Why the Patels are protesting
Recent protests by the Patels led by their charismatic leader Hardik Patel have raised some uncomfortable questions on the Gujarat model of development.
Still, it would be naïve to see this as merely a localized protest. The Patels, an affluent Gujarati community, have demanded the inclusion of Patidar Patels in the list of other backward classes (OBCs). The Patels are not the only ones who have made such a demand—so have the Jats in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan and the Marathas in Maharashtra. While the Gujjars have demanded that they be included in the scheduled tribes list, the demand of these three communities is different.
There is some similarity among the three. The Patels, Marathas and Jats are all traditional cultivator castes and among the landowners in their respective areas of influence. The Jats were among the pioneers of the Green Revolution, and the success of the White Revolution in Gujarat can be attributed to the hard-working spirit of the Patels. The Marathas are known for their farming skills, be it cotton or sugarcane. Their early success in agriculture has also meant that these three castes count many prosperous farmers among them. That translates into higher industrial activity and incomes in the regions these three castes hail from. And it also translates into some measure of political success.
So, why are the three leading farming communities protesting on the street, demanding access to reservations for government jobs?
After all, being included in the OBC list will only allow them access to government jobs and admissions in government educational institutions. Given that jobs in the public organized sector have been continuously declining, with 1.6 million fewer jobs for the taking in 2011 compared with 2001, the demand for reservation in government jobs can hardly be the issue.
The real issue is much more serious and a reflection of the churn in rural areas, particularly the agricultural sector.
The crisis in agriculture is now too obvious. Irrespective of the extent of the drought this year, farmers have been in distress for some time now. The agrarian crisis may have been triggered by drought, unseasonal rains and the fall in global commodity prices, but it has been brewing for years and is a reflection of the years of neglect of agriculture. The reported increase in number of suicides (which has been mentioned by Hardik Patel in his speeches) is only one indicator of the level and severity of distress in rural economy.
While these communities were at the forefront of the agricultural revolution—whether it was in foodgrains (Jats), milk (Patels) or cash crops (Jats and Maratha)—and reaped benefits of being early movers, subsequent events in agriculture have meant that agriculture is no longer in a position to sustain high incomes. Population pressure and smaller land holdings have reduced the benefits per person in agriculture; meanwhile, the slow growth in yields has meant that agricultural incomes have reached a saturation point. Some of this is also reflected in the yearning of farmers to move out of agriculture and eke out a livelihood in the non-farm sector.
Unfortunately, the economy as a whole and the non-farm sector has failed to create enough jobs during the last decade. Whatever few jobs were created were of low quality—which explains the clamour for government jobs. This is as much a failure of the government sector as it is of the private sector, which has contributed to the deteriorating quality of employment through contractualization and informalization.
But the lack of employment opportunities is one part of the story. What has also changed is the driver of mobility. At a time when agriculture was the mainstay of the rural economy, access to land and good farming skills could lead to prosperity. The decline in fortunes in agriculture has also meant that access to land is no longer sufficient for the next generations. That is why the younger generation is not interested in farming. The new economy is driven not by access to land but by education and skills. The demand for reservation is borne out of the need for access to these higher educational institutions, which are seen as essential tools for success in the new economy.
Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, 35 million workers left agriculture in search of better jobs. This was over and above the new entrants in labour force. While construction, driven by increasing incomes in rural areas, was able to provide some relief to a majority of them, deceleration in economic growth in recent years has meant that even this window is no longer open. While construction and other activities can provide a cushion for the time being, the real issue is the ability of the economy to prepare for the large number of educated youth entering the labour force. So far, the high rates of economic growth have failed to pass this essential test.
It is unlikely that this demand for reservation will die down easily. The unrest among the youth in rural areas was already evident and was successfully exploited by the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government which promised employment and opportunities for upward mobility in its successful campaign in 2014. However, the subsequent actions of this government do not suggest any seriousness on this issue. Not only has the government ignored repeated warnings of impending agrarian distress, fundamental economic indicators also belie any hope of an early recovery of the economy in other areas.
The protest by the Patels is not only a reminder of the gravity of situation in rural areas but is also a warning on the need for urgency in dealing with rural and agrarian distress. The climbdown by the government on the land acquisition bill may have quelled the unrest among farmers for the time being, but the community is unlikely to stay calm for long. If the most efficient and hard-working farming community is on the streets in large numbers, there is silent unrest brewing somewhere else.
This is not just a problem with the Gujarat model of development but is a problem of the Indian model of development in the last three decades.
The author is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.