Print edition : September 13, 2019

Farmers and landless labourers migrating with their families to cities in search of livelihoods from interior Karnataka, a 2016 picture. There is enough land with the government to provide viable extents of agricultural land to all rural S.C. families. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Elimination of landlessness among Dalits can boost the national economy and resolve the problem of unemployment.

There is considerable discussion in the country and in the media about unemployment and lack of market demand for various manufactured goods and services. Many of the solutions offered by economists and scholars centre around the reduction of personal income tax and corporate taxes, labour and land reforms to facilitate ease of doing business, increase in public sector expenditure to create and improve infrastructure, and so on. In my view, one of the most important factors that can significantly contribute to the reduction of unemployment and the promotion of national economic growth at the optimal pace is the removal of landlessness among Dalits.

In rural India, power and status accompany ownership of land and the size of landholding. The share of Dalits in agricultural landholding in the country, compared with their rural population, is the least among all the social classes. At the all-India level, according to theNational Sample Survey Office (66th Round) Survey, the proportion of rural Scheduled Caste (S.C.) households “self-employed in agriculture”, that is, having their own land, is only 17.1 per cent, compared with 39.4 per cent among rural households of the Socially Advanced Classes (SACs), that is, the non-S.C., non-S.T.(Scheduled Tribe), non-SEdBC castes (NSCTBCs). (SEdBC stands for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes.) This proportion varies from State to State. The converse is the high proportion of agricultural and other rural labour households among S.Cs. In the whole of India, their proportion is as high as 58.9 per cent compared with 26.2 per cent among SACs/NSCTBCs.

There is a historical background to this. All over India, S.Cs were prohibited and prevented from owning land by the centuries-old caste-and-“untouchability”-based custom and, in some parts of the country, even by formal laws such as the Punjab Agricultural Land Alienation Act, 1901, of the larger pre-Partition Punjab. This Act inter alia wrongly classified the two most populous S.C. agricultural labour communities as non-agricultural and made them statutorily ineligible to own land.

Programme of Removal of Dalit Landlessness

Removal of landlessness among Dalits, along with the provision of group minor irrigation for the lands of S.Cs and S.Ts and certain other supporting measures, will have tremendous cascading effects, bringing significant benefits to the national economy. It will have the following effects:

(1) Round-the-year agricultural self-employment for S.Cs and S.Ts, eliminating chronic underemployment.

In its Three Year Action Agenda, released in August 2017, NITI Aayog has pointed out that the main problem in the country is not unemployment but severe underemployment. Along with unemployment is the problem of low wages. NITI Aayog says, “In effect, those in the workforce are employed, but they are overwhelmingly stuck in low-productivity, low-wage jobs.”

(2) New possibility of growing high-value agricultural crops and, if activities under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) are extended to this, the possibility of growing high-value horticultural crops.

(3) Engagement of S.C. and S.T. women in work on their own farms as well as farm-based occupations such as poultry farming and dairying instead of their present work as wage-labourers in other people’s farms.

(4) Consequently,

(i) augmentation of purchasing power of a large segment of subsistence-level population that is employed as agricultural and other rural labour on low wages;

(ii) creation of new demand for a variety of goods and services which this segment of the population needs but cannot now afford because of their low income; (As NITI Aayog points out, “low wage depresses demand for goods, including manufactured goods, and for services”)

(iii) creation of scope to utilise idle capacity of a number of existing manufacturing and service-providing units and for the establishment of new units;

(iv) large-scale expansion of employment in the manufacturing and service-providing sectors;

(v) boost to GDP and significant contribution to the goal laid down by the Prime Minister of making India a $5-trillion economy by 2024.

This strategy will contribute significantly to resolving the problem of the two categories of those who are unemployed and underemployed, namely,

(i) The less educated who are engaged in agricultural and other physical labour and who are looking for similar employment round the year with better remuneration. Most S.C. people belong to this category as also a major proportion of the Most and Extremely Backward Castes of SEdBCs and S.Ts.

(ii) The educated who are either unemployed or employed below the level of their qualification and who are looking for more appropriate and better-salaried employment.

In an interview (Indian Express dated July 29, 2019), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman showed an awareness of the need to enhance demand for industrial material as well as various other goods and of putting more money in the hands of labourers in order to boost consumption, but she referred to only public spending in infrastructure and missed the important contribution that the removal of landlessness among Dalits can make to the objective. Revival of large-scale demand and generation of new demand are precisely what will be contributed to the national economy by the national programme of elimination of Dalit landlessness, along with the provision of group minor irrigation.

This national programme will also have a number of other significant non-economic benefits for S.Cs and S.Ts which are essential for the advancement of the national economy. These are:

(1) Withdrawal of S.C. and S.T. children from agricultural and other labour force, many of whom are now required to contribute to the meagre family income.

(2) Enrolment of these children in schools, and laying the foundation for the influx of the next and future generations of S.C. and S.T. children and youth into secondary, higher and advanced education, thus strengthening the educational base of the nation, and significantly contributing to the draft New Education Policy (DNEP) target of reaching 50 per cent Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education by 2035. In my comments/suggestions to the government on the DNEP, I have pointed out that this target of 50 per cent GER must also include 50 per cent of S.Cs, 50 per cent of S.Ts and 50 per cent of SEdBCs.

(3) Withdrawal of S.C. and S.T. women from demeaning and socially hazardous wage-labour in other people’s lands and homes under adverse circumstances, as they will now be able to work in their own farms and farm-based occupations such as poultry and dairying.

(4) Consequent reduction of gender-based abuse, much of it unreported, to which such women are exposed while working as wage-labourers.

(5) Substantive improvement in the nutrition and health of S.C. and S.T. women and children. This will immediately push up the woeful level of India’s indices of neonatal, infant and child mortality; child malnutrition, stunting and wasting; maternal mortality, malnutrition and so on, in all of which the levels of S.C. and S.T. women and children are the worst and in some instances comparable to that of sub-Saharan Africa.

(6) Creation of capacity to peacefully resist “untouchability” and resultant atrocities, which are widely prevalent, largely unreported and silently suffered because dependent agricultural and other labourers cannot afford to resist “untouchability”.

(7) Enhancement of the personal, social and human dignity of Dalits, Adivasis and Most and Extremely Backward castes of SEdBCs, which is an important value on its own.

I had written about this in detail in October 2017 to former Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog Dr Arvind Panagariya, incumbent Vice Chairman Dr Rajiv Kumar, and Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC) Bibek Debroy, and its other members. In his reply to me on October 27, 2017, Dr Rajiv Kumar acknowledged and thanked me for my suggestions and promised to revert to me. Bibek Debroy in his reply dated October 31, 2017, said that he “will take this up”.

Examples from other countries

To buttress the point that my suggestions are not mere theory, I cited an article from The Economist, reproduced in Indian Express dated October 18, 2017, under the title “Land to the Tiller”. That article says, “A voluminous literature ponders the causes of the East Asian miracle, in which first Japan, then the four original ‘Asian tigers’—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—and then China sustained bounding growth for decades. Most studies point to market-friendly policies that encouraged export of manufactures and the rapid accumulation of capital, including the human sort. Others emphasise the importance of institutions. Yet one crucial factor has been relatively underplayed: restructuring agriculture.... ‘Land reform’ sounds innocuous but involves great upheaval: seizing land from those who have it and giving it to those who do not. Yet radical action may be necessary in countries with big, impoverished, rural populations.”

The article explains the methodology by which China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan accomplished this task. The countries other than China could do this without force on large landowners. The effect of this in China is noted in the article as follows:

“The effect was immediate. Grain input leapt by perhaps 70 per cent in the decade after the war. When farmers can capture most of the value of their land, they have a powerful incentive to produce. And while smallholder agriculture is hugely labour-intensive, that makes sense when labour is abundant.”

Referring to Taiwan’s radical land reforms, the article says that “Yields on sugar and rice leapt. New markets sprang up for exotic fruits and vegetables. Household farmers dominated early exports. Crucially, income inequality shrank thanks to the new farmer-capitalists. Less spent on imports of food, more money in Taiwanese pockets, a new entrepreneurialism: farming was the start of Taiwan’s economic miracle.”

Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines did not follow this path. The Economist has mercifully spared mentioning India along with these countries, which evaded radical land reforms. The article also traces out the political consequences of serious land reforms and of failing to undertake land reforms: “In South Korea and Taiwan inclusive agricultural growth prefigured the inclusive politics of today’s thriving democracies. In South-East Asia, by contrast, cronyism and inertia are consequences of an economy that is unfair to those at the bottom. The Philippines and Thailand have most clearly paid a price, in the form of insurgencies and rural unrest, for keeping poor people down. When weighed against the cost, land reform, done well, starts to look cheap.”

I am yet to receive from the Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog and the PM-EAC Chairman a cogent reply and indication of concrete action on my feasible suggestions founded on a priori socioeconomic logic and buttressed by the above a posteriori evidence.

Solution for removal of Dalit landlessness

What I have been suggesting over the decades to the past and present governments through different fora and in my own communications with leaders of governments and political parties is the provision of a viable extent of agricultural land by undertaking a Centrally-funded national crash programme to distribute all available government lands, including Bhoodan lands, to all rural Dalit/S.C. families and along with them to land-deprived S.T. families, and other rural landless agricultural labour families mainly belonging to the More, Most and Extremely Backward Castes of the SEdBCs. Some of these government lands will need reclamation, for which technology is available and the required labour input can be secured purposefully through the MGNREGA. This national programme of distribution of a viable extent of agricultural land to all rural S.Cs and all other rural landless agricultural families has to be done through empowered task forces which should identify and distribute lands to S.Cs in each village. This was recommended and detailed in the Report (August 1, 2011) of the erstwhile Planning Commission’s XII Plan Working Group on Empowerment of Scheduled Castes, under my chairmanship.

The cost of the task forces will be small compared with many of the large infrastructure projects and bank recapitalisation initiatives the government has launched. This can be found easily if the Special Component Plan for S.Cs (SCP) and the Tribal sub-Plan (TsP) are meaningfully formulated, effectively implemented and provided a national level and State-level statutory base, as I have been repeatedly suggesting to successive governments and leaders.

There is enough land with the government to provide viable extents of agricultural land to all rural S.Cs.

The Governors’ Committee, set up by the first Dalit President of India, K. R. Narayanan, under the chairmanship of Dr P.C. Alexander, had in its Report (2008) said that land in the ownership of the government was adequate to provide a viable extent of agricultural land to every rural S.C. family. This Report has been gathering dust. Taking up the thread from that point, the Report of the Working on the Empowerment of Scheduled Castes during the 12th Five Year Plan, under my chairmanship, using the same data, and adding Bhoodan land data, has established that there is adequate land not only for all rural S.C. families but also for non-Dalit rural landless agricultural labour families.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Koneru Ranga Rao Committee reported in 2006 that there was enough land in that State to go round all rural Dalit families. In Kerala, where per capita availability of cultivable land is the lowest, there are more than five lakh acres (two lakh hectares) of government-owned lease-expired plantation lands still with corporates such as Harrisons and the Tatas. This is in addition to about 60,000 acres of small lease-expired plantation lands. The takeover of these lands and their immediate distribution among rural S.Cs and among S.Ts who have been defrauded of their lands will virtually eliminate landlessness among S.Cs and S.Ts in Kerala. Such lands can be located in other States also, including cultivable Shamlat lands in Punjab (see box).

A national progamme of group minor irrigation should be undertaken to provide irrigation for all the lands of S.Cs and of S.Ts.

Through Dalit-friendly individuals in political parties, the twin programme of universal distribution of a viable extent of agricultural land to all rural S.C. and S.T. families and the national programme of group minor irrigation for all lands of S.Cs and S.Ts found place in the United Front government’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of 1996 and the CMP of the United Progressive Alliance of 2004. Consequent to the latter, this twin programme figured as a solemn commitment of the President of India in his address to the joint session of Parliament in 2004. Thereafter, the solemn commitment was forgotten, despite my periodic reminders.

The lands of S.Cs and S.Ts must be protected by strengthening the existing laws/regulations pertaining to S.Ts and existing in rare instances for S.Cs and by new laws/regulations.

This should be accompanied by the establishment of land banks to purchase lands at the market rate from those S.Cs and S.Ts who may have had to sell their lands under unavoidable exigencies and make such lands available to other S.Cs and S.Ts so that the total pool of lands with S.Cs and S.Ts is not reduced.

There are appropriate measures to empower Dalits and Most and Extremely Backward Classes and S.Ts in urban areas, where they are predominantly assetless labour force in the unorganised labour sector such as driving of autorickshaws on hire and construction labour.

All these measures are included in the “Road-Map” of Comprehensive Social Justice measures for S.Cs, S.Ts and SEdBCs this writer has sent to successive governments and political leaders from time to time. I sent it recently to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman twice, before and after the Budget, requesting her to provide adequate budgetary outlays for these measures. When these measures will be such a boon to the whole nation and the national economy, it flabbergasts me why the Finance Minister, her predecessors and other leaders of the present and past governments have not jumped at this opportunity to implement it with alacrity, providing adequate outlays and organisational and monitoring structures as explained in the Road-Map.

P.S. Krishnan is former Secretary to the Government of India and has been in the field of social justice for S.Cs, S.Ts and SEdBCs for more than seven decades.

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