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On the Agrarian Question in India

27 July 2016
The Country Report presented by All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha (AIKKS) in the World Peasant Conference held at Kathmandu on 3-4 June, 2016

COLONIALISM including the so called informal colonialism which was specifically practiced by US imperialism in the pre-World War II period had subordinated every sphere of economic activity in Afro-Asian and Latin American countries to the requirements imperialist powers. While mercantile capitalism was interested mainly in ‘colonial products’ such as spices and slaves, the demands of industrial revolution broadened out to include an insatiable hunger for raw materials and food for the rapidly expanding capitalist countries. The pressures of capital accumulation and the concomitant colonial division of labour that converted colonies, semi-colonies and dependent countries as agrarian appendages to imperialism also led to a disruption of the socio-economic formations of these countries. Along with the introduction of private property in land and distortion of the traditional village communities, enforced monetization and exchange relations and forced commercialization of agriculture, imperialism in the colonial era took particular attention to prop up a reactionary agrarian elite class in the colonies and dependent countries as the social base of colonial plunder. Commodity production, monetization and exchange relations paved the way for rapid strides in export oriented cash crop agriculture and the gradual entry of capitalist land relations in colonial agriculture. This also led to the massive displacement of landless poor peasants from agriculture that swelled the ranks of landless poor peasantry and agricultural workers as the largest section of rural population even in the colonial period.

2. However, the post-War neo-colonial phase witnessed fundamental transformations in the agricultural sector in Afro-Asian Latin American countries. With the global expansion of finance capital led by US imperialism, massive capital export and technology transfers to neo-colonial agriculture took place under the auspices of the institutions and agencies designed for the purpose. This international process that coincided with Keynesianism by which finance capital penetrated into the entire agricultural sector of neo-colonial countries through the development and distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds, modernization of management techniques, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers, etc., is characterized as Green Revolution that spanned the entire globe from Mexico to Philippines. Sponsored by such neo-colonial centres as US State Department, World Bank, USAID, Ford-Rockefeller foundations and so on this ‘new strategy of agriculture’ enabled imperialist finance capital, especially US finance capital to enforce its neo-colonial control over the entire input-output market and technology channels for agriculture. Through Green Revolution, imperialism, utilizing the comprador regimes in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries succeeded in nurturing and building up a comprador agricultural bourgeois class, albeit with variations, as a social base and a firm ally in its neo-colonial plunder in the place of the erstwhile feudal forces who were reluctant to experiment with the new agricultural technologies.

3. As a corollary of this, in several neo-colonial countries, at the behest of neo-colonial agencies such as World Bank, comprador ruling regimes, which were ruthlessly suppressing progressive democratic forces who demanded a democratization of land relations, brought about several superficial changes in land relations including the abolition of feudal relations through super-imposed legislations. Obviously, these changes in land relations were not necessarily based on the land-to-the-tiller principle, as the adoption of new agricultural technologies required substantial investments which were beyond the capacity of small and marginal peasants. In brief, under Keynesianism, the neo-colonial countries according to the logic of imperialist capital in general witnessed a further concentration of land with the newly emerged landlord classes as ‘junior partners’ of agribusiness MNCs and integrated with global market on the one hand, and abysmal growth in the number of landless poor peasants and agricultural workers on an unprecedented scale, on the other. As a whole, agriculture remained retarded, distorted and extraverted on account of Green Revolution-induced developments.

4. However, the advent of imperialist globalization since the beginning of 1990s under unhindered global movement of finance capital has added a new dimension to the agrarian crisis confronting neo-colonial countries. In continuation of the land concentration in new landlord classes and accentuation of landlessness of the peasantry, loss of peasants’ self-reliance on indigenous seeds, ecological problems including soil degradation and natural resource depletion, etc., that took place under the first Green Revolution, today the Second Green Revolution is taking the overall dependence of neo-colonial peasantry on imperialist finance capital to its farthest limits. If the first Green Revolution had taken place under the aegis of Keynesian state-led, import-substitution policies and mainly within the domain of public sector, under neo-liberalism, the whole agriculture is now opened up for the penetration of finance capital along with the shift in emphasis from food agriculture to export-oriented cash crop cultivation. In continuation of the World Bank dictated agricultural policies of the erstwhile Keynesian period, with the forcible inclusion of agriculture along with the entire intellectual property regime pertaining to plants and animals in to the WTO regime, the neo-colonial countries are subjected to an unprecedented corporatization of agriculture led by agribusiness MNCs. The concentration of vast land areas with MNCs and speculative corporate companies who have completely monopolized the agricultural technologies including genetic engineering, landlessness and destitution of the peasantry in neo-colonial countries have reached horrific proportions. Repealing of existing land ceiling acts and introduction of Land Acquisition Laws for facilitating this corporatization of agriculture has already led to large scale further displacement of the peasantry from land and agriculture, while corporate contract farming of export-oriented cash crops and bio-fuels are replacing vast areas of food crop agriculture in various parts of the world. Today, WTO dictated agricultural measures including anti-peasant export-import, credit and price policies coupled with the curtailment of state support programs like subsidies and public procurement programs have led to mass suicides of the real peasantry at a global level.

5. Asian countries are predominantly agrarian societies. In the Asia-Pacific region, agricultural land as a percent of total land is estimated to be 17 percent compared to the world average of 12 percent. However, agricultural population as a percent of total population in Asia comes to 51 percent as against the world average of 40 percent. Thus, while the availability of agricultural land in this region is 0.22 hectare per person implying a relatively high dependency on land, the corresponding figure for the world as a whole is 0.60. On the other hand, as a legacy of the super –imposed Green Revolution, fertiliser use in Asia is 157 kg/hectare while at the global level it is only 103kg./hectare. Subsistence farming and dependence on land and agriculture as the main source of livelihood and employment for majority of the people are common features of all Asian countries where democratic revolution has not yet taken place. Highly skewed distribution of land ownership, with as high as 80 percent of the land being owned by the upper 20 percent of the population, is the general trend in this part of the world. The so called land reform initiatives that have taken place in many Asian countries during the post- War period in conformity with the neo-colonial requirements of imperialist capital, led to the evolution of a comprador section of agrarian elite integrated with world agribusiness interests on the one hand, and the intensification of landlessness among the peasantry, the class of real tillers of the soil and marginalization of women, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples on the other. At the same time, devastating ecological problems arising from degradation of land due to soil erosion, overuse of chemicals and pesticides, mono-crop cultivation, deforestation and desertification, and so on which as balance sheet of green revolution-induced capitalist penetration of agriculture continue as irresolvable problems of Asian countries. The export orientation of the agriculture, over dependence on commercial crops and the growing integration with the fluctuating global market has aggravated the crisis confronting the vast majority of the peasantry here. The WTO led liberalization of agriculture and its corporatization led by agribusiness MNCs under neo-liberalism have added a new dimension to this crisis.

Agrarian Problem in India

6. India is no exception to the aforesaid global and Asian trend. During the full fledged colonial domination over India since the second half of the 18th century, the Permanent Settlement of 1793, that imposed the Zamindari system, and various other changes brought about in the agricultural sector by British rulers were mainly aimed at winning over the feudal forces, the landlords, money lenders and traders associated with agriculture as their political allies. It was for furthering colonial plunder by transforming the agricultural sector according to imperialist interests. While the Zamindari system enabled them to win over the feudal forces, the Ryotwari system through which the colonial state directly controlled the peasants, was convenient for commercializing and converting Indian agriculture as an appendage to the sprawling British industries. The super-imposed changes in existing land relations imposed by colonialists and the monetary relations that took place as a result of the export oriented cash crop cultivation converted India as a source of agricultural raw materials and natural resources during the colonial period. Under this ‘colonial mode of production’, composed mainly of the dominant semi-feudal and pre-capitalist relations in general along with emerging capitalist relations in commercial agriculture, got strengthened throughout the length and breadth of the country.

7. The transformation from colonialism to neo-colonialism and the consequent transfer of power in 1947 to comprador bureaucratic bourgeois-land lord classes opened the country for penetration of imperialist finance capital from all imperialist countries led by US imperialism. As a result, many changes in agrarian relations took place without basically altering the landlord system. The superimposed land reforms such as abolition of Zamindari system (which spanned 57 percent of the country at the time of power transfer) and fixing of land ceilings in different states that served neo-colonial agricultural interests on the one hand and hoodwinked the masses on the other, did not lead to implementation of ‘land to the tiller’ slogan. The land ceiling proposed was flouted in practice through various methods allowing the landlords to own huge land holdings far above the ceiling. Even in states like Kerala and West Bengal where land reforms were implemented under CPI and CPI (M) -led governments, it was the intermediaries and the newly emerged land lord classes who got the benefits.

The neo-colonial orientation of such land reforms was evident from the super-imposition of capitalist relations suited for facilitating the entry of imperialist capital and market on a large scale. Thus instead of the old feudal lords who were reluctant to experiment with new technologies, the new agricultural ‘bourgeois class’ who combined pre-capitalist and capitalist methods of exploitation were effective conduits for implementing the imperialist sponsored ‘green revolution’ in various parts of the country beginning with Punjab and Haryana. In these areas, feudal relations were transformed and agricultural production took a capitalist form. While introducing capitalist mode of production and creating conditions for the entry of modern technology and agricultural inputs, the ‘green revolution’ paved the way for overall land concentration with about 60 percent of the land controlled by the landlords constituting less than 10 percent of population linked to agriculture. This neo-colonial onslaught in agriculture intensified the unevenness in agrarian sector and contradictions in the countryside. Vast majority of the peasants, the real tillers including the adivasis, dalits and women continued to remain landless. Together with the emergence of the new class of capitalist farmers, large sections of poor and landless peasants are transformed as agricultural labourers, a phenomenon which went on getting strengthened in direct proportion to the intensification of neo-colonisation and penetration of imperialist and corporate capital in agriculture.

8. The Green Revolution that opened up Indian agrarian sector to international market and to the penetration of corporate capital has brought about significant changes in agrarian relations. Though capitalist relations in the classical sense cannot develop under neo-colonial conditions, penetration of capital, technology and market forces into agriculture has made feudal and semi-feudal relations increasingly redundant. Market transactions in surplus output and various inputs including seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and modern agricultural equipments reinforced widespread credit and cash transactions throughout the country. Private capitalistic form of land ownership and documents pertaining to that became indispensable for agricultural loans and credit transactions. While land concentration with the new landlord classes and landlessness of the peasantry strengthened on the one hand, increased cash transactions and replacement of wages in kind by money wages eroded many feudal and traditional relations on the other. Green Revolution has also led to the complete loss of Indian peasants’ self-reliance on domestic seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, transfer of the Indian gene pool especially of food crops to the seed banks controlled by MNCs, and above all the irreversible soil degradation and natural resource depletion having long lasting ecological problems.

9. If the first Green revolution in India was implemented within the domain of public sector as part of state-led Keynesian strategy of neo-colonisation, the Second Green Revolution taking place now as an inseparable component imperialist globalization is completely under the control of corporate agribusiness. With the forcible inclusion of agriculture including even patenting of plants and animals under the WTO regime, as inseparable component of corporatization of agriculture since the 1990s has further sharpened all the contradictions in the agrarian sector of the country. Agribusiness companies in the name of corporate agriculture have intensified land concentration throughout the country leading to the large-scale displacement of the peasantry, the real tillers of the soil resulting in their further landlessness, destitution and pauperization. Even existing land ceiling acts are repealed to facilitate the land grab by speculative and parasitic classes with the result that millions of displaced landless peasants and agricultural workers are migrating to urban centres rapidly swelling the ranks of slum dwellers. Consequently, the country is facing one of the biggest-ever internal migrations recorded in history. Corporate and contract farming of export- oriented commercial crops and bio-fuels are replacing vast areas of food crop agriculture in different parts of the country with devastating social and ecological repercussions. Along with the worsening land question, corporate control over agricultural inputs and output markets through various price and Exim (Export-Import) policies is threatening the peasantry.. WTO dictated agricultural policies including anti-peasant import, credit and pricing policies coupled with the curtailment of state support programs such as subsidies and public procurements have led to mass suicides of peasants which are continuing throughout the country. Due to the liberalization and corporatization of agriculture, apart from the devastation of tens of millions of poor peasants, the middle peasants and even a section of the rich peasants are also in crisis.

10. The ongoing land grab for corporate agriculture by agribusiness, speculative financiers and real estate mafia with the backing of the comprador regime have taken worst forms in the name of various neo-colonial projects such as SEZs/Smart cities, townships, tourism zones, express high ways, infrastructure development, etc. To facilitate this process, at the behest of corporate land mafia, giving more teeth to the Colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, if the comprador UPA government enacted the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation/Resettlement Bill 2011, the present NDA government led by BJP is trying to enforce worse land acquisitions overtly or covertly. Everywhere, land is being converted into a money-spinning speculative asset. Yet another trend resulting from the direct entry of speculative finance in to the agrarian sector is the large scale diversion of millions of acres of agricultural land for lucrative bio-fuel production leading to appalling reduction in area under food agriculture. Even existing land reform acts and ceiling laws are openly flouted. Consequently, under imperialist globalization, which is the latest phase of neo-colonisation, land question has become the central issue more than ever.

11. Since colonial times large tracts of fertile agricultural land in the form of estates, plantations and farms have been owned by MNCs, corporate houses, NRIs and other comprador sections. Numerous trusts and mutts floated by vested interests, and religious and caste based organisations and institutions also control vast areas under plantations and farms. Due to well entrenched neo-colonial interests, even the nominal land reforms of post-1947 period implemented by Indian state completely excluded them from all land ceiling acts. Under neo-liberalism, as even these ceiling acts are repealed and MNCs and corporate houses are allowed free entry to acquire agricultural land in the name of promoting agri-business, there is a proliferation of plantations and farms of different categories. Under the ‘market access’ provisions of the WTO, as import liberalization is pushing down the prices of several plantation products, to overcome the crisis, plantation land is fragmented and increasingly converted into non-agricultural money-spinning businesses such as tourist resorts. In this way, the burden of this crisis is increasingly shifted to the shoulders of the plantation workers not only by denying their hard earned benefits but also retrenching hundreds of thousands of them from employment altogether. The resolution of this problem by throwing out all vested interests from plantations and confiscation of them along with those floated by religious institutions and mutts is also part of democratization of agrarian relations. Demands to bring such plantations, farms and estates under workers cooperative and under collective control should be raised appropriately.

12. The present situation demands a revolutionary agrarian program which envisages the confiscation of all land owned and controlled by all varieties of landlord and parasitic classes and even feudal remnants and its distribution among the peasantry based on the principle of land-to-the-tiller is an essential ingredient of the people’s democratic revolution in India. Only a people’s democratic state led by the proletariat including all democratic forces can make the agrarian sector self-reliant and productive by liberating it from the grip of imperialist finance capital and market system. It will lead to the people-oriented and eco-friendly development of agriculture in proper relationship with industry and other sectors of the country including the attainment of self-sufficiency in food and agricultural raw materials. The prime task for achieving this is to mobilize the peasantry based on a revolutionary agrarian program and intensify the agrarian movement under proletarian leadership as required by the concrete neo-colonial conditions of today. Considering the vastness, unevenness and diversities of a country like India, the concrete application of such an agrarian program proposed at the national level will have its regional and state-level variations according to concrete conditions. 

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.