A new resonance

Print edition : July 20, 2002

In his views on crucial issues pertaining to economic development, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar comes across as a radical economist who would have staunchly opposed the neoliberal reforms being carried out in India since the 1990s.

DR. BABASAHEB AMBEDKAR was among the most outstanding intellectuals of India in the 20th century in the best sense of the word. Paul Baran, an eminent Marxist economist, had made a distinction in one of his essays between an "intellect worker" and an intellectual. The former, according to him, is one who uses his intellect for making a living whereas the latter is one who uses it for critical analysis and social transformation. Dr. Ambedkar fits Baran's definition of an intellectual very well. Dr. Ambedkar is also an outstanding example of what Antonio Gramsci called an organic intellectual, that is, one who represents and articulates the interests of an entire social class.

While Dr. Ambedkar is justly famous for being the architect of India's Constitution and for being a doughty champion of the interests of the Scheduled Castes, his views on a number of crucial issues pertaining to economic development are not so well known. Dr. Ambedkar was a strong proponent of land reforms and of a prominent role for the state in economic development. He recognised the inequities in an unfettered capitalist economy. His views on these issues are found scattered in several writings; of these the most important ones are his essay, "Small Holdings in India and Their Remedies" and an article, "States and Minorities". In these writings, Dr. Ambedkar elaborates his views on land reforms and on the kind of economic order that is best suited to the needs of the people.

Dr. Ambedkar stresses the need for thoroughgoing land reforms, noting that smallness or largeness of an agricultural holding is not determined by its physical extent alone but by the intensity of cultivation as reflected in the amounts of productive investment made on the land and the amounts of all other inputs used, including labour. He also stresses the need for industrialisation so as to move surplus labour from agriculture to other productive occupations, accompanied by large capital investments in agriculture to raise yields. He sees an extremely important role for the state in such transformation of agriculture and advocates the nationalisation of land and the leasing out of land to groups of cultivators, who are to be encouraged to form cooperatives in order to promote agriculture.

Intervening in a discussion in the Bombay Legislative Council on October 10, 1927, Dr. Ambedkar argued that the solution to the agrarian question "lies not in increasing the size of farms, but in having intensive cultivation that is employing more capital and more labour on the farms such as we have." (These and all subsequent quotations are taken from the collection of Dr. Ambedkar's writings, published by the Government of Maharashtra in 1979). Further on, he says: "The better method is to introduce cooperative agriculture and to compel owners of small strips to join in cultivation."

During the process of framing the Constitution of the Republic of India, Dr. Ambedkar proposed to include certain provisions on fundamental rights, specifically a clause to the effect that the state shall provide protection against economic exploitation. Among other things, this clause proposed that:

* Key industries shall be owned and run by the state;

* Basic but non-key industries shall be owned by the state and run by the state or by corporations established by it;

* Agriculture shall be a state industry, and be organised by the state taking over all land and letting it out for cultivation in suitable standard sizes to residents of villages; these shall be cultivated as collective farms by groups of families.

As part of his proposals, Dr. Ambedkar provided detailed explanatory notes on the measures to protect the citizen against economic exploitation. He stated: "The main purpose behind the clause is to put an obligation on the state to plan the economic life of the people on lines which would lead to highest point of productivity without closing every avenue to private enterprise, and also provide for the equitable distribution of wealth. The plan set out in the clause proposes state ownership in agriculture with a collectivised method of cultivation and a modified form of state socialism in the field of industry. It places squarely on the shoulders of the state the obligation to supply the capital necessary for agriculture as well as for industry."

Dr. Ambedkar recognises the importance of insurance in providing the state with "the resources necessary for financing its economic planning, in the absence of which it would have to resort to borrowing from the money market at high rates of interest" and proposes the nationalisation of insurance. He categorically stated: "State socialism is essential for the rapid industrialisation of India. Private enterprise cannot do it and if it did, it would produce those inequalities of wealth which private capitalism has produced in Europe and which should be a warning to Indians."

ANTICIPATING criticism against his proposals that they went too far, Dr.. Ambedkar argues that political democracy implied that "the individual should not be required to relinquish any of his constitutional rights as a condition precedent to the receipt of a privilege" and that "the state shall not delegate powers to private persons to govern others". He points out that "the system of social economy based on private enterprise and pursuit of personal gain violates these requirements".

Responding to the libertarian argument that where the state refrains from intervention in private affairs - economic and social - the residue is liberty, Dr. Ambedkar says: "It is true that where the state refrains from intervention what remains is liberty. To whom and for whom is this liberty? Obviously this liberty is liberty to the landlords to increase rents, for capitalists to increase hours of work and reduce rate of wages." Further, he says: "In an economic system employing armies of workers, producing goods en masse at regular intervals, someone must make rules so that workers will work and the wheels of industry run on. If the state does not do it, the private employer will. In other words, what is called liberty from the control of the state is another name for the dictatorship of the private employer."

India's experience with neoliberal reforms since 1990 shows that Dr. Ambedkar's apprehensions regarding the implications of the unfettered operation of monopoly capital, both domestic and foreign, were far from misplaced. As has been documented and written about extensively, during this period of neoliberal reforms, there has been no breakthrough in the rate of economic growth. At the same time, there has been a distinct slowing down of the rate of growth of employment and practically no decline in the proportion of people below the poverty line. Agriculture has been in a crisis for some time now and the rate of growth of industry has also been declining for several years now. At the same time, despite a slower growth of foodgrains output, the government is saddled with huge excess stocks, which it seeks to sell abroad or to domestic private trade at very low prices.

The government and its economists, instead of recognising that the crisis is the product in large part of the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, propose a set of so-called second-generation reforms. At the centre of these reforms is the complete elimination of employment security. The war cry of the liberalisers is: "Away with all controls and the state, and let the market rule."

In this context, one cannot but recall Dr. Ambedkar's words that liberty from state control is another name for the dictatorship of the private employer. Whether on labour reforms or on agrarian policy or on the question of the insurance sector or the role of the public sector in the context of development, Dr. Ambedkar's views are in direct opposition to those of neoliberal policies.

It is indeed a pity that self-styled leaders of Dalit movements, who invoke Dr. Ambedkar's name day in and day out, do not examine carefully his views on key issues of economic policy and their contemporary relevance for the struggles of the oppressed. One may not expect much from those Dalit-based political forces which think nothing of cohabiting with the Sangh Parivar, but even many sections of the Dalit movement which proclaim a radical stance on social (and sometimes economic) issues do not raise the question of land or of the role of the state in the sharp manner in which Dr. Ambedkar does.

Dr. Venkatesh Athreya is Professor and Head of the Department of Economics, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi.

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