless Halpatis in these villages has been changing a bit in form, but not in substance. With the formal bonded labour system gone by the 1960s, many of them later became farm servants, and now, mostly casual labour, circulating in and out of agriculture, but predominantly still in agriculture.

With the disappearance of patronage, and with it bondage, landed Anavils can no longer coerce but at the same time no longer provide guarantee for the survival of Halpatis. With the growing redundancy in agriculture, Halpatis resort to seasonal migration. Also, they prefer work outside agriculture, not because agricultural work is strenuous but because of the negative image of servant attached to it. A large number of Halpatis from Chikhligam migrate during the agricultural off-season to work in brick kilns near Mumbai in a kind of neo-bondage under the working regime, which is brutal.

Even as there is an exodus of Halpatis for work outside, there is an influx of migrant workers into their villages for sugarcane cutting, Farmers prefer migrant workers not because they offer cheap labour, but because they are subservient and work for long hours. Halpatis are in a permanent state of mobility between sectors and between nearer-home and far-off places. But, at the end of all these travails, most Halpati households subsist on less than Rs.2,000 a month.

JAN BREMAN feels that it is necessary to expose the linkages between the poor and the non-poor in order to understand rural deprivation.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Through Bardoligam, the third village, Breman looks at the impact of irrigation-induced agricultural development on the landed rich and the landless poor. In this village, Kanbi Patidars are the dominant landed caste and the landless Dublas (Halpatis) the underclass. Much of the land in the village is owned by Kanbi Patels, and the Halpatis form the agricultural labour. Since the early 1970s, the village has received irrigation facilities from the Ukai dam. Almost 80 per cent of the farm land has been brought under sugarcane cultivation. This has been accompanied by the contractualisation of labour, which has had a destructive effect on the local labour. Kanbi Patels are known for migrating to places as far as East Africa and the United States, but they continue to retain the ownership of land and the relations with their kith and kin in the village.

At the time of Bremans last visit to the village (2005-06), the majority of men from the households were living and working abroad, and most of them in the Hotel-Motel-Patel mode in the U.S. Those who remained in the village had turned from cultivators to landlords, and did not even make regular field visits; all that was left to farm servants. Kanbi Patels led a life of leisure and opulence within a gated community with all modern amenities, including airconditioning and water supply from a centralised treatment plant.

In contrast, Dublas benefited little from the irrigation-induced diversification, which meant conversion of much of the agricultural land to grow monocrop, mainly sugarcane. Cane-cutting is the main agricultural operation in the village in which migrant labourers from other parts of Gujarat and beyond are used instead of Halpatis. Such an agrarian growth caused further deprivation to Halpatis, inducing them to migrate for non-farm work, but haphazardly. Work outside agriculture or the village for these unskilled landless Halpatis is not necessarily better. They return to the village for whatever remaining agricultural work. The annual average employment is hardly 150 days for men and 120 days for women.

In the past four and a half decades the proportion of this social class living in poverty has remained at a very high level of over 70 per cent. A quarter to a third within this landless group lived in destitution, a condition in which they have lived from time immemorial (page 350). The stark and visible deprivation in terms of basic living conditions of housing, sanitation, drinking water and amenities such as roads in Halpati colonies, on the one hand, and the spectacular opulence of Kanbi Patels, on the other, are captured in vivid and moving detail.

Breman chose the fourth village, Atulgam, in the golden industrial corridor of south Gujarat to examine how Halpatis fared in an industrial belt. Atulgam too has the caste divide. Anavil Brahmins, though on the decline in the village, still own most of the land. The yields are declining owing to pollution and water contamination, and the Anavils main sources of income and employment are increasingly in services and industry. Anavils occupy most of the meaningful and supervisory jobs. Agricultural employment in the village is on the decline. The Halpatis are no longer dependent on agricultural labour but they have not become industrial labour either. The first wave of secure industrial employment with social security has already yielded place to extensive informalisation in these years of liberalisation. With a large number of brokers operating as labour contractors, Halpatis are pushed into casual odd jobs on contract or into job work without regular employment. The desire to escape agricultural labour and caste-class tensions is hardly realised as spatial segregation between the high and low castes persists in housing and in jobs in the industrial belt as well.

The poverty level of the landless Halpatis, Breman concludes, has surged and stagnated at a very high level of almost four-fifths, rather than falling. Based on his prolonged field view of the dynamics of rural transformation, he is afraid that there may not be enough work and income in the near future for this huge reserve army of landless labour. And given the current doctrine of free market, which desists from public intervention, he feels that it is equally improbable that the government will keep its promise of providing effective protection to the rural poor. He also believes his alarming findings are not unique, and their validity transcends the sites of his fieldwork. It is not that there is no improvement in the condition of Halpatis. But, considering what they got out of the process of development leaves them far behind the rest. Breman observes that Halpatis own perception is that their living conditions have not improved.

Their awareness that the overall economic deficit was much greater in the past is overweighed by their perception that the gap between them and those who are better-off has increased enormously (page 122). The perception of the better-off is that the landless are cursed with all kinds of defects and have only themselves to blame for their poverty (page 123).

The idea of undeserving poor has taken root in the minds of those who are rich, more in these years of reforms. The rich, thus, neither feel guilty nor are afraid of any mobilisation by the poor in acute destitution because of the absence of solidarity among them. The result is that the landless, footloose rural proletariat lead a nomadic existence, following the seasonal, sectoral, and local fluctuations in the economy with occupational multiplicity. This, according to Breman, is not a temporary imbalance but a structural crisis, of which the enormous reserve army of land-poor and landless are the victims (page 206).

In the last chapter of the book, Breman engages in the present debate on inclusive growth. He believes that one of the critical inputs in making the rural landless poor move out of the present state is access to land. Making land accessible to households which had been made landless in the near or more distant past would put an end to their exclusion from right to property (page 414). He shows how Dhodias, another tribal group with access to land, though marginal, are able to achieve a little more of stability, gain access to education, and experience improvement in living conditions. The present stirrings and mobilisation of the rural poor in all parts of the country, one hopes, marks the beginning of the second wave of land reforms, which becomes imperative.

The book shows that the expectation that the landless would leave the village seeking better life in non-agricultural and urban occupations and relieve pressure on land did not happen. On the contrary, it shows the irrational phenomenon of people having land acquiring skills and moving to lucrative non-agricultural occupations without leaving their hold on their land. The landless poor thus suffer double denial.

The book, which is a product of long years of dedicated, unparalleled fieldwork , has been brought out with a great deal of care, supported by valuable photographs to drive home the message in a telling manner. It would be a difficult, but eyeopening, reading for policymakers, and rewarding in method and substance to students trying to understand poverty in all its dimensions.

D. Narasimha Reddy is a former Dean of the School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad.

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