In 1972, Indira Gandhi had convened a meeting of chief ministers to discuss how to tackle a problem that still haunts contemporary India: Naxalism. Her home minister, Y.B. Chavan, had warned the assembled chief ministers, “We should not allow the green revolution to turn into a red revolution.”
The leaders of the protest march that has brought 25,000 landless poor to New Delhi are sending out similar dire warnings.
“Forty per cent of Indians are now landless and 23% of them are in abject poverty,” P.V. Rajagopal, vice-chairman of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, told news agency AFP. “Such conditions have bred Maoist insurgency in 172 of India’s 600 districts and farmers are killing themselves in 100 other districts. So, we want to ask the government, where are the fruits of the reforms in these districts?”
These may seem rhetorical excesses, but the underlying issue cannot be wished away. This weekend saw further examples of rural unrest—and not peaceful like the month-long march to the Capital. Singur has exploded once again with bombs and bullets. Naxalites gunned down 18 people in Jharkhand.
The landless protesters have tied their dire situation with the fact that they do not have land. Their major demands are linked to land reform, including setting up of a national land authority. They also want fast-track courts to quickly settle disputes on land and livelihood.
Land ownership had undoubtedly helped reduce poverty in many Asian countries when their economies were at the stage at which India’s is right now. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea aggressively redistributed land in the 1950s, partly to counter their own radical communist threats. China broke up its communes in the early 1980s and created the base for its subsequent economic boom.
Land ownership could mean a lot for a family that is unskilled and has no access to capital. It could offer the means to a basic livelihood —and make it into a family of free economic agents. The little they can coax out of the land could also help keep hunger at bay.
But further parcelling of land alone is unlikely to help the poor in the long run. Various official studies have shown that large swathes of Indian agriculture are uneconomical. Harsh though it sounds, the protesters seem to be barking up the wrong tree.
A more realistic strategy is to link rural India more tightly with the booming global economy. Rural poverty rates have dropped in the past two decades, despite the fact that farm output has increased at a far slower pace than the growth in industry and services. This is partly because of the gradual diversification of the rural economy.
Further reductions in rural poverty will depend on fewer obstacles in the way of more investment in labour-intensive manufacturing, low-skill services and modern agriculture that is linked to consumer markets by retail chains. Jobs and small businesses that offer a minimum income are far superior alternatives to subsistence farming.
Rural India also needs better roads to link it to urban and global markets. These will be the most effective tools in the war against mass poverty.
That still leaves the contentious issue of displacement, as farmers and tribals are packed off to make way for dams, mines and large industrial projects. Fast track courts could help settle disputes. But this can only be a halfway measure. The larger issue is reinstating the right to property as a fundamental right, as it was in the original Constitution of 1950, till it was removed in the 1970s. That alone will reduce dispossession in the name of development.
Though the Gandhians who have brought 25,000 of India’s poor to the capital city may not see it this way, their battle is for secure property rights.